Creole languages, vernacular languages that developed in colonial European plantation settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of contact between groups that spoke mutually unintelligible languages. Creole languages most often emerged in colonies located near the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean or the Indian Ocean. Exceptions include Brazil, where no creole emerged, and Cape Verde and the Lesser Antilles, where creoles developed in slave depots rather than on plantations.

Most commonly, creoles have resulted from the interactions between speakers of nonstandard varieties of European languages and speakers of non-European languages. Creole languages include varieties that are based on French, such as Haitian Creole, Louisiana Creole, and Mauritian Creole; English, such as Gullah (on the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States), Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole, and Hawaiian Creole; and Portuguese, such as Papiamentu (in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) and Cape Verdean; and some have bases in multiple European languages, such as two creoles found in Suriname, Saramacca (based on English and heavily influenced by Portuguese) and Sranan (based on English and heavily influenced by Dutch). Papiamentu is thought to have also been heavily influenced by Spanish.

Some linguists extend the term creole to varieties that emerged from contacts between primarily non-European languages. Examples from Africa include Sango, a creole based on the Ngbandi language and spoken in the Central African Republic; Kinubi, based on the Arabic language and spoken in Uganda; and Kikongo-Kituba and Lingala, which are based on Kikongo-Kimanyanga and Bobangi, respectively, and are spoken in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.

Origins of the term

Coined in the colonies that Spain and Portugal founded in the Americas, creole was originally used in the 16th century to refer to locally born individuals of Spanish, Portuguese, or African descent as distinguished from those born in Spain, Portugal, or Africa. By the early 17th century the word was adopted into French (and, to some extent, English) usage to refer to people of African or European descent who had been born in the American and Indian Ocean colonies. It was also used as an adjective to characterize plants, animals, and customs typical of the same regions.

The meaning of creole, when applied to people, is not fixed; rather, its use has varied with speaker and place. In the early 21st century, for instance, it applied to people of African or mixed descent in Mauritius, but on the neighbouring island of Réunion it applied to any locally born person. It applied to locally born people of full European and mixed indigenous-European descent in Argentina and Uruguay but only to locally born people of full European descent in Mexico and Panama. In Louisiana the descendants of Africans refer to themselves and to those descended from French and Spanish colonials who were resident in the region before the Louisiana Purchase as Creole, but the latter use the term in reference to themselves exclusively.

The term creole was first applied to language by the French explorer Michel Jajolet, sieur de la Courbe, in Premier voyage du sieur de la Courbe fait a la coste d’Afrique en 1685 (1688; “First Voyage Made by Sieur de la Courbe on the Coast of Africa in 1685”), in which he used the term to refer to a Portuguese-based language that was spoken in Senegal. As a linguistic term, creole may not have been applied to other languages until the late 18th century, and it was not widely used in English until after 1825, although the term patois was often used.

The practice of labeling these new vernaculars as distinct from their European parent languages seems to have coincided with the increasing colonial disenfranchisement of non-Europeans. That disavowal of the vernaculars was in part due to the fact that educated Europeans who traveled abroad found the new forms unintelligible. Those visitors incorrectly concluded that the European parent languages had been corrupted into complete aberrations through contact with non-European languages and their speakers, a situation that was believed to reflect the presumed mental inferiority of the enslaved. However, creoles are in fact normal, full-fledged languages that may hold the key to better understanding the evolution of language.

Theories of creolization

Since the 1930s some linguists have claimed that creoles emerged from pidgins, languages with very reduced vocabularies and grammars that are typically seen where otherwise mutually unintelligible groups come together intermittently. That hypothesis is controversial, in part because the plantations on which creole languages emerged started as small homestead communities in which non-European slaves, European indentured labourers, and European masters lived fairly intimately. Typically, all three of these groups spoke similarly until a colony shifted from subsistence to plantation agriculture and institutionalized segregation. The hypothesis proposed by several creolists in the 1970s and ’80s—namely, that creoles emerged abruptly—has also been contested by those who posit a gradual development during the transition to a plantation economy.

Scholars have proposed three major hypotheses regarding the structural development of creole vernaculars—the substrate, superstrate, and universalist hypotheses. In this context, substrate signifies non-European languages, and superstrate signifies European languages. According to substratists, creoles were formed by the languages previously spoken by Africans enslaved in the Americas and the Indian Ocean, which imposed their structural features upon the European colonial languages. There are three main versions of this position. The first invokes influence from diverse African languages without explaining what kinds of selection principles, if any, operated in the process. The second claims that Haitian Creole is a French relexification of languages of the Ewe-Fon group—that is, Haitian Creole uses French words but with the Ewe-Fon grammar. This view has been criticized for overlooking several features that Haitian Creole shares with nonstandard varieties of French, downplaying features that Haitian Creole also shares with several other relevant African languages, and failing to account for those cases where Haitian Creole has selected structural options that are not consistent with those of Ewe-Fon languages. According to the third version of the substrate hypothesis, a set of substrate languages may impose its structural features on the new, contact-induced vernaculars if they share several structural features among themselves. Thus, Melanesian pidgins are similar to most of their substrates in having the dual/plural and inclusive/exclusive distinctions in the noun phrase and a transitive marker on the verb.

According to the competing superstrate hypothesis, the primary, if not the exclusive, sources of a creole’s structural features are the colonial nonstandard varieties of the European languages from which they developed. In this view, substrate contributions, especially in creoles of the Americas and the Indian Ocean, are putatively marginal, in the form of isolated lexical items such as goober ‘peanut,’ gumbo, and okra, or are restricted to special cognitive domains such as Vodou that are or were controlled quasi-exclusively by descendants of Africans. Otherwise, substrate influence mostly determined which of the alternatives in the European colonial languages would become part of the creole systems.

Universalists claim that creoles developed according to universals of language development. According to the version of this hypothesis called the language bioprogram hypothesis, which was later revised and became known as the lexical learning hypothesis, children who were exposed to a pidgin at an early age created a creole language by adopting only the vocabularies of the pidgin. They developed new grammars following the default specifications of the biological blueprint for language, known as universal grammar or bioprogram. In comparing cases where the lexifier language (that from which most of the vocabulary has been inherited) is the same, cross-creole structural differences are thought to arise from the variable amount of substrate influence retained by each creole from its pidgin stage. Other universalist hypotheses claim that creoles were developed by adults according to universals of second language acquisition, which allow substrate influence under specific conditions.

Few contemporary creolists subscribe to one exclusive genetic account. The complementary hypothesis, which integrates the strengths of the above views, has emerged as a more plausible alternative, with its proponents trying to articulate the linguistic and nonlinguistic conditions under which the competing influences of the substrate languages and the legacy of the lexifier may converge or prevail. In this view, the hypothetical features of a universal grammar or language bioprogram are generalized as a body of principles that regulate the restructuring of linguistic features from diverse competing sources into new natural grammatical systems.

More research is still needed before the development of creole languages can be fully understood. Information on the vernaculars spoken by European colonists remains limited, which makes it difficult to assess how much restructuring was involved in the formation of creoles. Because there are few extensive linguistic descriptions of creoles, it is impossible to make comprehensive comparisons between them or to understand the nature and extent of divergence undergone by the lexifiers. Very few linguistic facts have been correlated with the conclusions suggested by the specific sociohistorical backgrounds of individual creoles, and little is understood about how creoles differ evolutionarily from other vernaculars apart from the special circumstances of their development.


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