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About Pidgins and Creoles

by Tom Thompson

Pidgins and creoles are fascinating to me, probably because they lend themselves to an analysis of the birth and evolution of a language within a highly compressed time frame. Pidgin and creole languages offer lots of internal variation and change rapidly.

Pidgins are in essence stripped down versions of a language that is made suitable for temporary, utilitarian use. Pidgins as contact languages are inventions. Many languages have nuanced vocabulary and grammars that permit sophisticated thought. Not pidgins, whose features include, among others, uncomplicated clauses, no consonant clusters, basic vowels, no tones, and no verb inflections.

The most widely accepted etymology for pidgin is a probable mispronunciation of the Chinese 赔钱 (péiqián), to lose money doing business. Chinese Pidgin English was the vehicular language of 19th century traders in South China.

The etymology of creole is easier, coming from French créole, criollo in Spanish, or Portuguese crioulo, mainly used to distinguish the members of an ethnic group who were born and raised locally from those who immigrated as adults. Over time the term lost its generic meaning and became the proper name of many distinct ethnic groups and their languages, which developed locally from immigrant communities

The historical conditions that favored the development of pidgin and creole languages are well known, having to do with the worldwide expansion in European maritime power and trade. Some pidgins and creoles, however, originated in voluntary trade contexts, Russenorsk being an example of a transitory language tool for passing exchanges. Starting in the 1800s, Russian traders would spend summer months in Norway trading timber for fish . Russenorsk was a “50-50” language with about half of the words coming from each of the languages to male-up the pidgin.

More typically, in most pidgins the bulk of the vocabulary is drawn from a colonial power’s language. Between 1500 and 1900 England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain established numerous labor-intensive, agricultural economies, many of them involving sugar plantations and slave labor, on isolated littorals and underpopulated tropical islands throughout the world. Geographically, these areas were central in the development of creoles. My first contact, however, with a pidgin was via Hollywood’s-ridiculous television depictions of Native Americans because Tonto on The Lone Ranger was depicted as speaking that way. “Big chief go that way, Ugh,” was typical fare. A more accurate example, told by American linguist John McWhorter, is described as a Native American woman scolding an Anglo man: “You silly. You weak. You baby hands No catch horse. No kill buffalo. No good but for sit still –read book.” Europeans also displayed ample disrespect and ridicule toward indigenous people. A European version of a stereotype based on an actual pidgin is the Belgian Tintin au Congo series, which made indigenous black Africans appear to be French speaking imbeciles.

Creoles are believed to arise when a pidgin becomes the native and primary language of children, a process known as localization. The lexicon of a creole language is largely supplied by the parent languages, particularly that of the most dominant group in the social context of the creole’s construction. Not all pidgins, of course, become creole languages; some die out prior to localization.

To be fair, scholars such as Salikoko Mufwene argue that pidgins and creoles arise independently under different circumstances, and that a pidgin need not always precede a creole nor a creole evolve from a pidgin. Mufwene’s books on “language ecology” and the influences of environment, socio-economic status, geography, and historical circumstances on creole evolution are legendary. There are lots of creoles. Louisiana Creole, Hawaiian English Creole,Cape Verdean Kriolu, Haitian French Creole. The creole with the largest number of speakers is Haitian French Creole, with more than ten million native speakers.

The main research effort in pidgin and creole studies has been comparative analysis and the search for a principled explanation for the genesis of the specific language involved. There are a variety of theories on the origin of creole languages, mostly concerned with an effort to explain the similarities and differences among them. Among the creole language specialists, Derek Bickerton has written about creole continua in Guyana, essentially varieties of a creole that include a “deep” creole through semi-creole varieties into a the local standard dominant language – all coexisting in one country. The creole continuum resulted from the social stratifications of slaves in plantation societies. Slaves who worked in the fields had the least contact with English and thus worked from the most reduced pidgin English to build a full language, the result being a “creole” creole.

Bickerton is well known for the “creole bioprogram theory,” which argues that the structural similarities between different creoles in the world cannot be solely attributed to their directly related languages. He claims creoles are the inventions of children in a specific way that relies on their innate abilities which reflect common features of all creoles. To prove his theory, Bickerton once proposed marooning six couples speaking six different languages along with children too young to have learned their parents’ language on a Pacific island for a year to see what language the adults might figure out and how the kids might alter it.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, DC.

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