This word, with its crisp start and liquid body taking the lips from pulled to puckered, probably brings to mind something mixed and spicy, something with old-world and new-world influences. It may make you think of cooking, most likely Louisiana Creole cookery, which comes from the adaptation of upper-class French cuisine to the exigencies, available foodstuffs, and local influences (including Native American) prevailing in Louisiana.

It may also make you think of a language, most likely Haitian Creole (Kreyòl), which has a vocabulary largely taken from French (with alterations) and grammar mainly taken from a few West African languages, mainly Fongbe, which was the native language of many of the slaves brought to Haiti by the French. Those following the news of the recent earthquake in Haiti may have noticed such things as posters advising people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease, with content such as the following (from

Pi bon bagay ou ka fè se lave men w ak dlo e ak savon pandan 20 segonn. Sepandan, si w paka jwenn dlo, ou ka sèvi ak pwodui ki gen baz alkòl pou lave men w (dezenfektan).

This translates to

It is best to wash your hands with soap and clean running water for 20 seconds. However, if soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based product to clean your hands.

If you know French, reading the Kreyòl aloud (pronouncing all letters) will sound somewhat familiar (lave = laver and dlo = de l’eau, for instance), and yet still markedly different in ways. The language, like the cuisine, is a mixture of influences, imported and local, and an interesting blend of the familiar and the seemingly exotic – imported and nativized.

Which is where creole comes from. It referred first not to food or to language but to people: specifically, people of European (or, in some places, African) descent who had been born and raised in the colony. French créole comes from Spanish criollo, which means “native to the locality” and comes from creado “bred, reared”, which is cognate with our word create. And because of the various European adventures in colonialism, there are creole peoples around the world, and with them creole languages. There are in fact a great many creole languages around the world, most but not all of them having substantial influence (typically in vocabulary) from a European language. Haitian Creole is the most widely spoken one, and the one with the most speakers (over 7 million).

The usual basic picture presented for the origin of creole languages is that in a contact situation between different cultures, a pidgin develops, and when the pidgin becomes more firmly rooted and gains native speakers (as for instance the children of parents of different cultural backgrounds), the vocabulary and syntax develop further (although the syntax and morphology typically remain simpler than in most languages) and the language becomes a creole. Not everyone agrees with this picture, although there are cases (for example, Tok Pisin) where it appears to be accurate. Some have argued, for instance, that creoles do not require a pidgin basis but instead may arise naturally in situations where two different languages are present continuously in a culture.

Consider a situation such as the following: control of a country where one language is spoken is taken over by people from another country where another language is spoken. That other language becomes the language of officialdom, record-keeping, law, and the more privileged classes. The common people continue to speak their original language, but in the absence of an official standard, it shifts, among other things taking on much vocabulary from the prestige language and also simplifying some grammatical details. By the time the foreign rulers are pushed out, the local language is a mixture of a simplified base and core of its earlier self and a large vocabulary influence (and some grammatical influence) from the former prestige language. Add to that mixture influences from other trading partners and occasional invaders over time. Is that language a creole?

Well, in fact, some people say it is. Others disagree. Whatever your opinion, it’s the language you’re reading right now.

5 responses to “creole

  1. Pingback: pidgin « Sesquiotica

  2. control of a country where one language is spoken is taken over by people from another country where another language is spoken. That other language becomes the language of officialdom, record-keeping, law, and the more privileged classes. The common people continue to speak their original language, but in the absence of an official standard, it shifts…

    Isn’t that essentially what happened to Anglo-Saxon (or was it Old English by then?) when the Normans invaded?

    • That’s what I’m saying. “It’s the language you’re reading right now.”

      • Wilson Fowlie

        Oops. Duh. So you did. I somehow missed that last paragraph. I do apologize.

        I once listened to a series lectures from “The Teaching Company” by John McWhorter, on ‘The Story of Human Language’.

        His take is that the key difference between a ‘creole’ and a ‘language’ is the simplicity in morphology and syntax that you mentioned. As he put it (and I’m paraphrasing, as it was a couple of years ago now that I listened to it), a creole has none – or very little – of the weirdness that a language has: the exceptions that seem to outnumber the rules, the irregular verb forms, the strange plurals.

        What I don’t remember him saying is how to tell when one turns into the other. Is a single rule exception enough to turn what was a ‘creole’ into a ‘language’? Or perhaps it’s fuzzier than that: all languages are creoles to a degree and vice versa. You can be two things at once if you allow for partial truth.

      • Oh, I really hope McWhorter didn’t differentiate between creoles and languages. Creoles are languages! So are pidgins. Creoles are a type of language. And it’s true that creoles are considerably regularized and less inflected compared with non-creole languages, due to the nature of their genesis. That doesn’t mean that they retain no irregular forms, however, nor that they cannot develop irregular forms. And I think the point is well made that pretty much all languages bear traces of contact, and it’s hard to draw a line to demarcate exactly where the contact influences are so strong as to qualify that language for creole status. Especially since there’s so much argument among linguists about what does and doesn’t constitute a creole, and how they do and don’t come into being.

        The main value of suggesting that English is a creole is really for its eye-opening effect. Old English had a much more complex morphology, which was simplified due to contact with Danish and French, and we even gained some basic forms — pronouns, affixes, etc. — from Danish and even (more derivationally than inflectionally) from French. And so much of our vocabulary now is imported, not native.

        But heck, you want interesting contact influences, look at Zulu and Xhosa, languages that are (like more than 500 languages in Africa, including Swahili) Bantu languages but that have acquired a set of strongly marked phonemes — clicks — from neighbouring Khoisan languages, which are not related to them. Imagine English acquiring click consonants, and using them even in some Germanic words. That’s the kind of thing that happened with Zulu and Xhosa (there are interesting sociological reasons for it). But for all that, I don’t think anyone has suggested that Zulu and Xhosa are creoles; they’re still mostly intact Bantu languages, rather more so than English is a Germanic language.

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