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H. Schiffman, last modified 10/24/05

Pidgin and Creole Languages

Originally, pidgin and creole languages were thought of as incomplete, broken, corrupt, not worthy of serious attention. Pidgins still are marginal: in origin (makeshift, reduced in structure), in attitudes toward them (low prestige); in our knowledge of them.

  1. Some quick definitions:

    1. Pidgin language (origin in Engl. word `business'?) is nobody's native language; may arise when two speakers of different languages with no common language try to have a makeshift conversation. Lexicon usually comes from one language (the "high" or powerful language), structure (grammar) often from the other (less prestigious, less powerful, "low" language). Because of colonialism, slavery etc. the prestige of Pidgin languages is very low. Many pidgins are `contact vernaculars', may only exist for one speech event.

    2. Creole (orig. person of European descent born and raised in a tropical colony) is a language that was originally a pidgin but has become nativized, i.e. a community of speakers claims it as their first language. Next used to designate the language(s) of people of Caribbean and African descent in colonial and ex-colonial countries (Jamaica, Haiti, Mauritius, Réunion, Hawaii, Pitcairn, etc.)

    3. Relexification The process of substituting new vocabulary for old. Pidgins may get relexified with new English vocabulary to replace the previous Portuguese vocabulary, etc.

  2. Sociolinguistic Factors

    Pidgin(s)/Creole(s) are variable; there is great variability and non-uniformity within a given language (they are by definition non-standard(ized) languages).

  3. Depidginization, Decreolization, absorption, the post-Creole continuum.

    When a pidgin becomes the native speech of a community, it is depidginized into a Creole. If/when a Creole merges gradually with the standard language it is lexically based on, it becomes decreolized or enters into a Post-Creole Continuum, and the boundary between the two becomes gradual, or a continuum. Is Black English a decreolized form of a former Creole (parallel to, related to Jamaican Creole, Gullah, etc.?) Do we now have a post-Creole continuum in Jamaica, Guyana, etc.?

    Most Creoles seem to be European-based (not all pidgins are), i.e. vocabulary derived from one or more European languages: English, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish. Creole English and Creole French most common in New World; Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese Creoles common elsewhere and are important in development of all Creoles (Spanish Creole in Philippines, Portuguese in South, Southeast and E. Asia).

    But there are also non-Eur. pidgins (Creoles?): Swahili (Arabic + Bantu); Bazaar Hindi, Naga Pidgin, Bazaar Malay, Vedda Creole (Sri Lanka), Chinook Jargon (PNW), Hausa (?), Marathi (?), Yiddish (?), Middle English (?) ...

  4. Structure

    Structure (grammar) of Pidgin(s)/Creole(s) is reduced:

    1. Has limited vocabulary, simplified grammar (e.g. no PNG, no gender, no plural marking, no agreement (e.g. `one man come; two man come; three man go yesterday')

    2. Often has aspect instead of tense; marked with particles instead of affixation.

    3. Very little redundency; as simple as can be.

  5. Numbers of Speakers

    1. 6 million in Caribbean & W. Africa (Sierra Leone, other Portuguese Creole)

    2. 3 million in S. Africa (Afrikaans?)

    3. English-based Creoles in Africa, W. Indies, Netherlands Antilles (Sranan Saramaccan 88,000 in Surinam); Gullah (Georgia, S. Carolina offshore islands) Neo-Melanesian (New Guinea) may be undergoing Creolization; Hawaii (H. `pidgin' is really Creole).

    4. Dutch Cr: Negerhollands (Virgin Isl), Afrikaans, ...
    5. Spanish, Portuguese-based Crl: Asia, Cap Verde, São Tomé, Papiamento (Curaçao) became Dutch territory in 1634 so now much relexification with Dutch, English, Portuguese/Spanish vocabulary. Hard to keep Sp/Portuguese C/P's apart, since borrowing is often inaccurate. Many Pidgin(s)/Creole(s) have a lexical item similar to English `piccaninny' (`child') which comes either from Spanish `pequeño niño' or from Portuguese `pequen(o) ninho' but how can we tell which?
  6. Origin Theories

    No single theory explains how C/P originate. May include some of the following but no one theory explains everything:

    1. Not Convergence through reduction to minimal linguistic universals (Hjelmslev)

    2. Not parallel evolution due to parallels in the relationship between superior and subordinate (Bloomfield et al.)

    3. Not African retentions.

    4. Not descent from one original (Portuguese) pidgin (Sabir, based on Provençal (?), used during Crusades in the Mediterranean).

    5. Baby Talk or Foreigner Talk

    Some theoretical possibilities:

    1. Monogenesis: All Pidgin(s)/Creole(s) are historically descended from European, probably Portuguese pidgins (Sabir). This ``explains" all the similarities: vocabulary was orig. Portuguese, got relexified in time with new vocab in other Pidgin(s)/Creole(s). ``Relexification" means vocabulary can be almost totally replaced with new vocab from another donor language, or perhaps relexified with later ``standard" loans from the same donor language.

    2. Polygenetic: There are separate processes of development, but the various different kinds are sort of ``dialects" of an overall system.
      1. Or: are there pidgin and creole ``dialects" of English, French, Portuguese, etc.?

      2. Or: are there structural similarities because of ``linguistic universals"?

      3. Look here for a discussion of various repertoires in Kali'na (Amerindian language), French and French Creole used in one part of French Guiana.

    3. Universalist hypothesis: Doesn't matter whether the origins are monogenetic or polygenetic, the similarities result when the donor languages are ``stripped bare" and the languages are built up again according to the principles of ``linguistic universals".

  7. One popular polygenetic theory: Baby Talk

    the masters, merchants and plantations owners spoke baby talk to the slaves, who imitated this and spoke it back to the masters, who spoke it back to the slaves, etc.

Harold Schiffman
last modified 10/22/05