Creole Languages of the Americas

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Creole Languages of the Americas

Enslaved by the European superpowers of England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands thousands of Africans primarily from the west coast of the continent were transported to the Americas. The fates of these people varied widely according to where they were located. In Surinam and a few other places, large numbers escaped the plantations to live in the bush, often in close contact with the native peoples of the region. In Haiti, slaves rose up against the French slave owners, ousted them and established their own sovereign state. In Barbados, Africans toiled alongside large numbers of indentured laborers from England and Ireland. New societiescharacterized by new forms of art, kinship, politics and languagewere forged from this contact between Africans, Europeans, and others.

For many people, the term creole is intimately associated with the language, people, and cuisine of Louisiana. Most linguists, however, use this term to designate a group of languages either on the basis of a common history or a shared set of linguistic features. A few linguists would say that whether one calls a language creole or not is purely a matter of historical accident (since, according to this line of argument, these languages have no more in common than do Chinese and French), while some refuse to use the term altogether. As this dilemma suggests, the "creole languages of America" represent a great challenge to current scholarship, and even the terms used to describe them are a matter of some controversy.

The word creole was, of course, not originally used to refer to language at all, but to peoplea criollo was a person of Spanish descent born in the New World. Eventually, the word came to be used not only for people of European, African, and mixed ancestry born in the Americas, but also for the distinctive languages they spoke.

The term creole is used here to designate a broad swath of languages sometimes called patois (for instance in Jamaica), pidjin (in Hawaii), Kweyol (in St. Lucia), Creolese (in Guyana) and dialect (for instance, in the Sea Islands of Georgia and in many Caribbean Islands). What these languages have in common is that they emerged out of contact between speakers of a number of different languages in the context of plantation slavery and colonialism. Exactly how this happened is again a matter of some controversy. However, it seems relatively certain that in all cases, the result was a fairly extensive restructuring of the languages present at the time of such contact. In the case of Ndjuka (a language spoken in Suriname) restructuring was so extreme that it requires systematic linguistic investigation to find any residue of English in the language spoken today. In other cases, where the restructuring was less extensive, as in Barbados, a speaker of a relatively standard variety of English may be able to recognize a few words upon hearing the language as it is spoken, though there will be little hope of following a conversation.

For many years, linguists treated these languages as oddities and unworthy of serious study. A few early pioneers such as Hugo Schuchardt, John Reinecke, Lucien Rens, Uriel Weinreich, and Lorenzo Dow Turner recognized the importance of Creoles, but for the most part the languages went unstudied. Then, in the 1950s, a group of scholars gathered for the first conference on pidgins and creole in Mona, Jamaica. Since that time, a growing number of linguists have turned their attention to pidgins and creoles, not only in the Americas but also in Melanesia, Africa, and the islands of Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Today, a relatively small but tightly knit group of researchers, many of whom are themselves native speakers of a creole language, work at describing and understanding these languages through the application of modern linguistic techniques. The question of how these languages formed and developed continues to dominate the field.


All languages exhibit internal variation. Since the 1960s, sociolinguists have shown that this variation is not random but highly systematic. Creole languages are no exception. Indeed, due to their particular histories of contact and colonialism, creole languages often offer the most extreme cases of such variation.

Such variation has posed significant challenges for linguistic theory, and a number of alternatives have been developed to model it. While consideration of this research would take us too far afield, it is crucial to understand that variation is not the result of speaking "incorrectly." A creole language, like any other, may be spoken correctly or incorrectly, but this has nothing do with the rules of English (or French, etc.) grammar. Native speakers of Creolese (Guyanese Creole) often claim that their language has no rulesthat it is simply "broken English." Many, however, would agree that

mi na worii goo [I didn't bother to go.]

is a perfectly good sentence, whereas

worii na goo mii

is not. Every language has its own rules, and native speakers use these rules to produce and understand sentences, as well as to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Linguistic Features of Creoles

Creole languages tend to draw the bulk of their words from the superstratethe language of the colonizer. Most of these languages developed in settings where there were many different native languages. The European language thus served as a bridge between people who did not share a common language. The European vocabulary was therefore particularly important.

In Barbados and a number of other early colonies, Africans worked for many years side by side with indentured servants from Ireland, Scotland, and western England. The European language that slaves learned was therefore derived from regional sources. Thus, there are many words in contemporary creole languages that have their source in the regional dialects of European languages. For instance, the Sranan word wenke (woman) derives from English wench, while the verb bay/ba (to give) in the French creoles derives from bailer, an archaism preserved in regional dialects. The early colonies were, in many ways, societies built around the sea, and nautical usage has provided many words to the Creoles of the Caribbean. In the Atlantic English creoles, for instance, hais (lift) comes from the English hoist.

All the creole languages of the Americas show some influence of the substrate languages (the original African languages) in their vocabulary. This influence ranges from a fairly significant proportion of words of African origin in the Surinamese creolesperhaps as much as 5 percent in Saramaccanto the much more limited influence on the varieties spoken in other places. Of course, the slaves who made up the early linguistic communities of the colonies spoke many different languages, so that relatively few words were likely to carry over into the common creole language. There are some exceptions, however, for example Berbice Creole Dutch mentioned below.

In his Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949), African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner recorded hundreds of words of African origin that had survived in Gullah. The bulk of these are used as personal names. A full 150 pages of Turner's book is devoted to recording these names and their sources in various African languages. The number of words listed as "used in conversation" is considerably smaller. This category of words includes, for instance, bEble, an Ewe word for deceit, as well as ibi (to vomit) from Yoruba. Some African words such as nyam (to eat/food) and bokra/bakra (white man) are particularly widespread, occurring in creoles with different lexical bases.

An early pioneer of creole studies, Frederic Cassidy (b. 1966), pointed out another way in which African words were preserved in creole vocabularies. He called this phenomenon "multiple etymology" which points to the fact that sometimes a word can be traced to more than one source, and that its current usage reflects this multiple etymology. Cassidy gave examples such as Jamaican cuss-cuss, or kas-kas, which may be traced to both English cuss and Twi kasa-kasa (argument).

Another process widely evidenced in creole languages is "calquing." Calques are produced when idioms or phrases in one language are translated word-for-word into the creole using the superstrate lexicon. For instance in Caribbean English creoles, big-eye means greedy. Parallel forms of this metaphor are found not only in Haitian (gwo že ), but also in African languages such as Twi (ani bre ) and Ibo (a Na uku ). All of these examples literally translate as "big" plus "eye".

One also finds influence in a variety of word-formation rules. For instance, reduplication is a process in which a word or part of a word is repeated, resulting in a distinct lexical item. Reduplication is associated with a variety of meanings such as intensification (e.g., kwikkwik as in da bai a iit kwik kwik, the boy eats very fast), distribution (e.g., di piknii a waak wan-wan, the children are walking one by one), and reiteration (e.g., di pkinii a krai-krai, the child is constantly crying).

Many other languages have contributed to the vocabularies of creole languages. In the Caribbean, the Amerindian languages of the Carib and Arawak people have contributed words such as the Carib mabii (root from which a drink is made) and the Arawak (possibly via Spanish) ginip (a little fruit). In Guyana, where the majority of the population today is of East Indian ancestry, Bhojpuri has contributed a large number of words to the lexicon of Guyanese Creole such as baigin (eggplant) and kaharii (curry pot).


The sound systems of creole languagestheir phonologiesdiffer according to the languages that contributed to their formation, though they also show a number of quite striking similarities. In general, there seems to be a preference for syllables without extensive clustering of consonants. This may be the result of substrate influence, though it may also be the product of second language learning in the contact situation. Holm (1988) notes that African languages such as Ewe, Vai, and Wolof have a basic CV (consonantvowel) syllable structure. The basic CV syllable structure of many creole languages contrasts with a language like English which has a range of syllable types (e.g., CVC bit, CCVC snap, CCVCC stink).

Creole languages have been affected by a wide variety of phonological processes through which words from European languages have been adapted to the sound systems and phonotactic patterns of the creole. In aphesis, for example, one or more sounds are omitted at the beginning of the word, which results in words such as the Sranan tan (stand). Syncope involves the omission of one or more sounds in the middle of a word (e.g., Sranan kosi, from the English curtsy). Apocope, in which one or more sounds are omitted from the end of a word, has had a massive effect on creole languagesas in the Haitian ris (from the French risqué ) and the Caribbean English Creole words lan (land), hool (hold), las (last), and fos (first). Epenthesis involves the insertion of a sound in the middle of a word. A vowel inserted in this way typically serves to break up a consonant cluster (e.g., Negerhollands kini, knee, from the Dutch knie ). Paragogue, in which a sound is added at the end of a word, has operated across the lexicon of the Surinamese Creoles, resulting in Sranan words such as bigi (big), dede (dead), and mofo (mouth). The two vowels in the resulting Sranan words exhibit a feature known to linguists as vowel harmony (a characteristic of many West African languages).

Some creole languages have sounds known as coarticulated stops. These are quite rare across the world's languages (what linguistics call a "marked feature"), and their presence in creole languages is a clear inheritance from the West African languages spoken by slaves. Labiovelar co-articulated stops such as gb or kp occur in a number of Niger-Congo languages, and Saramaccan and Ndjuka also have these stops in words of African origin (e.g., kpasi, vulture, and gbono-gbono, moss).


Creole languages tend to be more highly analytic than the languages that contributed to their formation. This means that they tend to avoid inflectional morphology in favor of relatively short words, which are more or less invariant. In this they resemble languages such as Cantonese or Laotian more than Russian, Inuktitut, or Kwakiutl. This tendency toward analyticity is seen in many areas of the grammar. For instance, in many languages, whether an action or event took place in the past or will take place in the future (tense) is indicated by an inflectional ending (e.g., the ed in worked ). Another distinction often marked in the same way (by inflectional endings) is called aspect. Aspect indicates, among other things, whether the action is completed (bounded) or ongoing (e.g., the ing in "John is walking"). Again, these distinctions are typically not marked through inflection in creole languages, but rather through a series of preverbal markers.

The tendency towards analyticity has sometimes been misunderstood as making creole languages "easier" or even "simpler." While there is some evidence that highly inflected languages are more difficult to learn (Marianne Mithun's 1989 study of the acquisition of Mohawk), it does not follow that highly analytic languages are easier or simpler. What the language does not convey through inflection it conveys through a complex combination of preverbal markers, and what it does not convey through highly specified semantic or grammatical categories, speakers may convey through adverbial specification or grammatical processes such as reduplication or pragmatic inference.

English-Based Creoles

Perhaps the best known creole languages of the Americas within the English speaking world are those of the Anglo-phone Antilles (Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Vincent, Saint Kitts, etc.) and mainland South and Central America (Guyana, Belize, etc.). Gullah (spoken along the coast of Georgia and on the Sea Islands) should also be included here. That these form a group of interrelated languages can be shown through both linguistic and historical evidence. Certain islands such as Saint Kitts and Barbados were colonized very early. Colonies established later typically drew a larger proportion of their founding population from these islands. Thus, an early creole language was first established on one or two islands, and this provided the initial input to a number of other languages that emerged sometime later.

An important fact about these languages is that they typically co-exist with (standard) English. In all of the places named above, English is the official language of education and government. This means that English acts as the lexifier language, influencing the creole by providing a constant stream of new words. English also has exerted an influence on the grammar and phonology of these languages. Moreover, because the creole is in contact with the lexifier language, it is constantly compared to it. As a result, many speakers of the creole often do not recognize that they speak a different language but rather see themselves as speaking an incorrect version of the standard.

The following excerpts are from the small Grenadine Island of Bequia. They show some of the major grammatical features of the language, as well as the range of variation between different speakers.

Speaker 001 (Hamilton)

yu sii a faal dong an a hit dis fut hii an di boon kik out. So ai doz wak wid a piis o stik. Oonlii fo kiip dii fut botan a stil wok in mai grong. Til plantin mai kan an piiz az uujal. Karn ai don akostom. luk a ha rait- a piis a grong rait bai di walsaid wen aalyu komin dong. De we yu sii a waal de soo. You sho noo wa mos de soo. Rait de mi a wok.

[You see I fell down and I hit this foot here and the bone kicked out. So I walk with a piece of stick only to keep the foot. Butand I'm still working my ground, still planting my corn and peas as usual. Hm. Because I'm accustomed. Look I have a piece of ground right by the roadside when you're coming down there, where you see a wall there so. You should know what is there. Right there I work.]

Speaker 029 [LaPompe-Southside]

it streenj. Wans wii wor cheesin dii foulz an sombadi didn sii won an it et a gud lat an it fal dong, it star to staga an it fal dong. Anan Mamii see to mii "keerii it giv moma," da iz mai granmoda, "keerii it giv or." An wen ai keerii it giv or shii get a litl pen naif an shi hool dong di foul an shii kot open di cra, an shii teek out al di kasava, an shii chroo som wata, an shii wash it out, an shi stich it bak and di foul get op an goo abou ii biznis. Ya, ya as lang az dee kech it in taim dee alweez uusto duu dat.

[It is strangeonce we were chasing the fowls and somebody didn't see one and it ate a good lot and it fell down. It started to stagger and it fell down. Andand mommy said to me, "carry it give momma," that is my grandmother, "carry it give her," and when I took it to her she took out a little pen knife and she held down the fowl and she opened the craw and she took out all the cassava and she splashed some water and she washed it out and she stitched it back and the fowl got up and went about his business. Yeah yeah as long as they caught it in time they always used to do that.]

These fragments provide a number of examples of tense and aspect. Whereas English relies primarily on tensedistinguishing actions and events that occurred before the time of speaking from those that did notmost English creoles rely more heavily on a basic aspectual distinction between perfective (unmarked) and imperfective (the marked option). Imperfectivity indicates that the action or event is one that is either in progress or done habitually. In Guyanese and Vincentiation (along with other conservative or basilectal English creoles of the Eastern branch), imperfective is conveyed by the preverbal marker a or da, as in rait de mi a wok (Right there I work). These passages also illustrate the rather extreme grammatical variation that is characteristic of this community. Thus, imperfectivity (including the specific senses of progressivity and habituality) is marked in the following ways:

dozSo ai doz wak wid a piis o stik.
[So I walk with a piece of stick.] (Habitual)
øAn a stil ø wok in mai grong.
[And I'm still working my ground.] (Habitual)
ø V+ingTil plantin mai kan an piiz az uujal.
[Still planting my corn and peas as usual.] (Habitual)
aRait de mi a wok.
[Right there I work.] (Habitual)
were V+ingWans wii wor cheesin dii foulz an sombadi didn sii won.
[Once we were chasing the fowls and somebody didn't see one.] (Past Progressive)
used toDee alweez uusto duu dat.
[They always used to do that.] (Past Habitual)

Perfectivity, which "indicates the view of a situation as a single whole, without distinction of the various separate phases that make up that situation" (Comrie, 1976, p. 36) is usually expressed by the use of the unmarked verb. Taken in context, it is clear that these events and actions took place in the past. Thus, what a language like English conveys with tense, this one conveys with aspect. A final marker of aspect illustrated here is don I done accustom. Notice that in many cases don is more or less equivalent to English "finish" (as in di torkii don kuk, The turkey has finished cooking.). Here, however, the word does not mean "finish" but rather something like "already." This illustrates a widespread phenomenon called grammaticalization found in all languages, whereby lexical items are gradually transformed into grammatical items and in the process undergo a change of meaning.

Another feature illustrated in the passages is the use of serial verbs. In the second passage, the mother tells her daughter to keerii it giv mama. Here two verbs ("carry" and "give") are combined to convey a complex meaning that is expressed by the combination of verb and preposition in English. This is a very common pattern in the Caribbean creoles. Typical examples are from Donald Winford (1993, see also Migge, 1998):

Mieri waak go a maakit. [Mary walked to the market.]

Jan bring moni gi shi. [John brought money for her.]

Di pikni tall paas mi. [The child is taller than me.]

In a serial verb construction, the second verb is used to express a grammatical relationdirectional, benefactive, and comparative, respectively, in the above three examples).

The Creole Languages of Suriname

Suriname is located between Guyana and French Guyana. Like its neighbors, it is a country of dense tropical rainforest and long, winding rivers. Although the official language of Suriname is Dutch, the coastal population speaks Sranan, an English-based creole, as the vernacular. In the interior, the descendants of escaped slavesMaroonsspeak their own creole languages: Ndjuka, Saramaccan, and Kwinti. Suriname was originally colonized by the English in 1651. However, in 1667 the territory was ceded to the Dutch. Although many English took their slaves with them on their departure (some to Jamaica, where a language clearly related to the Surinamese creoles exists as Maroon Spirit Language), some did not. The African slaves of English planters left behind in Suriname formed a linguistic community that was eventually to develop Sranan. Because the period of contact between African slaves and English speakers was so short, only a very small part of the English lexicon, grammar, and phonology made it into the new language. This meant that the emerging linguistic community drew heavily both on the universal structures of language and the African substrate. Sranan appears to have developed gradually through processes of both grammaticalization and continuous contact with the African languages spoken by newly arrived slaves. The result is a radical creole that resembles English only to a very limited extent.

In the interior, things were even more complicated. Whereas Ndjuka, like Sranan, is unambiguously English-derived, Saramaccan contains a high proportion of words of Portuguese origin. The explanation for this has been a matter of some controversy. Some creolists have claimed that Saramaccan is based in part on the language spoken by Jewish refugees who came to Suriname from Brazil. Others have suggested that Saramaccan inherited its Portuguese content from the original Portuguese pidgin purportedly spoken in the Angola area and Slave Coast, where the Dutch acquired most of their slaves from the 1640s until 1725. The weight of evidence, both historical and linguistic, seems to support a Brazilian rather than African origin for the Portuguese component of Saramaccan.

French-Based Creoles

A French-based creole language is spoken in a number of Caribbean islands, including Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Barts, and Dominica. French Guiana is also home to a French lexicon creole called Guyanais. There are also remnants of French-based Creole in Grenada, Carriacou, and Trinidad. Finally, a French-based creole is also spoken in Louisiana.

These languages exhibit a number of striking similarities, both among themselves and to the other creole languages of the region. Similarities among the French creoles in the region may be due, at least in part, to the fact that between 1664 and 1763 planters throughout the French West Indies were legally obligated to import their slaves by way of Martinique. Although it is likely that the law was sometimes violated, it appears that the creole of Martinique and Guadeloupe was transferred to Haiti and the Windward Islands during this period.

The articles of the French creoles have attracted a good deal of attention from creolists. In French, as in English, the article always precedes the noun, as in l'eglisse (the church), le chat (the cat), and le chien (the dog). In Haitian, however, the article follows the noun, as in pen-a (the bread), banan-la (the banana). This looks like a very straightforward transfer from substrate languages such as Fongbe. Noting the similarities between Haitian Creole (HC) and Fon, and how they differ from the French, Claire Lefebvre argues that such examples provide evidence for the relexification model of creole formation, in which creoles are generated when superstrate word forms are mapped onto the substrate grammar. However, it is not quite true to say that French provided no model at all for such structures in the creole. In French, an item homophonous with the feminine article (la ) can follow a noun in a construction such as Qui est ce monsieur-là? (Who is that gentleman there?). Such structures were likely a pervasive feature of the dialectal varieties spoken by early French settlers (as they are today in vernacular varieties) and may have provided a model for the creole grammar. At the same time, this model provided by French vernacular varieties cannot account for the many correspondences between Haitian Creole and Fongbe.

Dutch-Based Creoles

The Dutch were heavily invested in both the slave trade and plantation colonialism, and it is therefore no surprise to find that there have been a number of Dutch creoles. One of these, Skepi Dutch, is no longer spoken and is attested only by a few words lists. Another, Berbice Dutch Creole (BDC) is spoken by a handful of older people. Negerhollands, a creole once widely spoken in what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands, is also virtually extinct and spoken only by a few second-language speakers.

Before it became British, Guyana was under Dutch control. In the 1970s, a Guyanese linguist named Ian Robertson discovered that a Dutch-based creole was still spoken in the interior. This language was apparently once the vernacular of the Dutch-owned Berbice colony. As of 1993, the number of BDC speakers numbered only four or five.

Berbice Dutch Creole is of special interest because, unlike many other creoles, its substrate appears to have been quite uniform. As Ian Robertson writes, "the seminal African substratum input into Berbice Dutch Creole came from Eastern Ijo, with the Kalabari dialect perhaps the major contributor" (1993, p. 297). By a standard measure of the most common terms in the language, the Berbice Dutch Creole lexicon is 61 percent Dutch, 27 percent Ijo, 7 percent English and 5 percent other. This is quite remarkable given that the substrate contributed about 5 percent of the lexicon in other conservative creoles (e.g., Saramaccan). In terms of tense and aspect marking, Berbice Dutch Creole is quite unlike other creoles in having a marked perfective category (as opposed to an unmarked verb stem conveying this meaning), which is indicated by an inflectional element on the verb. In this and other respects Berbice Dutch Creole resembles not other creole languages but, rather, Eastern Ijo, the substrate. Robertson writes that the perfective suffix te "appears to be a direct transfer from Eastern Ijo" (1993, p. 303).

Iberian-Based Creoles: Palenquero and Papiamento

The relative scarcity of creoles based on Spanish has been a matter of debate for some time. The anthropologist Sidney Mintz has suggested "with considerable caution" that this might be explained by the fact that "the Hispano-Caribbean colonies were never dominated demographically by inhabitants of African origin" and further that in these colonies "movement from the social category of 'slaves' to that of 'freemen' was almost always relatively rapid and relatively continuous" (Mintz, p. 481). More recently, however, John McWhorter has challenged this apparently quite reasonable explanation and suggested a provocative alternative account. There is one clearly Spanish-based creole in the Americas: Palenquero, which is spoken by the older members of a community of approximately 2,500 people living in the isolated village of El Palenque de San Basilio on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Another possible instance is Papiamento, which is spoken by approximately 200,000 people on the leeward Netherland Antilles (Curacao and Bonaire) and on Aruba. Unlike other creoles, Papiamento has a fairly well-established literary tradition, a spelling system, and it plays a role in the educational system. The language emerged in the seventeenth century and is based primarily on Portuguese and Spanish. In terms of tense and aspect marking, Papiamento differs from the prototypical creole pattern in having an overtly marked perfective category as well as a "past imperfective."

Theories of Creole Formation

The question of how these languages originated is highly contentious, and a number of accounts have been developed. A theory of how creoles emerge must account for both the striking similarities and the important differences among these languages.

Most accounts of creole formation assume the following scenario: When African slaves were brought to New World and Indian Ocean plantations, they encountered the European languages of the masters and their indentured servants. However, this encounter was characterized by severely limited access to the relevant European language. Africans patched together what they could of the lexical, phonological, and grammatical structures of the language, but this process left gaping holes. This situation then ledeither gradually or more or less spontaneously in conjunction with language acquisitionto significant reconstitution, reorganization, and restructuring. The most important attempts to explain how this restructuring took place can be divided into four main groups: monogenetic, universal, superstratal, and substratal.

monogenetic theories: the possibility of an african origin

Many pidgins and creoles share a core of words from Portuguese. For instance, Jamaican, Guyanese Sranan, Tok Pisin, Krio, and many French creoles include the words piknii (child) from the Portuguese pequenos (little ones) and sabi (know) from the Portuguese saber (to know). A more restricted group (e.g., Sranan, Saramaccan) also have ma (but) from mas (but), na as a locative preposition from na (in the; used before singular feminine nouns), and kaba or kba as a completive marker from acabar (to complete, finish). On the basis of this widespread distribution of Portuguese lexical items, some early creolists suggested that all the creoles developed out of a Portuguese pidgin spoken on the west coast of Africa and in other places where the Portuguese traded in the fifteenth century (this included the Pacific region). In each territory, this contact vernacular was relexified by the local superstrate language (a kind of calquing).

More recently, John McWhorter has developed another monogenetic theory. He suggests that the Caribbean Creoles, as well as those of the Indian Ocean, originated in slave-trading forts along the west coast of Africa. According to this theory, English-based creoles originated as a proto-variety at Cormantin among castle slaves, and this language was then transported to Barbados. According to McWhorter, all this happened sometime between 1630 and 1650.

The early colonies of the seventeenth century comprised small settlements, homesteads, and farms. This period was not characterized by significant demographic disproportion between white and black or by excessive social distance. Rather, European indentured laborers and Africans worked side-by-side in close quarters. The limited access model simply does not apply to this period. It was on the basis of such historical evidence that the limited access model was significantly revised in the 1980s, with many creolists coming to argue that the varieties closest to English (or the lexifier) emerged first. These were then subject to a process of "basilectalization" or dilution and restructuring as the numbers of African people increased significantly in the eighteenth century. The problem with this account, according to McWhorter, is that Sranan must have formed before 1671 when the English left Suriname for Jamaica. The slaves they brought to Jamaica introduced a language very similar to Sranan, which is still spoken as a ritual register by Maroons (Maroon Spirit Language, or MSL). The MSLSranan connection suggests that these languages formed early in the seventeenth century and thus makes the revised "limited access" scenario problematic.

the role of an innate capacity for language and language universals

Among linguists, the theories that emphasize the role played by an innate human capacity for language have attracted the most interest. The most prominent advocate of such a view is Derek Bickerton. This basic idea has been around for as long as people have seriously studied these languages. The story goes as follows: In the initial stages of plantation slavery, Europeans tended to outnumber Africans. However this situation did not last long. After the initial settlement stage, plantations expanded massively and many thousands of Africans were imported. After a few decades, Africans greatly outnumbered the Europeans. The African population in these colonies was heterogeneous, and their own languages did not provide a viable vehicle for interethnic communication. As a result, a rudimentary pidgin developed based on the vocabulary of the European language. This language would have been adequate for organizing work on the plantation and for other rudimentary tasks, though it lacked the expressive capacity of a full-blown language. Not only was the lexicon severely limited, there was essentially no grammar. The general paucity of expressive resources reflected a learning environment in which access to the target language was severely limited. Moreover, whatever parts of the target language did make it into the pidgin were continually "diluted" as they spread throughout the population of nonnative speakers.

This meant that the inflections by which many languages express tense, aspect, and other important information were lost. When children were born into this community, the language they encountered was radically deficient and irregular. In order to construct a fully functional, natural languagea first languagechildren in this situation independently drew on their inborn capacity for language. They had to reconstruct a system for expressing distinctions of tense and aspect, for example. Because they all drew on the same innate capacity for language, they produced similar creole languagesbut because in each case they were dealing with different levels of dilution of different languages, they produced different languages. Bickerton supports his argument with data such as in Table 2.

Bickerton's theory is a sophisticated version of the life-cycle model of pidgins and creole development. It is a commonly held view that these languages originate in grammarless jargonsessentially just a collection of words. They may go on to become stabilized pidgins used only for trade and interethnic contact. Alternatively, they may be "nativized" when a generation of children learn them as a first language, at which point they are transformed into creoles (see Figure 1).

the superstrate: the contribution of european languages

A number of scholars have suggested that many creoles owe much more to their superstrate languages than has been previously acknowledged. Theories that emphasize the superstrate were long associated with French scholars who examined the French of Reunion. More recently, a kind of superstrate model has been developed by Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte in studies of African-American English. In part, this work was a reaction to research that tacitly assumed monolithic European languages, such as English, French, and Dutch. Scholars in this tradition rightly pointed out that the dialectal and regional versions of English that would have been spoken on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century plantations were quite varied and incorporated many features similar to the ones seen in contemporary creoles. This research has focused, however, on a limited set of languages, such as African-American English and Reunion French, which have been only moderately restructured.

the substrate: the contribution of african languages

Perhaps the most popular theory among creolists is one that emphasizes the role of substrate languages in the formation of creoles. Although there are a number of different accounts, West African languages provided a base of common grammatical structures, which were transferred to the creole through some kind of calque-like mechanism. Where one substrate language was dominantsuch as Eastern Ijo for Berbice Dutch Creole, or Gbe for Srananits structures tended to get transferred. Where no particular substrate was dominant, structures common across themsuch as serial verbswere likely to get transferred.

There are a number of different substratal theories. Perhaps the most explicit is that developed by Claire Lefebvre

Base form
"He walked"He walkLi macheA waka
"He loves"He loveLi remeA lobi
"He had walked."He bin walkLi té machéA ben waka
"He loved."He bin loveLi té rêméA ben lobi
"He will/would walk."He go walkL'av(a) machéA sa waka
"He will/would love."He go loveL'av(a) rêméA sa lobi
"He is/was walking."He stay walkL'ap machéA e waka
Anterior + irreal + nonpunctual
("He would have been walking")He bin go stay walkLi t'av ap machéA ben sa e waka

and her colleagues, known as "relexification." According to Lefebvre, exposure to the superstrate languages in the early days of plantation slavery provided access to "phonetic strings" (strings of sounds understood as a "word"). These did not necessarily correspond to French words (in fact they rarely did). For instance, the Haitian Creole word for water is dlo which is quite clearly a concatenation of the preposition de, the article l', and the noun eau, forming de l'eau (water). These phonetic strings were then mapped onto the lexical entries of Africans' native languages.

While there appears to be some strong evidence for relexification, there are also problems with this theory. First, it works best when a given structure from Haitian Creole and Fongbe match, and the French is different, but this is not always the case. Moreover, relexificationists can be accused of failing to consider what kind of French would actually have been spoken in the contact situation. For the most part, their claims are based on the more-orless standard French of today and not the regional, vernacular, and nonstandard dialects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Relexificationists also often do not consider the full range of substrate languages, focusing instead on the one they argue was dominant.

Creoles, Language Attitudes, and National Life

Creole languages vary greatly in terms of the status accorded to them. In Guyana, most people are deeply ambivalent about the language they speak. In rural villages, everybody speaks creolese, and a person speaking standard English is mocked and often not trusted. On the other hand, a person who is able to speak only the creole is sometimes characterized as stupid and ignorant. Such complex attitudes pose a challenge for those who wish to standardize and institutionalize the language in the service of national or international (i.e., Caribbean) integration.

In Guyanese education, the creole language is unrecognized, and it has no place in government except to the extent that politicians make use of it in presenting themselves to the people. Although writers sometimes use creole when writing dialogue, and sometimes in poetry, creole is basically absent from the newspapers, except where it is used in a story or to voice a character.

In contrast, entire newspapers are published in Haitian Creole, Papiamento, and Sranan. Indeed, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power in Haiti he used Haitian Creole, not French, to address the people. This signaled a significant change in a country that was included as a prototypical example in Charles Ferguson's original discussion of diglossia. Perhaps the most extreme case is presented by a few of the formerly French colonies. In Saint Lucia and Dominica, where English is making significant inroads, the local language has been taken up and valorized by the cultural elite. In Saint Lucia, Kweyol has been invoked as a symbol of cultural heritage.

Creoles and African-American English

A matter of great controversy since the 1960s is the relationship between the various Caribbean English Creoles and the variety of English spoken by many African Americans in the United States. In the 1970s a number of creolists argued that African-American English descended from a prior creole language that in many respects resembled the vernacular languages of Guyana and Jamaica. They pointed to similarities in the area of phonology (significant consonant cluster reduction), morphology (in the expression of past tense, for example) and vocabulary.


Although these languages show a number of significant similarities both in terms of their linguistic structures and the conditions within which they developed, they are also distinct in many ways. Each is a living tradition which is valued by its speakers not for its connections to Africa or for what it might reveal about the human mind, but for its capacity to effectively represent the natural, social, and political world, and at the same time serve as an efficient vehicle of communication.

See also English, African-American; Haitian Creole Language


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