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