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date: 11 December 2019

Pidgins and Creoles

Summary and Keywords

Creole languages have mostly resulted from interactions between Europeans and subordinated peoples amid colonization, trade, and imperialism. Given that the creation of these languages was usually driven as much by adults as children, second-language acquisition has a larger effect upon creole language structures than it does under most other conditions of language change and contact. Namely, it has traditionally been supposed that creole languages begin as makeshift pidgin varieties, expanded from this into full languages. However, various creolists have proposed that most creoles did not in fact emerge in this way; some argue that creoles are relexifications of indigenous languages, while others argue that nothing distinguishes creole genesis from language contact more generally.

Keywords: pidgin, creole, historical linguistics, language contact, language genesis

1. Introduction

Perhaps the most prominent meme about pidgins and creoles among informed outsiders is that adults create pidgins as makeshift, rudimentary tools, and that creoles result when children expand pidgins into full languages. In fact, the universality of this basic formulation is highly controversial within creole studies. Arguments in its favor tend to encounter resistance, and an ironic fact after over fifty years of the institutionalized existence of creole studies is that its practitioners have yet to concur on a definition of creole language.

DeCamp (1971, p. 14) dated the official beginning of creole studies to a moment at a foundational conference in Jamaica in 1959 “when Jack Berry suddenly remarked ‘All of us are talking about the same thing!’” Yet in the 2010s, it is safe to say that most specialists in pidgins and creoles would consider this “same thing” a highly elusive proposition.

2. Creole: Basic Characterization

Unequivocal is that the term creole—derived from a word initially used in 16th-century Portuguese colonies in reference to whites born there, eventually extended to slaves born in European colonies and the Euro-African languages they developed—has been traditionally applied to vernacular languages born in plantation colonies from the 15th through the 19th centuries amid the European-driven slave trade and other geopolitical developments in its wake. These languages contrast with the European languages providing most of their words—traditionally referred to as the superstrate or lexifier—in lacking a significant amount of their grammatical machinery, most saliently inflectional affixes.

An example is Haitian Creole, here contrasted directly with French:


Pidgins and Creoles

Haitian, like all creoles, exhibits the basic grammatical complexity of all natural languages. However, French’s concordial marking of case, person, and number, marking of grammatical gender and the partitive (via de and its conditioning), heterogenous syntactic position of object clitic leur, and its allomorphies and irregularities, are absent in the Haitian sentence. Creolists are united in deriving this trait from the fact that creoles emerged from nonnative acquisition, although the nature and degree of this acquisition is a matter of debate.

Creoles also differ notably from their lexifiers in containing a significant contribution, usually on all levels of structure, from the languages their creators spoke natively (traditionally referred to as the substrate). For example, Saramaccan Creole English of Surinam has serial verb constructions, postposed nominals to indicate spatial relations, CV syllable structure, and certain tonal patterns (as well as some core lexical items) that directly reflect equivalent structures in the Kwa Niger-Congo language spoken by an influential number of its creators, Fongbe:


Pidgins and Creoles

However, the concept of creole cannot be associated definitionally with plantation colonies. Most of the world’s creoles—numbering in the several dozens depending on definitions of language versus dialect, as well as the eternally elusive definition of creole itself—have European lexifiers. However, creole genesis, yielding languages contrasting in the same way with their lexifiers as Haitian and Saramaccan, has occurred in several other contexts. The creole Portugueses of India emerged at trade posts amid indigenes exposed to Catholicism in Portuguese. The Portuguese creoles of the Gulf of Guinea began amid Euro-African marriages, while Unserdeutsch Creole German developed in an orphanage in New Guinea. Nor are creole languages definitionally derived from European languages, as demonstrated by Nubi Creole Arabic (which emerged among relocating soldiers), and nativized versions of Chinook Jargon (on one Native American reservation) and Sango (derived from Niger-Congo language Ngbandi).

3. Creolization as Clinal

Creolization is also a matter of degree, conditioned by sociohistorical variables. Many creoles, most famously the English-lexifier ones of the Caribbean, consist of an array of dialects ranging from a basilect typical of the most socioeconomically isolated, an acrolect spoken by the most educated that differs from the lexifier mainly in phonology and indigenous lexicon, and a mesolect in between. Certain constructions allow quite fine-grained distinctions along the continuum, such that I gave him in Guyanese Creole English is expressed in fifteen different ways from basilect to acrolect:


Pidgins and Creoles

(Romaine, 1982; Rickford, 1987; and other sources question the representativeness of this type of analysis of these creoles.)

In other cases, these lectal differences apply not within a context but between two different ones. The creole French of Mauritius is much further from the French variety spoken on nearby Réunion, which is close enough to French to be parseable by someone familiar only with the latter:

Réunnionais French Creole


Pidgins and Creoles

Mauritian French Creole


Pidgins and Creoles

This kind of difference is traceable to initial sociohistorical conditions, and is paralleled by Cape Verdean Creole Portuguese dialects, which differ in distance from Portuguese according to the sociohistorical factors. Baker and Corne (1982) reconstruct that in Réunion, whites and Malagasy slaves worked in roughly equal numbers on small coffee plantations for several decades, allowing the slaves to acquire something close to French itself, after which they passed this on to the larger numbers of Bantu slaves required later to cultivate sugar. Mauritius, on the other hand, was peopled with large numbers of Bantu slaves closer to its initial foundation as a plantation colony, disallowing a period during which blacks could learn anything close to French, and conditioning a creole to emerge.

For this reason, varieties like Réunionnais have been termed semi-creoles, most influentially by Holm (cf. 2004), along with Afrikaans, Popular Brazilian Portuguese, Black English, and the vernacular Latin American Spanish varieties spoken by descendants of African slaves. For example, it has been argued that the reason no creoles emerged on the Spanish-run islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola is that a Réunion-style phase of numerical parity between black and white lasted so long that only modestly restructured Spanishes resulted (Mintz, 1971).

While semi-creoles, with only modest elision of lexifier grammatical machinery and modest substrate contribution, are especially close to their lexifiers, even most other creoles’ distance from their lexifiers is analogous to that of the mesolectal lects of English-lexifier creole continua. For example, Haitian in (1b) lends itself to analysis as a “kind of French,” and even the basilectal range of the English-lexifier continuum creoles is submissible to the same judgement, one commonly held by many of its speakers, for one. Basilectal Jamaican patois is an example: Dat wuman bier tuu daataz bisaidz, nou di tri sistaz liviŋ gud (LePage & DeCamp, 1960).

Creoles like these motivate proposals such as DeGraff’s (1999, 2005) that Haitian differs from French largely in resulting from the same modest effects of second-language acquisition that produced, for example, modern English from Old English, or the Irish Gaelic of many modern second-language speakers as contrasted with the indigenous form of the language, rather than because of a break in transmission such as pidginization. Mufwene, similarly criticizing the derivation of creoles from pidgins, has offered the especially radical proposal (e.g., 2001) that creoles are simply mixtures of features from lexifier and substrate languages, in the same fashion as other notably mixed languages like Romanian (cf. section 5.4).

However, other creoles lend themselves less gracefully to such frameworks, being basilectal to a much starker degree. Saramaccan in (2) is an example, as is its sister creole Sranan of Surinam, based on English:


Pidgins and Creoles

“Whenever the boys at work heard this, they would burst out in laughter ‘That’s one hell of a guy’.”

(Adamson & Smith, 1995, p. 231)

Here, both derivation and inflection from English are absent, and the creole contains only 650 English roots (Koefoed & Taranskeen, 1996), from which a new language was created. Also, the imprint of West African languages is much stronger on Sranan than on Haitian (or basilectal Caribbean English varieties). Creoles like this are unique in having developed largely apart from their lexifiers; for example, the English traded Surinam for New Amsterdam (later New York) with the Dutch only sixteen years after settling it. Thus there was no possibility of the development of a Sranan-to-English continuum as there was in most English colonies, or ongoing adstratal influence from English in general as there was from French for creoles like Haitian.

Some creolists see evidence here of a break in transmission, whereby English was pidginized or underwent second-language acquisition of a highly disruptive nature (creolists disagree on which concept is more appropriate and what distinguishes them), and subsequently filled out with substrate features and grammar-internal developments into a new language. Creoles of this kind, then, also exemplified by the Portuguese-based creoles of the Gulf of Guinea, Negerhollands Creole Dutch, and Tok Pisin of New Guinea and its relative varieties, motivate assumptions that creoles develop from pidgins.

4. The Nature and Role of Pidgins

4.1 Definition

The definition of pidgin has occasioned less controversy than that of creole. The word is derived from the Chinese Pidgin English pronunciation of business (Baker & Mühlhäusler, 1990), and refers conventionally to varieties that are native to no one and in no way qualify as full languages. Foley’s (1988, p. 165) is a representative characterization:

  • Smaller vocabulary, generic terms rather than specific
  • Monomorphemic words, paraphrases of complex words
  • No subordinate clauses, parataxis
  • Invariable word order
  • Absence of copula, pronouns, function words
  • Heavily reduced or no inflections
  • No allomorphy, invariant stems (e.g., full forms as opposed to contractions)
  • CV monosyllables and CVCV disyllabics

An example would be Chinese Pidgin English, which developed in Canton in the 17th century, with about 700 words and rudimentary grammatical structure:


Pidgins and Creoles

Such varieties occur worldwide when groups come into contact, and are perhaps the most-used strategy of communication between groups that do not share a language, such that many pidgins, unlike English-dominant Chinese Pidgin English, split their lexicon between two languages. Examples include Russenorsk between Russian and Norwegian, and a pidgin between speakers of Surinam’s Ndyuka creole and the Native American language Tirio.

4.2 Role in Creole Genesis

The nature of pidgins motivated what textbooks have often termed the “baby talk” hypothesis of creole genesis (first outlined by Bloomfield, 1933, pp. 472–473), under which pidgins emerged via speakers deliberately simplifying their language for subordinates via what is more conventionally termed foreigner talk (cf. Ferguson & DeBose, 1977). Evidence of this practice where pidgins developed is not difficult to find. How central it was to pidgin structures beyond the most elementary ones is a question, however. Pidgins can easily emerge without such deliberate simplification—the learner can barely help acquiring what he hears in simplified form whether the speaker produces it in such form or not. Besides, the light that the “baby talk” scenario sheds on matters shines little beyond what many would term the jargon stage (jargon used by some researchers to distinguish the stage at which there is barely anything that could be called grammatical structure, as opposed to the moderately rule-governed nature of a pidgin).

While creolists such as DeGraff. Mufwene, and more recently Aboh (2015) contest that the plantation-born creoles of the New World and the Indian Ocean developed from pidgins, it is explicitly documented that several contact languages did exemplify the “pidgin-creole life cycle.” The most studied have been Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, Bislama of Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands Pijin, sister languages that developed from a pidgin English born first among Australian aboriginals in the 18th century after the English settled that continent, and subsequently used in maritime and plantation contexts in Melanesia.

A limited English lexicon was recruited to fashion a new one. In the absence of English itself, morphemic boundaries were often reinterpreted: nambis (< on the beach) “beach,” tudir (< too dear) “expensive” (Mühlhäusler, 1997, p. 155). Overt and grammaticalized marking of various distinctions emerged step by step over time, such as Mühlhäusler’s (1997, p. 171) charting of the emergence of causative marking in Tok Pisin by verb type:

  • Step 1. stative verbs: slip “sleep” / slipim “to make lie down”

  • Step 2. adjectives: bikim “to make big:

  • Step 3. non-stative verbs: sanap “stand” / sanapim “to make stand up”

  • Step 4. transitive verbs: dring “drink” / dringim “to make drink”

4.3 Terminological Problem: Creoles Referred to as Pidgins

Tok Pisin and its family exemplify a terminological infelicity in creole studies: these languages have traditionally been referred to as (extended) pidgins or pidgincreoles (Bakker, 2008) rather than creoles, out of a sense that only languages acquired as first languages by children are to be termed creoles. However, Tok Pisin and others have been regularly acquired by children now for several decades. Moreover, even before this, they exhibited fully structured grammars, and contrasted with their lexifier in exactly the same fashion as languages classically treated as creoles do. “I was going” in Sranan is Mi ben e go while in Tok Pisin it is the equally un-English Mi bin go i stap, with tense and aspect encoded with particles, elimination of English’s affixes, and almost all case distinctions such as in pronouns (me as subject), and the like.

Long-term usage by adults can fashion a pidgin into either a full language or something very close to one, such that the effect of child acquisition is largely that increased speech tempo deepens phonology and morphophonology somewhat (Sankoff & Laberge, 1980; Romaine, 1992). As such, Tok Pisin, Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin, and the Australian aboriginal Kriol dialects are creoles rather than pidgins in the linguistic sense, as are the English-based varieties of the West African coast, Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian “Pidgin” English.

Meanwhile, the English-based creole of Hawaii is referred to as “Pidgin” because that was the name when it began as an actual pidgin before it was transformed into a full language.

5. Creole Genesis Debates I: Against the Pidgin-Creole Life Cycle

Today, the most potent debate in creole studies is over whether the languages traditionally known as creoles began as pidgins at all. Current proposals as to how these creoles formed can in fact be grouped according to their approach to this question.

5.1 The Monogenesis Hypothesis: An Archival Matter

One approach assuming pidgin origin was the monogenesis hypothesis, now defunct although gesturally referred to in many textbooks. Into the 1980s, some creolists derived European language-based creoles from a common Portuguese pidgin ancestor, relexified by various languages around the world. The hypothesis was motivated in part by a certain few Portuguese lexical items in creoles of disparate lexical base and geographical location. Goodman (1987), however, exhaustively accounts for this presence on the basis of the wide-ranging migrations of Portuguese-speaking slaveholders throughout the Caribbean in the 17th century. Furthermore, widespread items such as sabi “to know” and pikin “small child” are attributable to the Portuguese having been first to establish a trade pidgin on the West African coast, items from this pidgin having diffused into pidgins based on other European languages established later in the same areas.

The monogenesis idea was also based on the structural similarity between so many creoles. However, these similarities can be attributed to other factors, such as universals of second-language acquisition, of Universal Grammar (cf. Bickerton, 1981, 1984), and diachronic relationships between creoles of the same lexical base (cf. Hancock, 1987; Baker, 1999; McWhorter, 2005, pp. 199–224). As such, no serious analysis has been based on the monogenesis hypothesis in over thirty years at this writing.

5.2 Substratist Works Eschewing Pidginization

Various proposals about creole genesis investigate what has collectively been termed the substratist hypothesis, focusing on the features of creoles—in practice, mostly grammatical rather than lexical—traceable to the native languages of their creators. Generally, substratist arguments are made within a framework that also includes pidginization or some degree of simplification (summary examples include Keesing, 1988 on Tok Pisin, Bislama, and Solomon Islands Pijin, and the seminal Holm, 1988 [textbook] and 1989 [encyclopedia]). However, some proposals attribute to the substrate a larger role in which pidginization plays no significant role.

In pioneering substratist work, Alleyne (1971, 1980) questioned the assumption that Caribbean creoles began as pidgins, or in any other kind of lastingly simplified variety, proposing that the creoles were better analyzed as varieties of their lexifiers with heavy influence from substrate languages, in the same way as Romance languages harbor substrate-derived features. While Alleyne did not emphasize his dissociation of creoles from imperfect acquisition in later work, his approach inaugurated the cataloging of the West African inheritances in plantation creoles. Boretzky (1983) was an equally valuable treatise, with the advantage of more African language data than was available to Alleyne, although because it was written in German it had limited influence. Later, Parkvall (2000) contributed a signature monograph on substrate influence in Atlantic creoles on the basis of the richer sociohistorical, as well as linguistic, data available by the time he wrote.

Since the eighties, Lefebvre (most summarily, 1998) has developed a theory analyzing Haitian Creole—and by implication, other creoles—as a relexification of Fongbe (also the main substrate language of Saramaccan), a framework under which pidginization also has no place. Lefebvre hypothesizes that Fongbe speakers relabeled lexical and grammatical items with French ones. Where Haitian does not parallel Fongbe structure, Lefebvre proposes that French did not offer a readily plausible source for relabeling, or that there was dialect leveling between Fongbe and other varieties, such as the closely related Ewegbe. In later work Lefebvre has extended this analysis to Saramaccan.

While almost no creolist denies that substrate influence is robust in most creoles, Lefebvre’s conception of creoles as outright relexifications has not gained adherents. Evidence is lacking that Fongbe was prevalent among slaves when Haitian was created, and others have noted that Haitian does not parallel Fongbe as closely as Saramaccan does, and raised questions of falsifiability (cf. McWhorter, 2011, pp. 149–181). However, Lefebvre’s work, couched in formalist syntactic analysis and also on extensive fieldwork on Fongbe itself, solidly resists Bickerton’s charge that substratist work is based on an unsystematic “cafeteria principle” (see section 6.2) ignorant of science. This is also true of the work of Aboh (e.g., 2015), which similarly brings generative syntactic analysis to bear upon substrate influence (and also denies that second-language acquisition played a definitive part in the genesis of creoles).

5.3 Superstratist Work

Meanwhile, Chaudenson (most summarily, 1992) contests creoles’ pidgin origins from a lexifier-based perspective, often termed a superstratist hypothesis. Chaudenson stresses that commonly, plantation colonies began as sociétés d’habitation (homestead societies), small farms where whites and the enslaved lived in numerical parity under intimate conditions. Here, slaves would have acquired the lexifier relatively completely. Later, such colonies switched to sugar cultivation, requiring vastly more manpower. New slaves acquired the lexifier more from the first ones than whites themselves, thus creating an “approximation of an approximation” of the full language; subsequent waves of slaves acquired the lexifier on the basis of this approximation, such that the variety that stabilized among the slaves was the product of this gradual dissolution of lexifier structure, titled by Chaudenson français zéro, a stage that scholars of second-language acquisition (and creolists working from its traditions; cf. section 7.1) would recognize as the Basic Variety analyzed by Klein and Perdue (1997).

As such, Chaudenson sees the reconstruction of a pidgin stage as scientifically unnecessary, and also considers the effect of substrate languages on creole structure to be modest. Rather, Chaudenson calls attention to the source of many creole structures in regional vernacular dialects of European languages, certainly consulted too little by creolists before he wrote, in favor of the standard dialects. As such, a Mauritian sentence like Zot ti pe ale “They were going” is essentially the regional French Eux-autres étaient après aller spoken rapidly, and with modest effects of second-language acquisition. This contradicts any sense of ti and pe as exotic “creole” reinterpretations. This observation is important; Hancock (1994) usefully seconded it on English-lexifier creoles in his discussion of the parallels between Cornwall English and New World creoles, such that Gullah’s habitual marker blant, superficially so unlike English as typically known, traces directly to the belong to construction in Cornwall.

Mufwene has brought this superstratist focus to the attention of creolists beyond the Francophone school with his terminologization, the Founder Principle (1996). While often read in passing as an argument that the initial peoples in a creole genesis context had the strongest impact on the creole’s structure—something few analysts would deny—Mufwene’s intent with the Founder Principle term is more specific: much of what appears novel or substrate-driven in creoles is directly descended from little-known dialects of the lexifier.

Chaudenson’s ideas are especially attractive from the perspective of the French creoles that he focuses on, given that there is no French creole as divergent from its lexifier as Saramaccan or Tok Pisin are from English. The attention he has called to superstrate contributions is also invaluable to creolist analysis. Problematic, however, is evidence that full-blown creoles existed during the société d’habitation stage, such as in Martinique (Carden, Goodman, Posner, & Stewart, 1990) and elsewhere. Also, it is difficult to see the especially basilectal creoles such as the Surinam ones, or Tok Pisin and its relatives, as products of “approximations of approximations” of English, or as harboring only modest substrate influence. To be sure, under Chaudenson’s analysis Tok Pisin and others qualify as “pidgins,” born under different conditions from the New World plantation contact languages he treats. However, besides questions about that classification (cf. section 4.3), the Surinam creoles (and the Portuguese ones of the Gulf of Guinea) do fall under the same bailiwick as the French plantation creoles, and Chaudenson’s analysis squares less gracefully with them.

5.4 The Population Genetics Model

Yet it is reasonable to surmise that the main reason Chaudenson’s work has been less central to general creolist discussion than it has been is that he writes in French. Salikoko Mufwene’s work, proceeding from Chaudenson’s, has therefore been invaluable in situating much of Chaudenson’s thought into Anglophone creolist debates.

Mufwene’s Population Genetics model (2001 is a fascicle of relevant articles) in fact extends Chaudenson’s ideas into a more radical proposal. Similarly noting the absence of documented evidence of creoles’ birth in pidgins, Mufwene argues that creoles be treated simply as the result of languages’ features coming together to create new languages. This, to Mufwene, is what the result of the “approximations of approximations” process was, such that even taxonomizing creoles as a type of language is a reflexive legacy of colonialist essentializations (Mufwene, 1997). Along the lines of Chaudenson’s focus on lexifier sources, Mufwene notes that these varieties can even be seen as the source of much of the analyticity traditionally seen as stemming from incomplete acquisition. For example, vernacular Englishes often allow zero-marking in the third person singular present, while spoken French is much less inflected than the written language.

For Mufwene (2001), then, there is even no scientifically valid taxonomic difference between the histories of American English, Black English, and Gullah Creole: all are the product of language mixture under different circumstances. He states that rather than creoles harboring signs of birth in pidginization, “the extent of morphological complexity (in terms of range of distinctions) retained by a ‘contact language’ largely reflects the morphological structures of the target language and the particular languages that it came in contact with” (Mufwene, 2009, p. 386). Simplification in creole genesis, under Mufwene’s analysis, is manifested mainly as an elision of what he terms redundancy, such as of NP concord.

Mufwene’s work ranges widely, and is perhaps cited most for broader aspects of his message, such as the Founder Principle. However, applications of the Population Genetics Model itself (e.g., Aboh & Ansaldo, 2007) have left as many questions as answers. Plag (2011) has argued that as of yet, Population Genetics adherents’ stipulation of “reassemblage” and “recombination” are unsystematized, qualifying more as description than explanation, as in classifying plural marking’s tendency to be lost or narrowed in creolization as due to plurality being “semantically vacuous.”

Meanwhile, McWhorter (2012a) notes that many creoles lack even features that their source languages share, which would therefore be expected under a population genetics model. For example, in Palenquero Creole Spanish, an encounter between Spanish and the Bantu language Kikongo, there is no nominal concord, regular plural marking, a perfect tense, Differential Object Marking, or other features, most of which do not qualify as redundancies:

Kikongo (Bentley, 1887, p. 526) (C8P = noun class 8 plural):


Pidgins and Creoles

5.5 Creolization and Parameter Setting

Meanwhile, DeGraff (1999, 2001) has also been a passionate advocate for discarding the idea that creoles emerged from pidgins, concurring with Mufwene that this classification is a legacy of superannuated notions of European superiority. Much of DeGraff’s work, couched in Chomskyan syntactic frameworks, has explored a creolization model based on parameter settings, such that adult acquisition did not pidginize lexifier languages, but had the less disruptive effect of changing certain parameter settings to “weak,” with multiple effects therefrom.

Under this analysis, for example, the difference between these two sentences for “Jacques never says hello”:


Pidgins and Creoles

stems from Haitian’s inflection parameter being “weak,” which means that the verb does not have to move leftward to get tense, explaining why the negative elements (and in other examples, adverbs with sentential focus such as often) precede the verb rather than following it as most of them do in French. Other authors have joined DeGraff in this parametrical approach, including Veenstra (1996, although cf. his later work at section 7.1), Deprez (1999), and Baptista (2000).

These creolists’ work has been invaluable in normalizing state-of-the-art generative analysis in a field in which it was relatively novel before the 1990s (unlikely now, for example, would be an anthology title such as that of Pieter Muysken’s Generative Studies on Creole Languages of 1981). The verdict on these scholars’ findings will differ according to the evaluator’s sense of the prognosis for Chomskyan Minimalist theory. However, even under the most sanguine prospects for that school of thought, the features traced to parameter settings are but a subset of what distinguishes creoles from their source languages. The question posed by the sentences in (8) remains.

6. Creole Genesis Debates II: Arguing for the Pidgin-Creole Life Cycle

6.1 The Pacific School

The vast body of work on the Australian and Melanesian pidgin/creoles comprehensively charts the development of these languages from the stage of lightly structured jargons to full languages (awkwardly titled “pidgins,” as discussed in section 4.3). For these languages, the expansion process took place mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such that ample historical documentation of the languages, as well as the social circumstances they developed under, survives for consultation.

Partly because these scholars can work with concrete data rather than reconstruction and intelligent guesswork as scholars of Atlantic creoles must, Pacific pidgin and creole studies is not characterized by distinct competing schools of thought on genesis issues, despite predictable disagreements between individual scholars on more specific questions. The “pidgin/creole life cycle” considered a controversial proposition elsewhere is, in the Pacific context, an ineluctable fact.

As such, under the view (not shared by all creolists) that nothing significant qualitatively distinguishes the difference between Tok Pisin’s source in English to Sranan’s, the Pacific work constitutes a crucial body of data and analysis on how creoles form. Key sources include Mühlhäusler (1997), Crowley (1990), Keesing (1988), Tryon and Charpentier (2004), and Siegel (2008). However, for reasons geographical, institutional, and philosophical, the study of Atlantic creoles has taken place largely separate from those of the Pacific, and occasional calls for this to change have born little fruit, despite a few scholars who have worked in both realms, such as Philip Baker.

6.2 The Language Bioprogram Hypothesis

One pidgin-based creole genesis scenario can be said to have galvanized the discipline. Bickerton’s (1981, 1984) Language Bioprogram Hypothesis proposed that plantation creoles were created as a strategy by children who grew up in multilingual environments affording inadequate input to any natural language. Bickerton’s idea is that with the parents’ native languages used only marginally because of the linguistic heterogeneity of the context, and only distant access to the dominant European language, the children’s only recourse was to fashion European lexical items into a new language on the basis of Universal Grammar in its “default” state, this default characterized by the “off” settings of parameters according to Chomskyan syntactic theory in its pre-Minimalist period.

Thus Bickerton argued that children expanded a pidgin (or more precisely, jargon) of this kind:


Pidgins and Creoles

into a natural language, Hawaiian Creole English (locally known as “Pidgin”) with grammaticalized markers of tense, specificity, and a contrast between realized and unrealized complementation, all in bold in (11), in which the go marker indicates the realized:


Pidgins and Creoles

Bickerton argued that this process explained why creole languages worldwide have such similar structures, including Hawaiian Creole English, created by speakers of languages quite unlike the West African ones of most plantation contexts. The features of the bioprogram included articles marking NPs according to specificity; preverbal particles marking anterior tense, progressive aspect, and irrealis modality; a distinction between a realized and an unrealized complementizer; a relative pronoun and subject copy; have expressing the existential; a locative copula separate from the equational; stative verbs instead of predicate adjectives; multiple negation; focus encoded via movement; no subject-verb inversion; bimorphemic question words; and no overt passive.

A conclusion especially provocative was that these features were unconnected to creole creators’ native languages, rooted solely in the innate predispositions of Universal Grammar. Bickerton influentially characterized previous claims of substrate influence as based on an unsystematic “cafeteria principle,” appealing to features in African languages regardless of whether they were actually spoken by the creoles’ creators.

While certainly the most rigorously argued creole genesis theory at the time, Bickerton’s hypothesis attracted a great deal of criticism. Many objected that creoles are not as structurally similar as Bickerton implied (Singler, 1990). Bickerton’s dismissal of substrate influence has also not stood the test of time. Various studies, founded in more rigorous identification of the relevant substrate languages than was common in the past, have demonstrated a rich array of creole-substrate parallels too close to be accidental (cf. Migge, 2003; Hagemeijer & Ogie, 2010). Roberts (2000) has proved that, as would seem intuitive, children in Hawaii were raised speaking the native languages of their parents. In addition, the idea that Hawaiian Creole English was created from mere fragments of English input would seem invalidated by the fact that as Roberts documents, the children were being schooled in English.

However, Bickerton’s central claim, that children created Hawaiian Creole English, was itself also confirmed by Roberts (2000), invalidating earlier claims that the creole had been created by adults before this generation (e.g., Goodman, 1985). Even though the students, exposed to schoolroom English daily, hardly encountered “insufficient” English input, documentation confirms that they did create a creolized English on the basis of the semi-structured pidgin variety that their parents of various origins spoke. That the creole was created as a badge of identity rather than as a response to a linguistic emergency does not belie that a language was born that did not exist before the 1890s. Hawaiian Creole English is, in fact, the only creole empirically documented to have been created by children. The generation who created the creole, as well as the one before them who spoke the pidgin variety, were still living in the 1970s, allowing Bickerton to elicit data from them. Most creoles emerged centuries too early for such interviews to be possible, while written records of them began after the creoles had formed, and were created outside of settings where newspaper accounts could give hints of the nature of their genesis, as was the case for Hawaiian Creole English.

Furthermore, while many of the features of Bickerton’s bioprogram are predictable from second-language acquisition or language universals in a general sense, the cross-creole contrast between realized and unrealized complementation, indicated in (11) by go rather than the unrealized complementizer fo, has never been explained.

6.3 The Creole Prototype Hypothesis

McWhorter’s Creole Prototype hypothesis (McWhorter, 2005, pp. 9–37; 2011, pp. 29–61; 2018) has been as controversial as Bickerton’s, paralleling the latter in treating creoles as less accreted manifestations of the language faculty than older ones—a basic proposition that most creolists tend to resist.

McWhorter argues that if a language combines three features, it is a creole: (1) little or no inflectional affixation, (2) little or no use of tone to distinguish monosyllabic lexical items or grammatical distinctions, and (3) little or no opaque derivation-root combinations along the lines of English’s understand. McWhorter argues that these features are predictable from full languages that emerged relatively recently from pidgins, having not existed for long enough a time to undergo the processes that create the three prototype features.

McWhorter proposes that the prototype is expressed to degrees, depending on the creole’s exposure to source languages and how closely related the source languages were, but that the prototype is expressed most purely among creoles that developed in the absence of their lexifiers, thus expanding into full languages grammar-internally in the fashion that the Australian and Melanesian “pidgins” are documented to have done.

While some creolists have concurred with McWhorter that creoles constitute a synchronic class of language (e.g., Bakker, Daval-Markussen, Parkvall, & Plag, 2011), McWhorter’s hypothesis has occasioned considerable resistance (cf. Aboh & Smith, 2009). Observations that some creoles have inflectional affixes (e.g., Berbice Creole Dutch), contrastive tone (e.g., Papiamentu Creole Spanish), or ample noncompositional derivation (e.g., Haitian) can be subsumed under the clinal aspect of the framework. However, many analysts suspect unfalsifiability, under which possibly any exception in a creole to the prototype ideal can be dismissed as static (although cf. McWhorter, 2012b), while any other language argued to have the prototype’s features can be classified itself as a creole (as McWhorter has done for colloquial Indonesian dialects). Common is a conclusion that while creoles’ displaying the three “prototype” features is indeed connected to their social history, older languages may happen to settle upon those three features by chance as well.

Equally controversial has been McWhorter’s corollary proposal that as languages born from pidgins, creoles qualify as the least grammatically complex languages (albeit in themselves, quite complex as all languages are) (McWhorter, 2005, pp. 38–71; 2018); compare also Parkvall (2008). Plag (2003) is an especially wide-ranging collection charting the complexities in various creoles, a type of analysis especially common since the turn of the millennium.

The Prototype idea and the complexity claim together constitute what McWhorter terms a hypothesis of Creole Exceptionalism, a term coined by DeGraff (2003) and later adopted by McWhorter. While only some creolists wholeheartedly agree with McWhorter’s claims, most would agree that the debate over them since the late 1990s has stimulated a welcome amount of grammatical analysis of creoles, which before then had focused more on a certain few features of interest to variationist studies of Anglophone Caribbean creole continua and Bickerton’s bioprogram proposal, such as copulas, tense-mood-aspect markers, and serial verbs.

The study of creole phonology, in particular, has advanced considerably, in studies such as Nikiema and Bhatt (2003), Good (2004), and Klein (2011). One general conclusion from this work is that creoles’ inventories of sounds, while never extremely large in the cross-linguistic sense, are also far from the world’s smallest, given that various older languages (most notably the Polynesian) have far fewer phonemes than any known creole (Klein, 2011). Also, creole phonology is not less complex overall than older languages’, such that creoles could not be identified as a class on its basis.

7. The State of the Art

7.1 Current Consensus

Current consensus on creole genesis among most scholars would seem to be that second-language acquisition by adults impacts creole genesis to a considerable, but hardly diagnostic, degree—more so in morphology and syntax than phonology. Veenstra (2003) and Plag (2008a, 2008b) provide especially concentrated arguments on morphology and syntax with detailed reference to second-language acquisition literature. Especially relevant here and in other work such as Owens (2014) on Nubi Creole Arabic is Klein and Perdue’s (1997) description of second-language learners’ documented Basic Variety stage, characterized by (1) mainly lexical categories with few function words, (2) a small number of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic constraints determining most of the arrangement of the utterance, and (3) little if any functional inflection.

Here, creole studies would seem to have returned to a focus on second-language acquisition that took hold briefly in the late seventies and early eighties (e.g., Anderson, 1983) but lost attention in favor of the controversy over the Language Bioprogram Hypothesis. However, given how few schools of creole genesis have ever philosophically dismissed second-language acquisition as a key factor in creole genesis, it could be argued that the consensus on its role was less frayed than neglected, amid discussion of more inherently provocative propositions.

Few if any working creolists doubt, also, that substrate transfer tended to be ample amid the genesis process.

7.2 Diachronic Relationships

An issue often touched upon in creole studies with little conclusion is the diachronic relationships between creoles of like lexical base. Hancock (1986) was first to argue that the English-lexifier creoles of the Caribbean stem from a single West African pidgin ancestor. McWhorter (2005, pp. 199–224) presented an alternative version of this scenario, relocating the origin of the ancestor and the sequence of diachronic relationships, while Baker (1999), tracing the original language to Barbados or St. Kitts, made a careful case with extensive lexical comparisons. Equivalent interpretations of French creole data were more common in the past than subsequently, by scholars such as Goodman (1964), Alleyne (1971), and Hull (1979), although McWhorter (2000, pp. 146–194) concurred.

That this approach has never made lasting inroads in creole studies is due in part to the fact that the intersection between diachronic linguistics and creole studies has been thin, for contingent reasons of academic culture (it was less true before the seventies). However, some have questioned how languages could travel across vast distances, usually with what appears to have been small numbers of people, and survived, especially in the face of vast new populations of slaves in the new colony (cf. Bickerton, 1998). Also, a commitment to charting substrate influence, in light of Bickerton’s notorious denial of same, ultimately encourages a localist focus, given the effort involved in uncovering source languages in even one location, as opposed to several related ones.

However, such localist accounts are hardly incompatible with simultaneously charting direct lines of descent between idiosyncratically similar creoles such as the English-lexifier Caribbean ones and the West African coastal ones such as Krio and Nigerian “Pidgin.” The question as to transportability is well taken, but various studies have shown that pidgins and even creoles can survive great distances and considerable sociohistorical disruptions. Schwegler’s work (e.g., 1993) shows that Palenquero Creole Spanish harbors Portuguese-derived lexical and grammatical items that are unexplainable except as the result of some of the slaves who created the language speaking a Portuguese pidgin born on the West African coast. Meanwhile, Jacobs (2012) has confirmed that Papiamentu was born of the transportation of Upper Guinea Creole Portuguese to the New World.

Further Reading

Bakker, P., Borchsenius, F., Levisen, C., & Sippola, E. (Eds.). (2017). Creole studies—Phylogenetic approaches. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Kouwenberg, S., & Singler, J. V. (Eds.). (2008). The handbook of pidgin and creole studies. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

Michaelis, S., Maurer, P., Haspelmath, M., & Huber, M. (Eds.). (2013). The atlas of pidgin and creole language structures. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:


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