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Notes for LG102, Intro Sociolinguistics

University of Essex, Prof. Peter L. Patrick

Week 11, Autumn term


Pidgin and Creole Languages:

Origins and Relationships

Most languages are derived from their ancestors through an unbroken chain of normal language transmission: each generation of speakers inherits their language from previous generations intact, w/only a few minor changes.

  • In this process, major changes can take place and new languages emerge, but only over centuries and even millennia, only gradually.
  • Exceptions to this process-- rapid growth or loss of languages-- are nearly all due to contact between languages.


Contact can happen between very similar or very distinct languages, in pairs or small numbers or large numbers, gradually or very rapidly. With Pidgins and Creoles, we are only interested in a small part of the spectrum of language contact:

  • contact between 3 or more linguistically diverse language types,
  • in a situation providing great motivation for speakers to communicate (and often of dramatic social inequality),
  • resulting in very rapid language change and evolution.


Thus neither Ps nor Cs come about by normal language change & transmission, in the technical sense used above, yet

  • Both come about through normal processes of language contact, i.e.
  • Both are natural, developed thru contact and not deliberately "invented"
  • However, Creoles are complete languages, Pidgins are not.
  • This is because Pidgins are new, while Creoles have had time to develop.


There's a continuum between Creoles and older languages -- i.e. a Creole gradually develops grammatical machinery and the sorts of redundancies and historical residue that characterize older languages. So we can't necessarily look at any language today minus its social history and know whether or not it's a Creole (though Pidgins are more obvious, given their general lack of complete grammatical machinery).

For the same sorts of reasons, there's a continuum between Pidgins and Creoles too: a Pidgin gradually expands its social contexts, and extends its grammatical forms and repertoire to match them, spurred on by the nativizatin process (by becoming the native language of a group of children, and eventually the language of ethnic identification for a speech community). In other words,

  • There's no reliable purely-structural definition of Cs, and similarly
  • No hard-and-fast structural distinction between Ps and Cs.
  • Social and historical information is necessary to distinguish them from each other, and from older languages which developed through normal language transmission.


Nevertheless, there are some widely-found tendencies and generalizations linguists use in attempting to characterize Pidgins and Creoles. There is great argument about the claims I've just made above, but they are increasingly popular. There's also a consensus in the field that old-fashioned treatments (e.g. those still found in many linguistics textbooks today!) of the differences between Pidgins, Creoles and older languages have often been too simple and even factually incorrect. This is partly because of the great progress in careful description of Pidgin and Creole grammars in the last 20 or 25 years, and also because of advances in our understanding of historical processes made through careful case studies of individual languages.


Today, creolists think it's especially important to study Pidgins & Creoles (and transitional varieties like AAVE) for many reasons, including:

  • to deepen our knowledge of language change and contact
  • to help us understand how new languages expand, age and decay

Also, there's some unsolved mystery about whether such processes of language formation and growth are the same for all cases -- i.e.,

  • whether all Pidgins share structural features because of their recent formation, and
  • whether all Creoles share structural features because of the pathways of language change open to them. (The topic of grammaticalization is an important one here.)


Let’s compare the case of typical Pidgins and Creoles with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) -- a dialect of North American English which may have had a Creole past. At any rate, it's certain that many of the same social and linguistic conditions which led to Creole formation throughout the West Indies were in place; and yet today AAVE is certainly not a Creole.

Comparison: Pidgins, Creoles & African American Vernacular English





Contact language that arose naturally




Has native speakers

Not usually



Linguistic form and grammar are...




Restricted in contexts of use



Yes but...

Stable and independent norms




Fully adequate natural language




(*Note: Pidgin grammars are "reduced" by comparison to their input languages, whether superstrate or substrate. Creoles are expanded by comparison to Pidgins, but not necessarily more elaborate than, or as elaborate as, their input languages. AAVE has a full grammar by any standard-- though as a dialect of English, much of it is shred with other varieties and non-unique. For more info on AAVE, see my introductory page.)


Short texts and example data

This example shows how the same lexical elements may be configured differently in a Creole from its superstrate. GFC is actually more regular and systematic than Standard French, in having both modifiers on the same side of the head noun.



Guadeloupéen French Creole

la table rouge

"the red table"

tab wouj la

Def table Adj


table Adj Def


Pidgin Fijian:

Tamana tinana keitou sa mate tiko

Father mother 1pl Pred die Dur

"Our parents have died"

This example shows how reduced pidgin grammar may be when compared to its input. Fijian, a Polynesian language with c. 200,000 speakers, has 35 forms for pronouns corresponding to English's 3 in the first plural: we/us/our. This is because Fijian distinguishes not just singular from plural, but singular from dual (=2) from paucal (=a few) from plural; while there are also different forms for items that are edible vs. drinkable vs. other, etc. However, Pidgin Fijian (spoken in Fiji by people of Polynesian, Indian and Chinese descent) has only one pronominal form for this person/number: keitou.

This feature is an example of the "greater simplicity" that is often attributed to Pidgins and Creoles. Linguists mean the following when we say simplicity:

    • an increase in regularity (fewer exceptions, fewer forms), and/or
    • a decrease in marking distinctions in the form of the language (lack of inflectional morphemes, among other things)

Note that these trends aid the speaker more than the listener, so it's not cognitively simpler. (Not mentally, that is -- of course Pidgin speakers know the differences between few/many, edible/inedible etc!) More work has to be done in inference, through pragmatics, because the syntax and morphology does less.


Solomon Islands Pidjin: verses from Mark 5:2-4

This example is from a Pacific Pidgin with English as its superstrate. (All of these Pidgins and Creoles date from the 19th century, so they are relatively new, but their early days are relatively well-documented; see Muhlhausler 1997 below for a good treatment of them.) Missionary influence played a large role in many of these languages, and often continues to in the from of development of materials for language description, instruction and standardization. This New Testament text and translation thus make an appropriate example.

2.       Steretwe taem Jisas i go soa,

2.       When he had stepped out of the boat,

wanfela man wea i stap long berigiraon i kamaot fo mitim hem.

immediately a man out of the tombs met him.

Desfala man ia devol nogud i stap long hem.

This man was possessed by an unclean spirit.

3.       Ples bulong hem nao long berigiraon.

3.       He lived in the cemetery;

Bikos hem i karangge tumas,

and no-one could restrain him any more, even with chains,

no man i save taemapim.

because he was too strong.

4.       Plande taem olketa i hankapem han an lek bulong hem,

4.       For he had often been restrained with shackles and chains on his arms and legs,

bat hem i smasing olketa nomoa.

but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces,

No man i storong fitim fo holem.

and no one had the strength to subdue him.


PIDGINS & CREOLES: Some Definitions

A lingua franca: a language used by people whose mother tongues are different in order to communicate.

Any language could conceivably serve as a lingua franca between two groups, no matter what sort of language it was. This is also true for some other terms (cited by Wm. Samarin, Wardhaugh Chap. 3): "Contact Language, International Language, Auxiliary Language, Trade Language". A pidgin could serve as a lingua franca, too; so could a creole. English often does. Lingua franca is thus a purely functionally-defined term, i.e. linguistic structure of the language involved plays no role.


A Pidgin

    • is a contact language or lingua franca that arose naturally (not like e.g. Esperanto)
    • does not have native speakers
    • is reduced in linguistic form and grammar
    • is restricted in contexts of use
    • is typically unstable and highly mixed
    • may sometimes be a stable variety with norms of acceptability,
    • but is NOT a fully adequate natural language.

Also, Pidgins:

    • derive from the process of pidginization
    • typically evolve from trade or plantation situations...
    • ... where many languages occur but no one predominates;
    • are the products of incomplete Second Language Acquisition, and thus...
    • ... have small core vocabularies, and borrow extensively,
    • ... have very surfacy grammar, much variation but little system,
    • ... and sociolinguistically have no (or incoherent) norms of interpretation;
    • have limited domains for expressive and communicative functions;
    • typically either die out or evolve into creoles...
    • ... through the process of creolization/nativization.


A Creole, on the other hand:

    • does have native speakers
    • has developed, thru expansion in linguistic form and grammar,
    • and thru extension in use (communicative & expressive functions),
    • into a full-fledged, complete and adequate natural language
    • which is typically stable and autonomous in its norms

Also, Creoles:

    • often evolve from pidgins, thru the creolization/nativization process;
    • exist most often in post-colonial areas, where...
    • ...they tend to be the vernacular of spontaneous daily use;
    • are typically related to one widely-spoken language (often seen as a 'corruption' of it);
    • are native languages acquired as mother tongues; thus...
    • ...are products of First Language Acquisition, based on inadequate input (Bickerton);
    • may either stabilize, decreolize thru contact, or die out
    • may or may not be highly mixed, depending on their age & current language contacts;
    • have established mechanisms for vocabulary extension (borrowing/integration rules);
    • have less elaborate/grammaticalized structures in grammar than older languages do (whether standardized or not), but definitely more than pidgins;
    • have much variation but coherent sociolinguistic norms (of evaluation/interpretation)
    • have wider domains & are used more for expressive/communicative purposes...
    • ... though they resemble non-standard dialects in terms of prestige;
    • may remain stable over long periods or merge toward standard languages (decreolize).

[These definitions use "stable” and “autonomous" as relative terms. Creoles are independent languages with their own communities & social life -- but not resistant to change, nor impervious to outside influences! ]


Theories of Pidginization and Creolization:

divide up into those that are basically historical, versus those that are basically universalist. The basic facts they are both trying to explain are:

    • why Creoles around the world, regardless of superstrate, are similar in structure (are they?)
    • why Pidgins around the world, regardless of superstrate, are similar in structure (are they?)
    • how and why Creoles and Pidgins are related:
      • how they're similar, and how they're distinct
      • how Creoles develop out of Pidgins (when and if they do)


Historical explanations:      

The basic idea is, most pidgins and creoles are the product of European colonialism going around the world and colliding with indigenous languages, often either enslaving their speakers or shipping them off to remote non-native areas to work as "indentured servants". So it originally seemed logical to try to explain as much as possible by common descent from the politically-dominant European "superstrate" languages and the "substrate" languages of the people they dominated - African languages in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, Austronesian and other languages in the Pacific, and so on - taking into account different social circumstances that obtain over such a period of extended contact, which typically result in development of pidgins early on, and creoles later on.

Input languages into Pidgins and Creoles are often referred to by the terms:

    • Superstrate: a language spoken by people who held a socially dominant position in the contact that produced them.
    • Substrate: a language spoken by people who held a socially subordinate position in the contact that produced them.
    • Adstrate: another language involved that's neither in a dominant nor a subordinate situation (often one that came into contact after the initial situation applied).


Universalist explanations:  

The basic idea is that pidgins are the product of the same general kinds of contact processes that would happen anywhere, no matter who was involved. So it seems logical to try and figure out what those processes are, how they applied to particular kinds of languages we know about, and how they would apply to others if the chance arose; and to compare this process to second language learning (SLA). Creoles, on the other hand, are supposed to be the product of nativization of mixed, second languages (pidgins), and nativization is basically child first-language learning (FLA) - which is thought to be the same everywhere, due to our innate, genetically-programmed language learning mechanisms, no matter what kinds of input children get. If creoles all have similar input, and undergo similar processes, it's no surprise they should turn out to be similar even when they're historically unrelated.

Over the last 10-15 years, there have been many modifications of these sorts of positions. It's fair to say today that most creolists believe there are both historical and universalist elements involved in the explanatin of any particular Pidgin or Creole's structure.


Why do Socio-linguists Study Pidgins & Creoles?

  • P/Cs as paradigms of vernacular languages raise Q of linguistic adequacy
  • P/Cs as historical anomalies raise Q of the role of social factors in historical change (formation of speech community & a system of norms and evaluation), e.g., P/Cs' link to U.S. African American English
  • P/C societies are complex & rich, challenging problems for notions such as the 'speech community'
  • P/Cs are often seen as cases of diglossia, sites for study of language attitudes, and areas needing language planning
  • Creoles may provide a unique site for the study of grammaticalization processes
  • Bickerton's Language Bioprogram Hypothesis questions the role of innate vs. social/contact factors in the genesis of this class of languages; it also brought creoles to the attention of generative syntacticians
  • P/Cs are a testing ground for the modelling of variation (implicational scales, creole continuum)


Pidgin and Creole Languages:

Some Sources of Information

Links for more info:

My homepage

A partial list of Creoles around the world

Jamaican Creole texts transcribed

Other creole links on my webpage

Introduction to African American English

The Language Varieties Network

Mark Sebba’s ‘British Creole Resources’

Readings to start with:

J Arends, P Muysken & N Smith, eds. Pidgins & Creoles, Chs. 1-2. (The same book, Chs. 3 & 8-11, goes further in-depth.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishers.

JA Holm 1988 Pidgins and creoles. Vol. I: Theory and structure. Vol. II: Reference survey. Cambridge Univ. Press. (A handbook on Ps & Cs around the world.)

Thomason, Sarah G. 2001. Language contact: an introduction. Edinburgh: Univ. of Edinburgh Press. (A good book setting creoles and pidgins in the general cnotext of language contact.)

S Romaine 1994, Language in Society, Ch. 3 (89-98). Oxford Univ. Press. (Good chapter in a standard sociolinguistics textbook.)

P Muhlhausler 1997 (2nd ed.) Pidgin and creole linguistics. London: Battlebridge Press, Westminster Creolistics Series 2. (A good introductory textbook on Ps & Cs.)

Further Reading:

  • D Hymes ed. 1971 Pidginization and Creolization of Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • JE Reinecke, SM Tsuzaki, D DeCamp, I Hancock & RE Wood 1975 A bibliography of Pidgin and Creole languages. (Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 14.) Honolulu: The University Press of Hawai'i.
  • D Bickerton 1984 "The language bioprogram hypothesis" Behavioral & Brain Sciences 7(2):173-221.
  • RB LePage & A Tabouret-Keller 1985 Acts of Identity: Creole-based approaches to language & ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • P Muysken and N Smith eds. 1986 Substrata versus universals in creole genesis. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishers.
  • D Bickerton 1988 "Creole Languages and the Bioprogram" In Newmeyer, ed., Language: Psychological & Biological Aspects. (Linguistics: the Cambridge Survey, Vol. 3), 267-284. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • SG Thomason & T Kaufman 1988. Language Contact, Creolization, & Genetic Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • S Mufwene ed. 1993 Africanisms in Afro-American language varieties. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press.
  • J McWhorter 1998 "Identifying the creole prototype: Vindicating a typological class." Language 74(4):788-81.
  • PL Patrick 1999 Urban Jamaican Creole: Variation in the Mesolect. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishers. (Go here for a short description and table of contents)


Go to Creole Links Page

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Last updated on 16 November 2004