Creolization

If you've ever been to the Big Easy, you know creole. If you haven't yet been to New Orleans, by all means, go as soon as you can! One of the city's iconic cultures is a blend of African and French, "creolized" through many generations in the Caribbean and Louisiana and expressed in language, cuisine, and music. Like much Creole culture in the Americas, Louisiana Creole came about through the injustices and hardships of slavery and exploitation. In this article, we will look in depth at this process of creolization, not just in the Caribbean but worldwide.

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    Creolization Louisiana creole StudySmarterFig. 1 - Less than 10,000 people speak endangered Louisiana Creole in the shaded parishes

    Creolization Definition

    Geographers are interested in how place-based vernacular traditions are altered by the diffusion of cultural traits from elsewhere. Creolization is an excellent example of this process.

    Creolization: In its broadest sense, a process of cultural mixture referring specifically to the adoption of African, European, and Indigenous traits in language, religion, food, and identity in the Greater Caribbean area since the 1500s AD. In the linguistic sense, creolization is the process of native language creation by mixing two or more languages: the grammar of a vernacular language and the lexicon (vocabulary) of a trade language, particularly a language brought by Europeans in the process of colonialism.

    Creolization of Language

    Here are the steps in the creolization of language:

    1. Many creoles start as pidgins, trade languages invented to facilitate communication between groups who want to buy and sell products from each other and have no language in common. Pidgins are thrown together quickly and, as a result, start with a small, functional vocabulary and simple grammar with flexible rules. They are often a hodge-podge of different local languages and one or more trade languages. Since 1500 AD, most of the significant maritime trade languages have either been those of European colonial powers (French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, German), Malay, or Arabic. Hundreds of pidgins were invented based on these, though most died out.

    2. Pidgins that survive often become creoles with time. They add vocabulary words from one or more superstrate languages, usually trade languages, while their grammar is derived from the substrate language, typically an important vernacular language.

    3. Creoles become new languages when parents teach them to their children and use them as the first language in the home ("mother tongues").

    Process of Creolization in Linguistics

    The study of creoles is a controversial subject in linguistics, so there are many ideas about how they start and work.

    For starters, there is an academic legacy of treating creoles as "primitive" or unsophisticated languages, not "true" languages. Though this is no longer considered valid, the exact ways creoles are created is greatly disputed.

    Creolization Belizean creole StudySmarterFig. 2 - Anti-littering notice in Belizean Creole

    One accepted fact is that "creolization" in the linguistic sense is now not recognized as limited to the Americas. It is seen as a worldwide and universal process. Even languages such as German and English have been suggested as originating through creolization!

    While the vast majority of identified creoles have the trade languages mentioned above as their superstrates, others have come about by mixing non-colonial languages, such as Sango, described below.

    Linguists do categorize and measure creoles in numerous ways based on specific characteristics. These are summed up by the term creoleness and include not just lexical richness (amount of vocabulary) but also the amount of inflection and tone. Creoles are typically seen as having little of either.

    Creoles, like many other languages, sometimes have different dialects. These come about through processes such as the geographic isolation of different groups of speakers.

    Creolization and Decreolization

    Pidgins go extinct when the social conditions that created them no longer favor their use. They do this because, by definition, they do not become first languages. Creoles, however, do not disappear as readily, but some factors endanger their existence. Decreolization is a term for this.

    Decreolization occurs along a continuum as speakers of creoles change them to make them conform more closely to the superstrate language. It often happens where creole speakers have lower social status than superstrate language speakers. Remember that superstrate languages are typically major world languages, such as English, French, and Arabic, with international prestige.

    People raised in creole-speaking families might be embarrassed to speak their native tongue if placed in a school or other situation where the language of instruction was what society (and formerly, even linguists) considered a marker of backwardness, simplicity, and so forth.

    While creole speakers may abandon their language altogether for the above reasons, they may also try to add superstrate vocabulary and "improve" the grammar, so it ends up sounding like a dialect of English, French, Arabic, etc.

    Creolization Examples

    Of the 100 or so creoles that survive today, around 40 have English as a superstrate, testimony to the worldwide reach of the British Empire and the US. Most are found in the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific; some have over a million speakers. There are upwards of 75 million English-based creole speakers worldwide. For example, Krio, in Sierra Leone, is the first language of the Krio people, who number around 1 million.

    Gullah is a famous English-based creole spoken by the Gullah (Geechee) people of the African diaspora who live in the Lowcountry and Sea Islands of the southeastern US. Its substrate is derived from several African languages, and it is pretty similar to Krio of Sierra Leone. Of the around 200,000 people who identify as Gullah, only c. 5,000 speak the language, and a few hundred are native speakers.

    Other European colonial language-based creoles include around 20 derived from Portuguese, 12 from French, and three from Spanish; all of those derived from Dutch are considered extinct. However, there are thriving creoles like Papiamento from Aruba and nearby islands, based on a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and vernacular languages, with over 300,000 speakers.

    Creolization Papiamento StudySmarterFig. 3 - Sign in Dutch (above) and Papiamento (below) on the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Bonaire. The Portuguese/Spanish derivation is evident (e.g., peliger, from peligro, danger)

    Among non-European trade languages, Arabic is the superstrate for at least two languages, including Juba Arabic, a lingua franca in South Sudan. Malay, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Uyghur, Japanese, and other languages are superstrates for other creoles.

    The following three examples give you an idea of the diversity of this topic. We look at a thriving creole, a disappearing creole, and a wholly African creole.

    Haitian Creole

    Around 12 million people speak Kreyòl, one of Haiti's two official languages, the other being French, from which it is derived. You will probably see and hear Kreyòl if you visit South Florida due to the large Haitian population there.

    Creolization Haitian creole StudySmarterFig. 4 - Haitian Creole on a sign at a rent car counter in Florida

    To say that this language is vibrant is an understatement. As the creole with the most speakers worldwide, Kreyòl has few peers. Yet, even though it is the first and, for most people, the only language spoken in Haiti, it is still denigrated by those who hold French up as superior (only a tiny minority speaks French in Haiti.)

    Haitian Creole originated in 1600s sugar plantations among enslaved Africans; the African languages that contributed grammatical structures to Kreyòl are unknown. Even after independence in 1804, the mulatto class who ran Haiti continued to use French, with Haitian creole seen as a dialect of uneducated peasants. This only changed in the 1980s when it gained official language status. Now, even public school instruction is often in Kreyòl.

    Unserdeutsch

    The only German-derived creole has less than 100 speakers left, none of whom use it as a first language. It is the only known creole based on this colonial language and originated after 1884 in the colony of German New Guinea, now the northern part of Papua New Guinea. Unserdeutsch started as a pidgin in German Catholic missions and seems to have become the first language among people in mixed German-New Guinean families. The substrate is thought to be another creole called Tok Pisin, a one-time pidgin that, unlike Unserdeutsch, flourished until it became a lingua franca, official language, and first language for millions of Papua New Guineans (see our explanation on Lingua Franca).

    Unserdeutsch is just one of many creoles that are dying out. Like creoles based on Dutch, which are mostly or entirely extinct, one factor in its disappearance is the greater appeal of superstrate languages like English and lingua francas, in this case, Tok Pisin. German influence disappeared in the region over 100 years ago, so decreolization into German would be highly unlikely.

    Sango

    This is a rare example of a creole with an African superstrate. For a long time before European colonization, Sango (Sangho) was a lingua franca along the Ubangi River in what is now the Central African Republic. It was based on the lexicon of Northern Ngbandi and was spoken as a second language by numerous ethnic groups. Enter the French in the late 1800s, and its usage increased; by the 1960s, it began to be passed down in families as a first language in the city of Bangui. Today it is, along with French, the official language of the Central African Republic. Sango's current number of native speakers is unknown but is well about half a million, with millions more, and growing, speaking it as a second language.

    Creolization - Key takeaways

    • Creolization refers to the mixing of cultures that produces a new culture and is distinguished by unique cuisine, music, and language.
    • The creolization of language involves the creation of a language, often from a pidgin, with a trade language as a superstrate (lexicon) and a vernacular language as a substrate (grammar).
    • Haitian Creole is a thriving creole with 12 million speakers; Unserdeutsch is a German-based creole that is dying out; Sango is a creole based on African languages.


    References

    1. Fig. 2 - Belizean Creole (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creole_Notice_and_Roadsign_-_Caye_Caulker,_Belize.jpg) by Bernard Dupont is licensed under CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 4 - Haitian Creole (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Timoun_Sy%C3%A8j_(Creole).jpg) by Pierre5018 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Pierre5018) is licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Creolization

    What is creolization? 

    Creolization is the process of cultural mixture and creation of new cultures and is applied commonly to this phenomenon in language, cuisine, and music.

    What is the difference between pidginization and creolization? 

    Pidginization refers to the creation of a pidgin, which is a simple form of communication used to facilitate trade; creolization is the creation of a new language, often out of pidgin, once it becomes a mother tongue and first language

    What is an example of creolization? 

    An example of creolization is the creation of Haiti Creole by enslaved Africans, using grammar from African languages and French vocabulary.

    What caused creolization? 

    Creolization comes about as people use it as their native language and mother tongue. Broader causes include the need for trade and the existence of colonialism, and in the Americas, the mixture of African languages and colonial languages such as French and English.

    What is the difference between decreolization and creolization? 

    Creolization is a process involving new culture creation, whereas decreolization is the purposeful transformation of a creole language into a superstrate language and can cause the destruction/loss of a creole.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In an example from an African creole, Portuguese would be considered the ____ and an Indigenous language the _______.

    The language from which the most creoles are derived is ________.

    ________ is dying out, while ______ is thriving.

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