Korlai Creole: History and Characteristics of an Indo-Portuguese Language Spoken in Coastal Maharashtra

in Overview
Published on: 02 December 2019

Neha Desai

Neha Desai is a graduate of Law from ILS Law College, Pune, and has completed her MA in Marathi and has also received the Junior Research Fellowship for the same. Her interest lies in cultural studies and gender studies, and she wishes to pursue a career in cross-cultural, interdisciplinary research work.

Language is a living system, continually changing and evolving. As much as the existence of the language is based on the people who speak it, the existence and worldview of people is also dependent on the language they speak. When people migrate from rural areas to cities, not only do the numerous words related to agriculture die, but the migrants lose the capacity to express themselves fully in the urban landscape. This, however, happens with the first generation only. As people start to adapt to city speech, a mixed language, which the community uses among themselves, is created. 

The mixing of languages has happened historically as well. But the reasons for the current and the historical intermixing of languages, especially in Africa and South Asia, are different. It is safe to say that the current adaptation is for economic reasons and not as much because of force of state or necessity of social exclusion. Previously, however, language adaptations were often the result of a dominant class-controlling political and economic structures and the consequent compulsion to adopt their language. In some cases, it was also aided by the exclusion of a particular community from a native social grouping due to reasons of caste, class or religion. Korlai Creole, a peculiar Portuguese–Marathi language spoken in the tiny village of Korlai near Chaul in the Konkan, Maharashtra, is one such product of bustling trade, political dominance, social exclusion and intermingling of cultures.

What is Korlai Creole?
Languages go through different stages. There is a linear formation where a language evolves from its ancient roots. The journey from Sanskrit to Prakrit and Marathi is such an evolution. Another type of language formation is when languages are transformed due to influences from other languages. The languages go through different stages of influence and adaptation to take their current form. 

When people start to converse in a dominant language, they create a mix of their native language and the dominant one in a language form called pidgin. Pidgin is never the mother tongue of any group as it is formed out of necessity and is at a formative stage as it is not a complete language. When pidgin is used over generations, it evolves into a creole—which is again a mixed language but with its own characteristics, and is sometimes even distinct from each of the two languages from which it emerges. Due to continual use, the creoles become mother tongues of the particular language group. Korlai Creole is one such mix of Portuguese and Marathi, and has evolved over time. It is known as the ‘Christi language’, especially among the non-Korlai Creole speaking Hindu residents of Korlai and nearby, and is the mother tongue of fewer than 800 people from the predominantly Catholic Christian agriculturist community. It started evolving from the sixteenth century, and gradually developed into a separate language which is still spoken as a mother tongue. Korlai Creole uses the Devanagari script and borrows multiple words and expressions from both Marathi and Portuguese; those who speak this creole called it na ling (our language).

To understand the development of this language, it is imperative to look at Portuguese contact in Konkan and the sociopolitical conditions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. 

The Portuguese in India and the History of Inquisitions
Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498 and took permission to start a factory at Calicut. Portuguese trade grew gradually. The Portuguese started using state machinery and the Cartaz system to control their power on the western coast of India. Cartaz was a system in which anyone who wanted to trade in Portuguese-dominated areas had to get a license issued by the Portuguese. It also involved a monopoly agreement where certain items were to be excluded from boarding on any ships except those of the Portuguese. 

Portuguese general Alfonso Albuquerque won Goa in 1510 and started the real expansion of Portuguese power in India. The contact of the language with the people of Konkan also started from this time. The history of Portuguese dominion is of two types: the political subordination of local rulers and the expansion of Portuguese territories, and the religious domination with the help of the political power. Within 10 years of winning Goa, the Portuguese took control of Sashti and Bardesh. They won Bassien in 1534, and by 1580 Daman and Diu, Bassein, Chaul and Goa were under Portuguese control. 

Chaul, just 8 km away from Korlai, had been a prominent port since the sixth century. The Portuguese set foot in Chaul as traders in 1505 and by 1580, they were the major trading and political force there. With the Portuguese, Christianity was also introduced in the Konkan. Till then, the majority population of Chaul was Hindu and the port was controlled by Muslim rulers. The Portuguese defeated them, took control of the rich economy and started conversions to Christianity. The Catholic church in Korlai is a legacy of that era.

Conversion to Christianity was not always peaceful, and the Catholic Inquisitions played a vital role in controlling the social outreach of the recently converted Christian community in Konkan. Inquisitions were an institutionalised way to control and defeat any heresy against Catholic Christianity. In Goa, it took the form of violence against the Hindus and Muslims, banning the entry of certain books from the ships of the Protestant Dutch and British, and even burning books written in Indian languages. Inquisitions controlled not only non-Christians but recent converts as well—to rid traces of Hindu rituals or behavioural patterns that the converts might display. This, coupled with the existing socioeconomic conditions during the sixteenth century, resulted in the creation of Korlai Creole.

A Typical Small Town Under Portuguese Control
The Portuguese considered India a frontier area. It was an unknown place for them and also possibly dangerous in their perception. Not many Portuguese women accompanied the traders and the sailors. Barring generals or big merchants, many of the Portuguese who came to India were common soldiers. Most of the Portuguese who settled in Chaul or Korlai were soldiers—men of little literary disposition who were away from their homes. This gave rise to a growing slave trade operated from Goa. The practice was to live with Indian concubines or use slave girls and women for pleasure. The Portuguese also had to be in contact with the Indians in the markets. This was the first point of contact between the Marathi of the Hindus in Korlai and the Portuguese of the foreign traders. 

In line with the Portuguese government policy, attempts were also made to convert the people of Korlai and Chaul to Christianity. Not all conversions were forceful; people from the lower castes chose to convert in the hope of a better status. But such conversions opened them to double social exclusion, where they were excluded because they were Christian as well as for their caste, which did not go away with their conversions, thus they became ‘lower caste Christians’. This social exclusion from the Marathi-speaking locals coupled with the continued and increased contact with the Portuguese resulted in the creation of Korlai Creole.

As postulated by J. Clancy Clements, Korlai Creole came into being abruptly: that is, there was not a gradual shift in the language usage and vocabulary over the period of generations, but the language came into existence at once after some contact with the Portuguese language.[1] People started to use it out of compulsion, economic or otherwise, and later generations learnt it at home as their primary language. The number of people who spoke Portuguese were always in minority; nevertheless, it was the dominant language. Used in church, for education and by the government, Portuguese thus had more influence on the formation of this creole than Marathi. What is interesting is how after 1740, when Chaul was ceded to the Marathas and the use of Portuguese became less, this creole survived as a spoken language even when Marathi became the dominant language, both culturally and numerically, and is still used as a primary language by many.

How Does the Language sound?
Korlai Creole is more Portuguese than Marathi. It of course borrows several words from both the languages and shows remarkable similarity in expressions used in Marathi. 

Korlai Creole uses double words, which is a common practice in Marathi but does not exist in Portuguese. For example, jevan-bivan (lunch and all) is an expression typically used in Marathi, which in Korlai Creole would be kume-bime. Similarly, Korlai Creole’s stress on different consonants while speaking is also similar to Marathi. However, the vocabulary remains predominantly Portuguese, with some Marathi words and the latest introduction of English vocabulary for numbers and days. 

The names and allied words are borrowed from Portuguese but there is remarkable use of common names like patil (village headman) and gavali (milkman), which are of course Marathi. 

  Comparison between representative words in Korlai Creole with Marathi and Portuguese 


Korlai creole


















vadil/ baap/ baba






















The Korlai Creole is very intriguing and different from the local dominant Marathi. However, even the native Portuguese will find it difficult to understand this language as it has evolved into an independent language structure with its intrinsic logic and culture. The language has impacted the lives and worldviews of the people who use it, and has given them a peculiar way to express their peculiar situation. 

But how do speakers of Korlai Creole cope in the predominantly Marathi language ecosystem? The answer is fairly simple—all of them speak Korlai Creole only in their homes while the language of communication outside the community remains Marathi. Children learn Korlai Creole from their mothers and the stories that they hear, but learn Marathi in school and converse in Marathi outside the community. 

The answer to the question of Korlai Creole’s continued use despite at least three centuries of lost contact with the Portuguese is to be found in the geographical and social conditions of the language community.

Korlai is a tiny place outside Chaul, practically isolated from the rest of the town until recently when a bridge was built. Its isolation resulted in restricted contact with the Marathi-speaking world as well as a self-sustained economy preserving the language. Further, the practice of not marrying outside the community or religion, practised by all in the region, and the use of creole as a way of religious communication ensured conservation of the language as the medium of personal and closed communication, thus maintaining its informal character. Marathi remained the language of formal conversation and communication after it was introduced as the language of instruction in schools in 1926. 

With the increased use of Marathi and English in all aspects of life, their economic relevance, along with the formalisation of language training, Korlai Creole is struggling to survive. With Kochi-Portuguese Creole (spoken by few Christian families in Vypeen Island of Kochi) recently becoming extinct, the danger has become more imminent.

An Uncertain Future
Korlai Creole is not the only dialect which is used only informally; dialects such as Malvani or Ahirani are also not a part of formal Marathi training. Until recently, Konkani was considered a dialect of Marathi and was used only informally, but it has now developed into a full-fledged formal language and has shaped the identity of the state of Goa. 

What then separates these dialects and Korlai Creole? It is the number of the speakers. As per data published in The Journal of Language Contact in 2015, Korlai Creole is spoken by almost 800 people while Malvani, Ahirani and Konkani are used by thousands of people on a daily basis.[2] Also, these dialects are in constant contact with the closest formal language, in this case Marathi, and are impacted by the growth of the Marathi language and community. People who have had their formal training in Marathi have also worked for the preservation of their native dialects. This is a crucial missing link in the preservation of Korlai Creole; with no connection to formal training in Portuguese, it is isolated from Portuguese, while the other dominant language, Marathi, is everywhere. Also, because of the socioeconomic conditions of the language practitioners, there have been no concrete efforts to use Korlai Creole in any formal manner or to record, publish or create literary material in this language. There are, of course, exceptions to this but they are more in the nature of preservation and less in line with development.

Another factor that threatens the existence of Korlai Creole in the near future is the fall in its use among the newer generations. Students learn Marathi or English in schools and the further they are from the older generations, the more the chances of them being exposed to corrupted forms of Korlai Creole, with more words closer to Marathi and English than to Portuguese. Thus Korlai Creole is in danger of changing its current form and becoming more dissimilar with Portuguese or becoming extinct as its language practitioners dwindle, and with them not only a language but a complete world of unique experiences, thoughts and traditions die. 


 Clancy Clements, ‘Portuguese settlement of the Chaul/Korlai area and the formation of Korlai Creole Portuguese,’ 13–35.

[2] Ibid.


Clancy Clements, J. ‘Portuguese settlement of the Chaul/Korlai area and the formation of Korlai Creole Portuguese.’ Journal of Language Contact 8, no. 1 (December 17, 2015): 13–35.

———. ‘Notes on the phonology and lexicon of some Indo-Portuguese Creoles.’ In Ibero-Asian Creoles: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Hugo C. Cardoso, Alan N. Baxter, and Mário Pinharanda Nunes. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2012.

Jackson, Kenneth David. Sing without ShameAmsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company, 2014.

Pearson, M.N. The Portuguese in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Pisurlenkar, Pandurang. Portuguese Marathe Sambandh. Pune: University Of Pune, 1967.

Romaine, Suzanne. Pidgin and Creole languages. London: Longman, 1988.