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A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable language that originates seemingly as a nativized pidgin.[1] This understanding of creole genesis culminated in Hall's[2] notion of the pidgin-creole life cycle. While it is arguable that creoles share more grammatical similarities with each other than with the languages they phylogenetically derive from,[3] no theory for explaining creole phenomena has been universally accepted. The relationship between pidgins and creoles and their similarities means that the distinction is not clear-cut and the variety of phenomena that arise to create pidgins and creoles are not well understood.[4] Likewise, efforts to articulate grammatical features (or sets of features) that are exclusive to creoles have been unsuccessful thus far.[5]


History of the concept

The term creole comes from French créole, from Spanish criollo, and from Portuguese crioulo, stemming from the verb criar ('to breed') from the Portuguese, ultimately from creare from Latin ('to produce, create').[6] The term was coined in the sixteenth or seventeenth century during the great expansion in European maritime power and trade, and the establishment of European colonies in the Americas, Africa, India, and along the coast of South and Southeast Asia up to Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Oceania.

The term "Creole" was originally applied to people born in the colonies to distinguish them from the upper-class European-born immigrants. Originally, therefore, "Creole language" meant the speech of those Creole peoples.

As a consequence of colonial European trade patterns, many creole languages are found in the equatorial belt around the world and in areas with access to the oceans, including the Caribbean as well as the north and east coasts of South America, western Africa and in the Indian Ocean. Atlantic Creole languages are based on European languages with substrate elements from Africa. Indian Ocean Creole languages are based on European languages with substrate elements from Malagasy. Creoles such as Sango are African-based with African substrate elements from other African languages. There is a heated dispute over the extent to which substrate features are significant in the genesis or the description of creole languages.[7]

According to their external history, four types of creoles have been distinguished: plantation creoles, fort creoles, maroon creoles, and creolized pidgins.[8] As to their internal history, there are two preconceived assumptions:[9]

  1. Creoles exhibit more internal variability than other languages
  2. Creoles are simpler than other languages

Because of the generally low status of the Creole peoples in the eyes of European colonial powers, creole languages have generally been regarded as degenerate, or at best as rudimentary dialects of one of their parent languages. This is the reason why "creole" has come to be used in opposition to "language" rather than a qualifier for it.[10] Prejudice of this kind was compounded by the inherent instability of the colonial system, leading to the disappearance of creole languages, mainly due to dispersion or assimilation of their speech communities.[11] Another factor that may have contributed to the relative neglect of creole languages in linguistics is that they comfort critics of the 19th century neogrammarian "tree model" for the evolution of languages and their law of the regularity of sound change (such as the earliest advocates of the wave model, Johannes Schmidt and Hugo Schuchardt, the forerunners of modern sociolinguistics). This controversy of the late 19th century profoundly shaped modern approaches to the comparative method in historical linguistics and in creolistics.[12][13][14] Since then, linguists have promulgated the idea that creole languages are in no way inferior to other languages and use the term "creole" or "creole language" for any language suspected to have undergone creolization, without geographic restrictions or ethnic prejudice.

As a consequence of these social, political, and academic changes, creole languages have experienced a revival in recent decades. They are increasingly and more openly being used in literature and in media, and their community prestige has improved. They are studied by linguists as languages on their own. Many have already been standardized, and are now taught in local schools and universities abroad.[15][16][17]

Classification of creoles


Whose creole?

By the very nature of the subject, the creoleness of a particular creole usually is a matter of dispute. The parent tongues may themselves be creoles or pidgins that have disappeared before they could be documented.

For these reasons, the issue of which language is the parent of a creole — that is, whether a language should be classified as a "Portuguese creole" or "English creole", etc. — often has no definitive answer, and can become the topic of long-lasting controversies, where social prejudices and political considerations may interfere with scientific discussion.[18][19][20]

Substrate and superstrate

The terms substratum and superstratum are often used to label the source and the target languages of a creole or in the context of second language acquisition. However, the meaning of these terms is reasonably well-defined only in language replacement events, when the native speakers of a certain language (the substrate) are somehow compelled to abandon that language for another language (the superstrate).[21] The outcome of such an event will be that erstwhile speakers of the substrate will be speaking a version of the superstrate, at least in more formal contexts. The substrate may survive as a second language for informal conversation (as in the case of Venetian and many other European non-official languages). Its influence on the official speech, if detectable at all, is usually limited to pronunciation and a modest number of loanwords.[dubious ] The substrate might even disappear altogether without leaving any trace.[22]

However, these terms are not very meaningful where the emerging language is distilled from multiple substrata and a homogeneous superstratum.[23][24] The substratum-superstratum continuum becomes awkward when multiple superstrata must be assumed (such as in Papiamentu), when the substratum cannot be identified, or when the presence or the survival of substratal evidence is inferred from mere typological analogies.[25] However, facts surrounding the substratum-superstratum opposition cannot be set aside where the substratum as the receding or already replaced source language and the superstratum as the replacing dominant target language can be clearly identified and where the respective contributions to the resulting compromise language can be weighed in a scientifically meaningful way; and this is so whether the replacement leads to creole genesis or not.[26]

With Atlantic Creoles, "superstrate" usually means European and "substrate" non-European or African.[27]

A post-creole continuum is said to come about in a context of decreolization where a creole is subject to pressure from its superstrate language. Speakers of the creole feel compelled to conform their language to superstrate usage introducing large scale variation and hypercorrection.[28]

Shared features

Comparing the different creoles in any theory-orientated perspective, whether phylogenetic or purely typological in nature, leads to widely divergent results. The score of similarities will be higher when the comparison is restricted to European-based creoles and excluding non-European-based creoles such as Nubi and Sango. French creoles show closer affinities with Koiné French than with other European-based creoles. The comparative work of Bickerton (1981) argued against the monogenetic theory of pidgins[29] according to which, most European-based pidgins and creoles hail from a Mediterranean Lingua Franca via a broken Portuguese relexified in the slave factories of Western Africa.

Particularly troubling is the evidence that definite articles are predominantly prenominal in English-based creole languages and English whereas they are predominantly postnominal in French creoles and French koinés.[30] Moreover, as already noted by Whorf (1956), the European languages which gave rise to the colonial creole languages all belong to the same subgroup of Western Indo-European and have highly convergent systems of grammar to the point where they form a homogeneous group of languages Whorf called Standard Average European (SAE) to distinguish them from languages of other grammatical types. French and English are particularly close since English, through extensive borrowing, is typologically closer to French than to other Germanic languages.[31] According to Vennemann (2003), most European languages themselves might even share a common substratum as well as a common superstratum.[32]

Creole genesis

There are a variety of theories on the origin of creole languages, all of which attempt to explain the similarities among them. Arends, Muysken & Smith (1995) outline a fourfold classification of explanations regarding creole genesis:

  • Theories focusing on European input
  • Theories focusing on non-European input
  • Gradualist and developmental hypotheses
  • Universalist approaches

Theories focusing on European input

The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles

The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles hypothesizes a single origin for these languages, deriving them through relexification from a West African Pidgin Portuguese of the 17th century and ultimately from the Lingua franca of the Mediterranean. This theory was originally formulated by Hugo Schuchardt in the late 19th century and popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Douglas Taylor,[33] as well as in Whinnom (1956), Whinnom (1965), Thompson (1961) and Stewart (1962). This hypothesis is no longer actively investigated.

The domestic origin hypothesis

Proposed by Hancock (1985) for the development of a local form of English in West Africa, the Domestic Origin Hypothesis argues that, towards the end of the 16th century, English-speaking traders began to settle in the Gambia and Sierra Leone rivers as well as in neighboring areas such as the Bullom and Sherbro coasts. These settlers intermarried with the local population leading to mixed populations and as a result of this intermarriage, an English pidgin was created, which in turn was learned by slaves in slave depots, who later on took it to the West Indies and formed one component of the emerging English creoles.

The European dialect origin hypothesis

The French creoles are the foremost candidates to being the outcome of "normal" linguistic change and their creoleness to be sociohistoric in nature and relative to their colonial origin.[34] Within this theoretical framework, a French creole is a language phylogenetically based on the French language, more specifically on a 17th century koiné French extent in Paris, the French Atlantic harbours, and the nascent French colonies. Descendants of the non-creole colonial koiné are still spoken in Canada (mostly in Québec), the Prairies, Louisiana, Saint-Barthélemy (leeward portion of the island) and as isolates in other parts of the Americas.[35] Approaches under this hypothesis are compatible with gradualism in change and models of imperfect language transmission in koiné genesis.

Foreigner talk and baby talk

The foreigner talk hypothesis (FT) argues that a pidgin or creole language forms when native speakers attempt to simplify their language in order to address speakers who do not know their language at all. Because of the similarities found in this type of speech and the speech which is usually directed at children, it is also sometimes called baby talk.[36]

Arends, Muysken & Smith (1995) suggest that four different processes are involved in creating Foreigner Talk:

  • Accommodation
  • Imitation
  • Telegraphic condensation
  • Conventions

This could explain why creole languages have much in common, while avoiding a monogenetic model. However, Hinnenkamp (1984), in analyzing German Foreigner Talk, claims that it is too inconsistent and unpredictable to provide any model for language learning.

While the simplification of input was supposed to account for creoles' simple grammar, there are a number of problems with this explanation:[37]

  1. There are too many grammatical similarities amongst pidgins and creoles despite having very different lexifier languages
  2. Grammatical simplification can be explained by other processes, i.e. the innate grammar of Bickerton's language bioprogram theory.
  3. Speakers of a creole's lexifier language often fail to understand, without learning the language, the grammar of a pidgin or creole.
  4. Pidgins are more often used amongst speakers of different substrate languages than between such speakers and those of the lexifier language.

Another problem with the FT explanation is its potential circularity. Bloomfield (1933) points out that FT is often based on the imitation of the incorrect speech of the non-natives, that is the pidgin. Therefore one may be mistaken in assuming that the former gave rise to the latter.

Imperfect L2 learning

The imperfect L2 learning hypothesis claims that pidgins are primarily the result of the imperfect L2 learning of the dominant lexifier language by the slaves. Research on naturalistic L2 processes has revealed a number of features of "interlanguage systems" that one also sees in pidgins and creoles:

  • invariant verb forms derived from the infinitive or the least marked finite verb form;
  • loss of determiners or use as determiners of demonstrative pronouns, adjectives or adverbs;
  • placement of a negative particle in preverbal position;
  • use of adverbs to express modality;
  • fixed single word order with no inversion in questions;
  • reduced or absent nominal plural marking.

Imperfect L2 learning is compatible with other approaches, notably the European dialect origin hypothesis and the universalist models of language transmission.[38]

Theories focusing on non-European input

Theories focusing on the substrate, or non-European, languages attribute similarities amongst creoles to the similarities of African substrate languages. These features are often assumed to be transferred from the substrate language to the creole or to be preserved invariant from the substrate language in the creole through a process of relexification: the substrate language replaces the native lexical items with lexical material from the superstrate language while retaining the native grammatical categories.[39] The problem with this explanation is that the postulated substrate languages differ amongst themselves and with creoles in meaningful ways. Bickerton (1981) argues that the number and diversity of African languages and the paucity of a historical record on creole genesis makes determining lexical correspondences a matter of chance. Dillard (1970) coined the term "cafeteria principle" to refer to the practice of arbitrarily attributing features of creoles to the influence of substrate African languages or assorted substandard dialects of European languages.

For a representative debate on this issue, see the contributions to Mufwene (1993); for an more recent view, Parkvall (2000).

Because of the sociohistoric similarities amongst many (but by no means all) of the creoles, the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system of the European colonies have been emphasized as factors by linguists such as McWhorter (1999).

Gradualist and developmental hypotheses

One class of creoles might start as pidgins, rudimentary second languages improvised for use between speakers of two or more non-intelligible native languages. Keith Whinnom (in Hymes (1971)) suggests that pidgins need three languages to form, with one (the superstrate) being clearly dominant over the others. The lexicon of a pidgin is usually small and drawn from the vocabularies of its speakers, in varying proportions. Morphological details like word inflections, which usually take years to learn, are omitted; the syntax is kept very simple, usually based on strict word order. In this initial stage, all aspects of the speech — syntax, lexicon, and pronunciation —tend to be quite variable, especially with regard to the speaker's background.

If a pidgin manages to be learned by the children of a community as a native language, it may become fixed and acquire a more complex grammar, with fixed phonology, syntax, morphology, and syntactic embedding. Pidgins can become full languages in only a single generation. "Creolization" is this second stage where the pidgin language develops into a fully developed native language. The vocabulary, too, will develop to contain more and more items according to a rational of lexical enrichement.[40]

Universalist approaches

Universalist models stress the intervention of specific general processes during the transmission of language from generation to generation and from speaker to speaker. The process invoked varies: a general tendency towards semantic transparency, first language learning driven by universal process, or general process of discourse organization. The main source for the universalist approach is still Bickerton's[41] work. His language bioprogram theory claims that creoles are inventions of the children growing up on newly founded plantations. Around them, they only heard pidgins spoken, without enough structure to function as natural languages; and the children used their own innate linguistic capacities to transform the pidgin input into a full-fledged language.

Recent study

The last decade has seen the emergence of some new questions about the nature of creoles: in particular, the question of how complex creoles are and the question of whether creoles are indeed "exceptional" languages.

The creole prototype

Some features that distinguish creole languages from noncreoles have been proposed (by Bickerton[42], for example), but no set of features uncontestably unique to creoles has been put forth so far.[citation needed] Features that are said to be true of all (or most) creole languages are in fact true of all isolating languages.[citation needed]

John McWhorter[43] has proposed the following list of features to indicate a creole prototype:

  • a lack of inflectional morphology (other than at most two or three inflectional affixes),
  • a lack of tone on monosyllabic words, and
  • a lack of semantically opaque word formation.

McWhorter hypothesizes that these three properties exactly characterize a creole. However, the creole prototype hypothesis has been disputed:


Building up on this discussion, McWhorter proposed that "the world's simplest grammars are Creole grammars," claiming that every noncreole language's grammar is at least as complex as any creole language's grammar.[45][46] Gil has replied that Riau Indonesian has a simpler grammar than Saramaccan, the language McWhorter uses as a showcase for his theory.[47] The same objections were raised by Wittmann in his 1999 debate with McWhorter.[48]

The lack of progress made in defining creoles in terms of their morphology and syntax has led scholars such as Robert Chaudenson, Salikoko Mufwene and Henri Wittmann to question the value of creole as a typological class; they argue that creoles are structurally no different from any other language, and that creole is a sociohistoric concept---not a linguistic one---encompassing displaced population and slavery.[49]

Thomason & Kaufman (1988) spell out the idea of creole exceptionalism, claiming that creole languages are an instance of nongenetic language change due to language shift with abnormal transmission. Gradualists[who?] question the abnormal transmission of languages in a creole setting and argue that the processes which created today's creole languages are no different from universal patterns of language change.

Given these objections to creole as a concept, publications such as Against Creole Exceptionalism[50] and Deconstructing Creole[51] have arisen which question the idea that creoles are exceptional in any meaningful way. Additionally, Mufwene (2002) argues that some Romance languages are potential creoles but that they are not considered as such by linguists because of a historical bias against such a view.

See also

Related articles

Creoles by main parent language


  1. ^ Wardhaugh (2002:61)
  2. ^ Hall (1966)
  3. ^ Bickerton (1983:116-122)
  4. ^ Winford (1997:138); cited in Wardhaugh (2002)
  5. ^ Wittmann (1999), Mufwene (2000), Gil (2001), Muysken & Law (2001), Lefebvre (2002), DeGraff (2003).
  6. ^ Holm (1988).
  7. ^ Mufwene (1993)
  8. ^ Arends, Muysken & Smith (1995:15)
  9. ^ Arends, Muysken & Smith (1995:9)
  10. ^ See Meijer & Muysken (1977).
  11. ^ See Meijer & Muysken (1977).
  12. ^ DeCamp (1977)
  13. ^ Meijer & Muysken (1977)
  14. ^ Traugott (1977)
  15. ^ DeCamp (1977)
  16. ^ Holm (1988, 1989)
  17. ^ Sebba (1997)
  18. ^ DeCamp (1977)
  19. ^ Traugott (1977)
  20. ^ Sebba (1997)
  21. ^ Weinreich (1953)
  22. ^ Weinreich (1953)
  23. ^ Singler (1988)
  24. ^ Singler (1996)
  25. ^ Muysken & Law (2001)
  26. ^ Modern substrate thinking, whether creole-orientated or not, is heavily indebted to the work of Feist (1932), Weinreich (1953), Jungemann (1955), Martinet (1955), Hall (1974), Singler (1983), and Singler (1988). The latter scholar formulated what might be called the "homogeneous substrate constraint to pylogenetic computing."
  27. ^ Parkvall (2000)
  28. ^ DeCamp (1977)
  29. ^ as aired principally from 1956 onward by Douglas Taylor, Keith Whinnom and R.W. Thompson and refined in the proceedings of a 1968 conference edited in Hymes (1971)
  30. ^ Fournier (1998). Though Standard French preserves the prenominal definite article of Old French, it is a variety of Koiné French with postnominal determination that was exported into the colonies of the 17th and 18th century Wittmann (1995), Wittmann (1998); see the related articles on Quebec French and the History of Quebec French.
  31. ^ Bailey & Maroldt (1977)
  32. ^ A creole origin for the Germanic languages was postulated as early as 1932 by Sigmund Feist
  33. ^ such as in Taylor (1977)
  34. ^ There are some similarities in this line of thinking with Hancock's domestic origin hypothesis.
  35. ^ Wittmann (1983, 1995, 2001), Fournier (1998), Fournier & Wittmann (1995); cf. the article on Quebec French and the History of Quebec French
  36. ^ See, for example, Ferguson (1971)
  37. ^ Wardhaugh (2002:73)
  38. ^ Based on 19th century intuitions, approaches underlying the imperfect L2 learning hypothesis have been followed up in the works of Schumann (1978), Anderson (1983), Seuren & Wekker (1986), Arends et al. (1995), Geeslin (2002), Hamilton & Coslett (2008).
  39. ^ See the article on relexification for a discussion of the controversy surrounding the retaining of substrate grammatical features through relexification
  40. ^ Wardhaugh (2002:56-57)
  41. ^ See Bickerton (1981) and Bickerton (1984)
  42. ^ See Bickerton (1983)
  43. ^ See McWhorter (1998) and McWhorter (2005)
  44. ^ Muysken & Law (2001)
  45. ^ McWhorter (1998)
  46. ^ McWhorter & (2005)
  47. ^ Gil (2001)
  48. ^ Wittmann-McWhorter debate
  49. ^ Mufwene (2000), Wittmann (2001)
  50. ^ i.e. Degraff (2003)
  51. ^ i.e. Ansaldo & Matthews (2007)


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  • Wittmann, Henri (1995), "Grammaire comparée des variétés coloniales du français populaire de Paris du 17e siècle et origines du français québécois", in Fournier, Robert; Wittmann, Henri, Le français des Amériques, Trois-Rivières: Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières, pp. 281–334 
  • Wittmann, Henri (1998), "Le français de Paris dans le français des Amériques", Proceedings of the International Congress of Linguists (Amsterdam: Elsevier) 16 
  • Wittmann, Henri (1999). "Prototype as a typological yardstick to creoleness." The Creolist Archives Papers On-line, Stockholms Universitet.[1]
  • Wittmann, Henri (2001). "Lexical diffusion and the glottogenetics of creole French." CreoList debate, parts I-VI, appendixes 1-9. The Linguist List, Eastern Michigan University|Wayne State University
  • Whorf, Benjamin (1956), John Carroll, ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Cambirdge: MIT Press 

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Simple English

A creole language (or a creole) is a language that comes from a pidgin.[1] Creoles seem very similar to each other, even if they come from different languages.[2] There is not a widely accepted theory that explains why this happens.


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