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Pieter Muysken

Creole languages have a curious status in linguistics, and at the same time they often have very low prestige in the societies in which they are spoken. These two facts may be related, in part because they circle around notions such as “derived from” or “simplified” instead of “original.” Rather than simply taking the notion of “creole” as a given and trying to account for its properties and origin, this essay tries to explore the ways scholars have dealt with creoles. This involves, in particular, trying to see whether we can define “creoles” as a meaningful class of languages. There is a canonical list of languages that most specialists would not hesitate to call creoles, but the boundaries of the list and the criteria for being listed are vague. It also becomes difficult to distinguish sharply between pidgins and creoles, and likewise the boundaries between some languages claimed to be creoles and their lexifiers are rather vague. Several possible criteria to distinguish creoles will be discussed. Simply defining them as languages of which we know the point of birth may be a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion. Displacement is also an important criterion, necessary but not sufficient. Mixture is often characteristic of creoles, but not crucial, it is argued. Essential in any case is substantial restructuring of some lexifier language, which may take the form of morphosyntactic simplification, but it is dangerous to assume that simplification always has the same outcome. The combination of these criteria—time of genesis, displacement, mixture, restructuring—contributes to the status of a language as creole, but “creole” is far from a unified notion. There turn out to be several types of creoles, and then a whole bunch of creole-like languages, and they differ in the way these criteria are combined with respect to them. Thus the proposal is made here to stop looking at creoles as a separate class, but take them as special cases of the general phenomenon that the way languages emerge and are used to a considerable extent determines their properties. This calls for a new, socially informed typology of languages, which will involve all kinds of different types of languages, including pidgins and creoles.