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Pidgins and Creoles for Beginners

By Peter L. Patrick

University of Essex

 

This page is intended to give you a quick tour around some resources for learning about Pidgin and Creole languages.

I teach a course on the topic at the University of Essex, and am sometimes invited to tell others about the topic. If you've heard my introductory talk (or if you expect to hear it in class soon -- or even if you missed it!), you may find some of these materials helpful. Believe it or not, some actual students have asked these actual questions, so don’t worry if you feel ignorant! I assume you have had, or are taking, a basic-level introductory course in linguistics, but you may enjoy this even if you haven't. Feel free to contact me for more information (see my contact page).

Some Questions about Pidgins and Creoles

Q: What is a Pidgin? A Creole? Why do people study them?

A: See my intro lecture notes at http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/Courses/PCs/IntroPidginsCreoles.htm. A collection of quoted definitions of Pidgins and Creoles is available, linked to my course syllabus at http://courses.essex.ac.uk/lg/lg449/index.htm.

Q: Is it only possible for a pidgin to form from 3 or more languages and not just two? Am I right in thinking that if two languages come into contact, instead of combining to form a pidgin, the dominant language would be chosen, or enforced, over the less dominant language to become the main language spoken and used?

 

A: Well, that is USUALLY the case – but as with everything else in Ps and Cs, there are well-known exceptions. Russenorsk is one – it is a pidgin formed from Russian and Norwegian, only, and in this case – perhaps due to balanced numbers and power among the two sets of speakers (which itself is rare) – it did form a pidgin, rather than one dominating.

The other thing that happens sometimes with only 2 languages coming into contact, is the “mixed” or “intertwined languages”, such as Michif and Media Lengua. These are not as simple in structure as pidgins, and can form when the social forces are not exactly balanced.

Finally, there is at least one Creole whose structure is mostly based on two languages – Dutch and Eastern Ijo – it is called Berbice Dutch (Creole). There is some information about all these cases in the books cited at the end of this FAQ. (Just check the Language Index of the Arends et al. book, which is a good intro-level textbook; Berbice Dutch is described briefly there, and in more detail - by the same author - in the Holm & Patrick book.)

Q: Does everyone agree with you about the nature of PCs (as Pidgins and Creoles are sometimes referred to)?

A: Are you kidding? At least half the experts will disagree with something I said there. (I should know -- I'm an expert, and I disagree with some of it!) For another brief overview, see this page on Languages in Contact at the Linguistic Society of America website. But it's a rapidly changing field -- even most professional linguists have misconceptions about the accepted wisdom -- and more is discovered every day.

Q: What do PCs have in common with regional and minority dialects? Where can I find good, brief descriptions of some PCs online?

A: See the Language Varieties Web Site at http://www.une.edu.au/langnet/. You like your facts in cold hard print? Check out Comparative Creole Syntax: Parallel Outlines of 18 Creole Grammars, edited by John Holm and myself, at http://www.battlebridge.com/wcs7.html.

Q: Do Black people in Britain speak Creole? What is it like?

A: Yes indeed. For info about kinds of speech called “British Afro-Caribbean English”, “British Black English”, “London Jamaican”, etc. see my brief bibliography at http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/aavesem/BrACEbib.htm. The Corpus of Written British Creole (small but interesting) is available at Mark Sebba’s British Creole Resources page,  http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/staff/mark/resource/resources.htm.

Q: Is African American Vernacular English (=Ebonics = US Black English) a creole? Where can I find out more about it?

A: See my website on African American English at http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/AAVE.html for a general intro, a large bibliography (700+ items), the syllabus of a course on AAE, summaries of some interesting articles, and a FAQ on the Ebonics controversy about the use of AAE in schools.

Q: Is there a more encyclopedic site on PCs with a FAQ, tons of texts, historical information, an email list, online scholarly papers and book notices, sound clips, etc etc?

A: There used to be – it was called the Creolist Archives at http://creole.ling.su.se/. It was a great source for people with a professional interest and a linguistics or academic background, but it went off the air a few years ago. Much of its info has been archived on other sites.

Q: Are all types of Caribbean English really Creoles? or are some simply dialects of English?

A: This is partly a matter of language attitudes. Believe it or not, there is often no hard and fast scientific distinction to be made between a “language” and a “dialect” – thus very different kinds of Chinese are thought of as dialects, while the remarkably similar Hindi and Urdu are not (contrasted here). Since Creoles are often disrespected languages, whose speakers are discriminated against even if they are the majority – and since they often exist in a post-colonial context, which overvalues things from the colonial metropole – many Creole speakers think of their languages as dialects of some colonial language (e.g., dialects of French or English). Linguists nearly always disagree with this view – from our perspective, Creoles have independent grammars and all the equipment of full, proper languages.

Q: What about French Creoles? I'll bet they have a special resource site, too...

A: Mais oui! Consult the Institut d'Etudes Creoles et Francophones at http://www.superdoc.com/iecf/.

Q: ...Portuguese?

A: Slimmer pickings, but see http://www.unb.br/il/liv/crioul/ at the Universidade de Brasília.

Q: I bet there are school systems which encourage study and use of Creole languages, no? Teacher?

A: Correct, class. A useful collection of references on AAVE & classroom language issues can be found at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/540/handouts/aave/aave.html.

Q: Enough already! I want to have some fun with Creoles. How can I do that?

A: Easy. You can read some texts in Jamaican Patwa -- a story, a folktale, an argument, a popular song, a life-and-death narrative -- on my webpage at http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/JCtexts.html; or check out the classic Jamaican reggae film (1972, but may be in your local video store) 'The Harder They Come'  (I've transcribed the first few minutes at the JCtexts site above). If you want some harder linguistics, one of the narratives above is also keyed to an illustration of 12 features of linguistics structure thought to be typical of Creoles.

Q: What's all this about Jamaican? Is that your favorite Creole or something? Why?

A: Seen bredda! Afta mi no come from yaad? Cho!  [You bet! After all, didn’t I grew up there? Hmp!]

 

Some Basic References

Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken, and Norval Smith, eds. 1995. Pidgins and Creoles: An introduction. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

 

John Holm & Peter L Patrick, eds. 2007. Comparative Creole Syntax: Parallel Outlines of 18 Creole Grammars. London: Battlebridge Press. [link]

 

African American English

Peter L. Patrick's Links pages

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Last updated 10 March 2008