creole language

creole language

creole language, any language that began as a pidgin but was later adopted as the mother tongue by a people in place of the original mother tongue or tongues. Examples are the Gullah of South Carolina and Georgia (based on English), the creole of Haiti (based on French), and the Papiamento of the Netherlands possessions in the West Indies (developed from pidgin Spanish and Portuguese). Similarities among creoles worldwide have led some linguists to speculate that they share a common origin, probably Sabir (see lingua franca); others attribute the similarities to universal laws governing human language.
A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable language that originates seemingly as a nativized pidgin. This understanding of creole genesis culminated in Hall's notion of the pidgin-creole life cycle. While it is arguable that creoles share more grammatical similarities with each other than with the languages they phylogenetically derive from, no theory for explaining creole phenomena has been universally accepted. The relationship between pidgins and creoles and their similarities means that the distinction is not clear-cut and the variety of phenomena that arise to create pidgins and creoles are not understood very well. Likewise, efforts to articulate grammatical features (or sets of features) that are exclusive to creoles have been unsuccessful thus far.

History of the concept

The term creole comes from French créole, from Spanish criollo, and from Portuguese crioulo, stemming from the verb criar ('to breed') from the Portuguese, or creare from Latin ('to produce, create'). The term was coined in the sixteenth century during the great expansion in European maritime power and trade and the establishment of European colonies in the Americas, Africa, and along the coast of South and Southeast Asia up to the Philippines, China, India, and in Oceania.

The term "Creole" was originally applied to people born in the colonies to distinguish them from the upper-class European-born immigrants. Originally, therefore, "Creole language" meant the speech of those Creole peoples.

As a consequence of colonial European trade patterns, many creole languages are found in the equatorial belt around the world and in areas with access to the oceans, including the Caribbean as well as the north and east coasts of South America, western Africa and in the Indian Ocean. Atlantic Creole languages are based on European languages with substrate elements from Africa, Indian Ocean Creoles languages are based on European languages with substrate elements from Malagasy, whereas creoles such as Sango are African-based with African substrate elements from other African languages. There is a heated dispute over the extent to which substrate features are significant in the genesis or the description of creole languages.

According to their external history, four types of creoles have been distinguished: plantation creoles, fort creoles, maroon creoles, and creolized pidgins. As to their internal history, there are two preconceived assumptions:

  1. Creoles exhibit more internal variability than other languages
  2. Creoles are simpler than other languages

Because of the generally low status of the Creole peoples in the eyes of European colonial powers, creole languages have generally been regarded as degenerate, or at best as rudimentary dialects of one of their parent languages. This is the reason why "creole" has come to be used in opposition to "language" rather than a qualifier for it. Prejudice of this kind was compounded by the inherent instability of the colonial system, leading to the disappearance of creole languages, mainly due to dispersion or assimilation of their speech communities. Another factor that may have contributed to the relative neglect of creole languages in linguistics is that they comfort critics of the 19th century neogrammarian "tree model" for the evolution of languages and their law of the regularity of sound change (such as the earliest advocates of the wave model, Johannes Schmidt and Hugo Schuchardt, the forerunners of modern sociolinguistics). This controversy of the late 19th century profoundly shaped modern approaches to the comparative method in historical linguistics and in creolistics. Since then, linguists have promulgated the idea that creole languages are in no way inferior to other languages and use the term "creole" or "creole language" for any language suspected to have undergone creolization, without geographic restrictions or ethnic prejudice.

As a consequence of these social, political, and academic changes, creole languages have experienced a revival in recent decades. They are increasingly and more openly being used in literature and in media, and their community prestige has improved. They are studied by linguists as languages on their own. Many have already been standardized, and are now taught in local schools and universities abroad.

Classification of creoles

Whose creole?

By the very nature of the subject, the creoleness of a particular creole usually is a matter of dispute. The parent tongues may themselves be creoles or pidgins that have disappeared before they could be documented.

For these reasons, the issue of which language is the parent of a creole — that is, whether a language should be classified as a "Portuguese creole" or "English creole", etc. — often has no definitive answer, and can become the topic of long-lasting controversies, where social prejudices and political considerations may interfere with scientific discussion.

Substrate and superstrate

The terms substratum and superstratum are often used to label the source and the target languages of a creole or in the context of second language acquisition. However, the meaning of these terms is reasonably well-defined only in language replacement events, when the native speakers of a certain language (the substrate) are somehow compelled to abandon that language for another language (the superstrate). The outcome of such an event will be that erstwhile speakers of the substrate will be speaking a version of the superstrate, at least in more formal contexts. The substrate may survive as a second language for informal conversation (as in the case of Venetian and many other European non-official languages). Its influence on the official speech, if detectable at all, is usually limited to pronunciation and a modest number of loanwords. The substrate might even disappear altogether without leaving any trace.

However, these terms are not very meaningful where the emerging language is distilled from multiple substrata and a homogeneous superstratum. The substratum-superstratum continuum becomes awkward when multiple superstrata must be assumed (such as in Papiamentu), when the substratum cannot be identified, or when the presence or the survival of substratal evidence is inferred from mere typological analogies. However, facts surrounding the substratum-superstratum opposition cannot be set aside where the substratum as the receding or already replaced source language and the superstratum as the replacing dominant target language can be clearly identified and where the respective contributions to the resulting compromise language can be weighed in a scientifically meaningful way; and this is so whether the replacement leads to creole genesis or not.

With Atlantic Creoles, "superstrate" usually means European and "substrate" non-European or African.

A post-creole continuum is said to come about in a context of decreolization where a creole is subject to pressure from its superstrate language. Speakers of the creole feel compelled to conform their language to superstrate usage introducing large scale variation and hypercorrection.

Shared features

Comparing the different creoles in any theory-orientated perspective, whether phylogenetic or purely typological in nature, leads to widely divergent results. The score of similarities will be higher when the comparison is restricted to European-based creoles and excluding non-European-based creoles such as Nubi and Sango. French creoles show closer affinities with Koiné French than with other European-based creoles. The comparative work of argued against the monogenetic theory of pidgins according to which, most European-based pidgins and creoles hail from a Mediterranean Lingua Franca via a broken Portuguese relexified in the slave factories of Western Africa.

Particularly troubling is the evidence that definite articles are predominantly prenominal in English-based creole languages and English whereas they are predominantly postnominal in French creoles and French koinés. Moreover, as already noted by , the European languages which gave rise to the colonial creole languages all belong to the same subgroup of Western Indo-European and have highly convergent systems of grammar to the point where they form a homogeneous group of languages Whorf called Standard Average European (SAE) to distinguish them from languages of other grammatical types. French and English are particularly close since English, through extensive borrowing, is typologically closer to French than to other Germanic languages. According to , most European languages themselves might even share a common substratum as well as a common superstratum.

Creole genesis

There are a variety of theories on the origin of creole languages, all of which attempt to explain the similarities among them. outline a fourfold classification of explanations regarding creole genesis:

  • Theories focusing on European input
  • Theories focusing on non-European input
  • Gradualist and developmental hypotheses
  • Universalist approaches

Theories focusing on European input

  • 1. The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles

The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles hypothesizes a single origin for these languages, deriving them through relexification from a West African Pidgin Portuguese of the 17th century and ultimately from the Lingua franca of the Mediterranean. This theory was originally formulated by Hugo Schuchardt in the late 19th century and popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Douglas Taylor, as well as in , , and .

  • 2. The Domestic Origin Hypothesis

Proposed by for the development of a local form of English in West Africa, the Domestic Origin Hypothesis argues that, towards the end of the 16th century, English-speaking traders began to settle in the Gambia and Sierra Leone rivers as well as in neighboring areas such as the Bullom and Sherbro coasts. These settlers intermarried with the local population leading to mixed populations and as a result of this intermarriage, an English pidgin was created, which in turn was learned by slaves in slave depots, who later on took it to the West Indies and formed one component of the emerging English creoles.

  • 3. The European dialect origin hypothesis

The French creoles are the foremost candidates to being the outcome of "normal" linguistic change and their creoleness to be sociohistoric in nature and relative to their colonial origin. Within this theoretical framework, a French creole is a language phylogenetically based on the French language, more specifically on a 17th century koiné French extent in Paris, the French atlantic harbors, and the nascent French colonies. Descendants of the non-creole colonial koiné are still spoken in Canada (mostly in Québec), the Prairies, Louisiana, Saint-Barthélemy (leeward portion of the island) and as isolates in other parts of the Americas.

  • 4. Foreigner talk or baby talk

The foreigner talk hypothesis (FT) argues that a pidgin or creole language forms when native speakers attempt to simplify their language in order to address speakers who do not know their language at all. Because of the similarities found in this type of speech and the speech which is usually directed at children, it is also sometimes called baby talk. suggest that four different processes are involved in creating Foreigner Talk:

  • Accommodation
  • Imitation
  • Telegraphic condensation
  • Conventions

This could explain why creole languages have much in common, while avoiding a monogenetic model. However, , in analyzing German Foreigner Talk, claims that it is too inconsistent and unpredictable to provide any model for language learning.

While the simplification of input was supposed to account for creoles' simple grammar, there are a number of problems with this explanation:

  1. There are too many grammatical similarities amongst pidgins and creoles despite having very different lexifier languages
  2. Grammatical simplification can be explained by other processes, i.e. the innate grammar of Bickerton's language bioprogram theory.
  3. Speakers of a creole's lexifier language often fail to understand, without learning the language, the grammar of a pidgin or creole.
  4. Pidgins are more often used amongst speakers of different substrate languages than between such speakers and those of the lexifier language.

Another problem with the FT explanation is its potential circularity. points out that FT is often based on the imitation of the incorrect speech of the non-natives, that is the pidgin. Therefore one may be mistaken in assuming that the former gave rise to the latter.

Theories focusing on non-European input

Theories focusing on the substrate, or non-European, languages attribute similarities amongst creoles to the similarities of African substrate languages. These features are often assumed to be transferred from the substrate language to the creole or to be preserved invariant from the substrate language in the creole through a process of relexification: the substrate language replaces the native lexical items with lexical material from the superstrate language while retaining the native grammatical categories. The problem with this explanation is that the postulated substrate languages differ amongst themselves and with creoles in meaningful ways. argues that the number and diversity of African languages and the paucity of a historical record on creole genesis makes determining lexical correspondences a matter of chance. coined the term "cafeteria principle" to refer to the practice of arbitrarily attributing features of creoles to the influence of substrate African languages or assorted substandard dialects of European languages.

For a representative debate on this issue, see the contributions to ; for an up-to-date view, .

Because of the sociohistoric similarities amongst many (but by no means all), the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system of European colonies have been emphasized by linguists such as .

However, in the absence of homogeneous substrata in the phylogenetic history of the European-based creoles on one hand, and Singler's homogeneous substrate constraint to pylogenetic computing on the other, non-European input theories are the less likely ones to gain wide acceptance among future generations of scholars.

Gradualist and developmental hypotheses

One class of creoles might start as pidgins, rudimentary second languages improvised for use between speakers of two or more non-intelligible native languages. Keith Whinnom (in ) suggests that pidgins need three languages to form, with one (the superstrate) being clearly dominant over the others. The lexicon of a pidgin is usually small and drawn from the vocabularies of its speakers, in varying proportions. Morphological details like word inflections, which usually take years to learn, are omitted; the syntax is kept very simple, usually based on strict word order. In this initial stage, all aspects of the speech — syntax, lexicon, and pronunciation —tend to be quite variable, especially with regard to the speaker's background.

If a pidgin manages to be learned by the children of a community as a native language, it may become fixed and acquire a more complex grammar, with fixed phonology, syntax, morphology, and syntactic embedding. Pidgins can become full languages in only a single generation. "Creolization" is this second stage where the pidgin language develops into a fully developed native language. The vocabulary, too, will contain more and more words according to a rational and stable system.

Universalist approaches

Universalist models stress the intervention of specific general processes during the transmission of language from generation to generation and from speaker to speaker. The process invoked varies: a general tendency towards semantic transparency, first language learning driven by universal process, or general process of discourse organization. The main source for the universalist approach is still Bickerton's work. His language bioprogram theory claims that creoles are inventions of the children growing up on newly founded plantations. Around them, they only heard pidgins spoken, without enough structure to function as natural languages; and the children used their own innate linguistic capacities to transform the pidgin input into a full-fledged language.

Recent study

The last decade has seen the emergence of some new approaches to creole studies, namely the question of complexity of creoles and the question of whether creoles are "exceptional" languages.

The creole prototype

If creole languages form a group which is different from other languages, they should have a set of features which clearly distinguishes them from "other" languages. Some features have been proposed (by Bickerton for example), but no uncontestable unique creole features has been put forth so far. Features that are said to be true of all (or most) creole languages are in fact true of all isolating languages. Such features are then necessary but not sufficient to single out creole languages from non-creole languages.

John McWhorter has proposed the following list of features to indicate a Creole Prototype:

  • no inflectional morphology (or no more than two or three inflectional affixes)
  • no tone on monosyllabics
  • no semantically opaque word formation

The hypothesis is that every language with these three features is a creole, and every creole must have these three features.

The creole prototype hypothesis has been attacked from two different perspectives:


Building up on this discussion, McWhorter has proposed that "The world's simplest grammars are Creole grammars" (not "Creoles are the simplest languages"). He claims that no non-Creole language will be found which will be less complex than any creole language. To this, David Gil replied that Riau Indonesian is precisely such a language, and that Riau has a simpler grammar than Saramaccan, the language McWhorter uses as a showcase for his theory. The same objections were raised by Wittmann in his 1999 debate with McWhorter.

Jeff Good has shown that Saramaccan suprasegmental phonology is quite complex, though showing that creoles can be complex does not disprove McWhorter's hypothesis; it must be shown that non-Creoles can be as simple or more simple than the Creoles that they are compared to.

The lack of progress made in defining creoles morphosyntactically has led some scholars to question the value of Creole as a typological class. Robert Chaudenson, Mufwene and Wittmann have argued that Creole languages are structurally no different from any other language, and that Creole is in fact a sociohistoric concept (and not a linguistic one), encompassing displaced population and slavery. spell out the idea of creole exceptionalism, claiming that creole languages are an instance of non-genetic language change due to the language shift without normal transmission. Gradualists question the abnormal transmission of languages in a creole setting and argue that the processes which lead to today's creole languages are in no way different from the universal patterns of language change.

Given that the concept of creoleness is disputed on both morphosyntactic and evolutionary grounds, the idea of creoles being exceptional in any meaningful way is increasingly questioned, giving rise to publications entitled "Against Creole Exceptionalism or "Deconstructing Creole".. argues that it is only history that prevents us from considering some Romance languages as potential creoles.

See also

Related articles

Creoles by main parent language



Search another word or see creole languageon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature