What are pidgins and creoles?

Kweyol is not French and it is most certainly not a debased language. It is a full language. Some scholars have called Creoles young languages and noted certain features that distinguish from older languages that have had time to take on more accretions, usually in the form of greater complexification, called overspecification in linguistics. Nevertheless, Creoles have fully developed means of communication and produce literature just like other languages. In fact, the term creole is a technical term in linguistics meaning the following:

When two speech communities encounter each other and do not understand each other’s speech and have a strong need to communicate, they frequently develop what is called a pidgin language.

> inject > We have to picture the world and its populations in a sort of original state, without modern means of communication, travel, etc. Beginning in the late 1400s, this began to change, but even before that, certain peoples were already reaching out beyond the confines of their immediate communities, e.g. the Arabs traveling to East Africa and India and the Chinese exploring the Indian Ocean. Most human beings before the modern era, however, lived in small speech communities amid a plethora of languages if they got out of those communities on market day or some such.


These pidgins have always arisen and even developed into creoles eventually. The context for that metamorphosis is when a pidgin is used within a community to the extent that that is the only language children hear. That then becomes their native language. As they grow up, and in generation after generation, their needs grow in order to function as full-fledged members of a community and so the language must grow with them. At the point where the language is the native language of the community, it is then termed a creole by linguists. Bear in mind, pidgin and creole are used as technical terms by linguists and must not be connected to their colloquial and historical uses by the general public.

To show how a pidgin may have developed into a creole which then went on to be considered a language like any other, a scholar in the 1930s suggested that the Germanic language family showed traits of being a creole, one developed out of a pidgin used along the amber trade route from northern Europe down to Byzantium. Intriguing, though I do not think it is a widely accepted view. English itself has been looked at as a creole considering its language contact situation vis-à-vis Old Norse during the Viking settlement period and the Norman French invasion. Middle English does look considerably different from Old English and appears much closer to Modern English than Old English does to it.

The social context of these language contact situations is crucial to the development of the languages. For example, between Russian and Norwegian sailors a pidgin developed called Russ-Norsk. There was no reason for it to develop further and it remains a fascinating peek into how so many groups working and fighting with each other must have created a special means of communication.

And that specialness is what linguists mean when they say a pidgin is a highly restricted language: it is used in a very narrow context, usually trade or labor. There is no need for highly elaborate grammar or vocabulary, although some pidgins have indeed gone on to be used extensively even though they never become a creole; an example is Tok Pisin of the South Seas which is used in newspapers and in government parliaments and services. Nevertheless, it retains its characteristics as a pidgin as no one grows up with it as his only language and therefore his wider and deeper needs are met by his native language he shares with the rest of his family and community.

This social context takes on a special flavor when we look at the Caribbean creoles. Here, the social context, besides contact between Europeans and Native Americans, was African slavery. More and more, the notion that there was a basic pidgin used among sailors and traders along the West African coast and further and that slaves picked up in Africa before transshipment to the colonies of the New World has strengthened with wider and deeper analysis of creoles in the New World and in Africa. One of the original languages of this trade was Portuguese and many features of recorded pidgins and of extant creoles point to Portuguese as the original base language of the maritime pidgin used in the slave trade.

Once the slaves arrived in the New World, they may have wound up in a colony where the language was not Portuguese; the words were different. The slaves sometimes had been long enough in one location to be speaking a creole with Portuguese words. If and when another colonial power took over, another language, Dutch, English, French, became the dominant language. What happened then was that all the grammar and syntax of the creole acted as a framework into which to plug the new language’s vocabulary, like a module: the grammar, phonology and syntax modules stayed, the vocabulary module was removed and plugged in. The Portuguese vocabulary module was removed and the English module plugged in. This had to have happened often as the various areas of the New World changed hands often as well as slaves being traded off into other language’s territories.

This swapping out of the vocabulary module has a technical term: relexification, from the word lexicon meaning vocabulary. A cute example of a sort of relexification occurred in front of me one day when I was sitting in the apartment of a Russian family. They had a kid in school and were discussing assignments. At one point they wanted to spell something and said, not the normal way to say, “How do you spell that?” (kak eto pishets’a = how is this written) but Kak eto pospelovat’? What!? I thought, pospelovat’, what’s that? And then I realized they were using the English word ’spell’, which made sense because Russian, like Spanish, is spelled pretty much like it sounds, unlike English, whose pronunciation seldom gives you a clear view to its spelling. But notice the helicopter gunship grammatical armament of this new verb: a prefix as an aspectual marker, a deverbal suffix (I spell is pospeluyu; I spelled is pospeloval; etc.) with all the inflectional machinery of typical Russian verbs. This is relexification on the tiniest scale; but imagine a need to quickly plug in the new words of the new language encountered in a new environment where the work is hard, dangerous and brutal, say mining or sugar plantations. Then all the words picked out and picked up in the new environment would be shipped willy-nilly into the old framework i.e. the phonology, grammar, and syntax already in place.

It is for this reason that creoles tend to have similar structures, no matter where and when they grew up among whatever people. This fact has intrigued linguists who speculate that some internal device, i.e. some genetic feature of human brain structure, provides this framework for everyone and how that framework gets filled in depends on the particular language environment. One would think then that the shape of the creole would depend greatly on which languages were involved, e.g. Russian and Norwegian in the case of Russ-Norsk. But in fact the opposite occurs: no matter the languages involved, creoles tend toward a signature shape with the words coming from specific languages but not the rest of it.

By no means do all scholars agree with this scenario for the existence of Kweyols. Puzzles abound due to the lack of documentation and even lack of attention up until recently. While creoles have been studied since the 19th century, the field now called Creolistics really began in the latter half of the 20th century. Interpretation of the meager data has ranged from the Caribbean creoles being based on African language patterns to creoles being derived from the rural dialects of the Europeans they worked under. Facile explanations or popular concepts of creoles is that they are mixed languages, African and European. While certain creoles display features obviously carried over from African phonological, grammatical, syntactic and even lexical resources, others have so few of those that it would be hard to see any African language influence on them. Again, we are driven to the theoretical construct of some universal manner in which mankind creates a language out of the linguistic resources at hand. Unraveling the features of that sort of universal grammar will take a very long time, it seems.

Besides the paucity of data on creoles and pidgins we have social attitudes to deal with. I recall once speaking to our son’s pediatrician about Jamaican patois being a language. A native of Jamaica himself, he exploded in outrage. “That gutter talk is NOT a language!” Wow! But for people raised in the depths of the class and race maelstrom of the Caribbean, the feelings of superiority and inferiority, all mixed with fear of being sucked down into the despair of a life of poverty and discrimination, such reactions are understandable. They don’t lead to a great willingness to found institutes for the study of creoles, though. Nevertheless, some creole speakers have themselves made great efforts in creating literature out of the creoles, while others have made linguistic studies of them. As we strip away the socially sanctioned blinders around linguistic usage, we can look forward to a more enlightened approach to creole studies on the part of native speakers.

While creoles may be young, they nevertheless arrived in the era of linguistic science fully formed. Don’t we wish we could be in on the birth of one! Well, guess what. Something like that actually happened in the country of Nicaragua. The country had been ruled by an oligarchic family that provided no social programs at all and all the deaf children in the country grew up in their villages isolated and without instruction. They invented a rough kind of sign language with their families and fellow villagers to signal basic needs. Once the Sandanistas took over the country, they instituted educational programs including a school for the deaf. The deaf children from all over the country were brought into this school, but no one knew sign language to teach the children, embargoes against this left-wing government discouraged assistance, and so the children were left on their own with their rudimentary and idiosyncratic sign languages.

The children began “talking” among each other, gradually agreeing on the meanings of signs, until they were able to effect basic communication among themselves. That was step #!.

Then over time, as the need for communicating a wider variety of needs, concepts, feelings, knowledge, etc. came up, a more fluid, fluent, flexible and expressive language came about. Eventually, the next generation of deaf children coming into the school elaborated this sign language into one as full-throated as the other sign languages of the world. That was step #2.

You can imagine the delight of linguists watching this: step #1 = pidgin; step #2 = creole. Bingo! Proof that there is an innate need AND ability in human beings to create language.

Haitian Creole or Kweyol occupies a special place because it is a national language despite the hovering dominance of French. As the Haitian Diaspora has spread Haitian culture around the world, scholars and dilettantes must engage with the language if they are to engage with the art, music, literature, and dance of Haiti, all having major impact on world culture. Haiti raises a big question: how can a land that is a basket-case economically with monstrous health and education obstacles and cultural bondage to European taste and custom still manage to impact the world stage with so high a profile. Every environmental and social problem possible has hit Haiti from the beginning, yet through its devotion to African roots borne by the religion of Vodou and the Kweyol language, this nation occupying only half an island creates its own image over and over, starting as only the second New World colony to win independence through battle and moving onto the world stage as a major cultural player.

With its unique history and astounding culture surviving calamity after disaster, Haiti must be dealt with. Those who would grapple with the Russian literary tradition must learn Russian; those who would open themselves to Italian opera must learn Italian; anyone reaching into the heart of Shakespeare must learn English; and anyone wishing to scale the heights of Buddhist thought must learn Japanese, Chinese and Sanskrit….. or at least try. In the same way, anyone wanting an understanding of Haiti and its creativity must learn Kweyol and discover the intricacies of Vodou.

Notes: I have capitalized Creole when it refers specifically to Haitian Creole; otherwise, when it refers to the type of language, I do not capitalize it here. Normally, Creole is always capitalized.

Much attention was given to the supposed African roots of Black English in the U.S. during the Ebonics controversy. A number of prominent linguists have defended the idea of Black English being the descendant of a creole widely spoken in the U.S. I recall my late sister-in-law in East Texas saying something like, “Oh, the phone side of me”, making me think of Kweyol kote mwen. Certain tense sequences among Black English speakers drove me to note their utterances down. However, many linguists are backing off this notion of African slaves in the the U.S. speaking an out-and-out Creole and promoting the picture as one of incomplete acquisition along with acquisition of British dialect words and forms not present in current standard English; the absence of these British features in standard and colloquial American English left a gap for some to fill with reconstructions from African or creole sources. In fact, the only doubt-free Creole in the U.S., still spoken, is the Gullah or Gee-Chee creole spoken on the Sea Islands off S. Carolina and Georgia. That is an English-based creole. A French-based creole is still spoken in Louisiana, having been reinforced when French planters fled Haiti at the revolution with their Kweyol-speaking slaves. That dialect of Kweyol has been explored and you can read about it.

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