Ian Hancock

Ian Hancock (Romani: Yanko le Redžosko) is a linguist, Romani scholar, and political advocate. He was born and raised in England, and is one of the main contributors in the field of Romani studies.

He is director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor of English, linguistics and Asian studies since 1972. He has represented the Romani people at the United Nations and served as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council under President Bill Clinton, who, according to Hancock, has Romani ancestry. He also represented the Romani people at the 1997 Rafto Prize award ceremony.

Dr. Hancock’s mother, Kitty, is Romnichal. However, his father Reginald (Redžo) is part Romungro: in particular, he is the descendant of a Hungarian speaker of North Central Romani named Benczi Imre. He inherited the surname “Hancock” through Imre’s daughter Maria, who married a member of a British West Country showman family of that surname.

He lived in Canada for less than six years before moving back to England in 1961. There, he dropped out of school. This was not uncommon among Romanies; in fact, few or none of his other family members was literate.

He then took up several kinds of jobs, including that of a spray painter. It was at this time that his roommates, university students from Sierra Leone, helped him to learn the Krio language of that country. His knowledge of Krio and some academic connections helped him to enter the University of London. He was one of only two candidates in an affirmative action program who qualified to receive higher education.

In the late 1960s, he became a Romani rights activist after reading reports about anti-Romani discrimination in Britain. In particular, he took up the cause of Romani rights after British police caused a fire that killed two Romani children. In 1971, he graduated with a PhD. in linguistics. He was the first Romani in Britain to obtain that degree, though he began his postgraduate studies without a university degree.

Creole language studies

Hancock is as well known in the field of linguistics – particularly in the area of pidgin and creole languages – as he is in the world of Romani studies and Romani social activism. In addition to his research on the Krio language of Sierra Leone, he has studied the Gullah language of coastal South Carolina and Georgia and the Afro-Seminole Creole language spoken by a community of Black Seminole descendants in Brackettville, Texas. Hancock was the first scholar to report the existence of Afro-Seminole Creole, and he later identified another variety of that language spoken in a village called Nacimiento in the Mexican state of Coahuila. He maintains that Afro-Seminole Creole and Gullah are closely related languages.

Hancock is recognized as one of the founders of the field of pidgin and creole linguistics. He has also done extensive research on the English-based creole languages spoken in West Africa and the West Indies. He is known especially for his views on the historical development of these languages. He maintains that all the English-based pidgins and creoles spoken in the Atlantic basin region – both in West Africa and in the Caribbean – belong to a single language family he calls the “English-based Atlantic Creoles.” He argues that all of these languages can be traced back to what he calls Guinea Coast Creole English which arose along the West African coast in the 17th and 18th centuries as a language of commerce in the Atlantic slave trade. He argues that Guinea Coast Creole English was spoken in coastal slave trading bases like James Island, Bunce Island, and Elmina Castle where the offspring of British slave traders and their African wives used it as their native language.

Hancock maintains that Guinea Coast Creole English ultimately gave rise to the pidgin and creole languages spoken in West Africa today, such as the Aku language in the Gambia, Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin English, Cameroonian Pidgin English, etc. He also maintains that some of the Africans taken as slaves to the New World already spoke Guinea Coast Creole English in Africa, and that their creole speech influenced the development of creole languages spoken today on the American side of the Atlantic such as Gullah, Afro-Seminole Creole, Bahamian Dialect, Jamaican Creole, Belizean Kriol, Guyanese Creole, Sranan Tongo in Suriname, etc.

Hancock’s views on the connections among the Atlantic creole languages is controversial. The strong similarities among these languages is undeniable, but many linguists prefer to explain those similarities through convergence rather than historical relationships. Other scholars argue that both factors played a role in the formation of these languages.

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