What is a creole?
by Emily Monroy
“Creole” is one of those words that like “humanist,” “secular” and “liberal” can mean anything and everything depending on where, when and by whom they are spoken. For those with culinary inclinations, it brings up images of catfish, gumbo and jambalaya. Students of history might recognize the word’s roots in the Spanish “criollo,” the name used to designate persons of unmixed European descent born in the New World. But “creole” has another definition, according to Webster’s dictionary: “a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers.”
Americans may have heard the term “Creole” to describe the language spoken by Haitian immigrants. (For the purpose of this essay, “Creole” in reference to a specific language will be capitalized; for a creole in general it will not.) Those who have studied French may discern some French words, or derivatives of French words, in Creole. This is hardly surprising; after all, Haiti was a colony of France and French is still its official language. Creole also has an African component, as most Haitians descend from slaves brought there from Africa to work on plantations. Haiti is not the only part of the world, though, whose inhabitants speak a creole as their mother tongue.
We might first address the question of how creoles originate. Creoles tend to emerge in areas where people of different linguistic backgrounds interact without having a language in common. Such places include slave or other agricultural plantations, military garrisons, and trading posts. These people use their mother tongue to communicate with their family and countrymen, but with others they employ what is called a pidgin. According to author Jared Diamond in the book The Third Chimpanzee, pidgins are primitive languages that consist largely of nouns, verbs and adjectives with few or no articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions or prepositions and no consistent grammar. However, the next generation, that is the children of pidgin speakers, goes a step further and develops a creole. Like a pidgin, a creole is made up of two or more linguistic components: a “superstrate,” which is usually based on the language of the colonizers (such as French in Haiti and English in most former British colonies of the Caribbean), and a substrate, in general a native or slave language or languages. A creole is more advanced than a pidgin, having a more extensive vocabulary, a consistent grammar as well as the ability to express anything a regular language can, which a pidgin cannot. Creoles are nonetheless somewhat deficient in comparison to regular languages in that they lack things like verbal conjugations and plural forms of nouns (then again, those who have struggled with the Herculean task of conjugating Latin verbs might jump at the chance to study a less complex system).
As mentioned before, creoles have sprung up in many parts of the globe. The Caribbean and several islands off Africa whose populations descend from slaves are prime examples. In such cases, Africans of many different nationalities, plus their European masters, were thrown together and forced to come up with a language in which to communicate. The people of São Tomé e Principe and Cape Verde in the Atlantic speak a Portuguese-based creole, while those of Réunion and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean use one derived from French. A Spanish creole called Chabacano developed in Zamboanga, the Philippines, around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities,* Spaniards, and Native Americans and mestizos from the New World. A language called Cristão or Kristang (both corruptions of the word “Christian”) is spoken by a small community in the Malaysian city of Malacca. A legacy of Portugal’s rule in Malaysia, Kristang boasts a mainly Portuguese vocabulary but a grammar based on Malay.
Beyond the Caribbean, the New World has been relatively creole-deficient despite the coming together of different peoples there. A creole by the name of Palenquero did emerge in San Basilio in Northern Colombia, where it is still used by descendants of African slaves. Some scholars believe that San Basilio’s isolation from mainstream Colombian society led to the development of Palenquero. In most other parts of Latin America, however, the process of Westernization was so thorough that other than small minorities of unmixed Indians nearly everyone speaks standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.
The United States also witnessed the emergence of a few creoles. One example is Gullah on the South Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast. An English-based language with African elements, Gullah is spoken by descendants of Black slaves on the Islands and was featured in the film Daughters of the Dust. Louisiana and some of the neighbouring Southern states are home to a French creole developed by African slaves there. Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, children of plantation workers from places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Japan, China, the Philippines and Portugal as well as Native Hawaiians formed an English-based creole that is still used by some people born in the early 1900s.
Despite the wide range of areas in which creoles sprung up, they have many features in common. Most lack verbal conjugations, put the auxiliary verb before the main one (“have worked” rather than “worked have”), and use the subject-verb-object order. As the first generation of creole speakers essentially invented the grammar from scratch yet managed to come up with similar grammars across time and place, some linguists, like Noam Chomsky and Derek Bickerton, speculate that the human brain may be “hardwired” for a certain grammar. Jared Diamond theorizes in addition that perhaps the difficulty young children face in learning the proper word order for asking questions (“Do you like John?” as opposed to “You like John?”) stems from the fact that the former sentence goes against a pre-programmed creole-like subject-verb-object order.
Finally, what is the future of creoles? That of creoles used by the majority of a population (such as in Haiti or Cape Verde) seems secure. Others’ future is more uncertain, especially when surrounded by speakers of other languages. For example, a Portuguese creole in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India is near extinction. Likewise, Palenquero is now mainly spoken by older people and is losing ground to Spanish. However, whether dead or alive, creoles have much to teach us about language, history and the relationships between different peoples.
* Remember that many native languages are spoken in the Philippines; Tagalog is the official one but not the mother tongue of all Filipinos.
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here