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A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable language that originated from a mixture of various languages. The lexicon of a creole language consists of cognates from the parent languages, though there are often clear phonetic and semantic shifts. On the other hand, the grammar often has original features and may differ substantially from those of the parent languages.


A creole is believed to arise when a pidgin, which was developed by adults for use as a second language, becomes the native and primary language of their children — a process known as nativization. The pidgin-creole life cycle was studied by Hall in the 1960s.

Some linguists have claimed that creoles share more grammatical similarities with each other than with the languages they phylogenetically derive from. However, there is no widely accepted theory that would account for those perceived similarities. Moreover, no grammatical feature has been shown to be specific to creoles.

Many of the creoles known today arose in the last 500 years, as a result of the worldwide expansion in European maritime power and trade in the Age of discovery which led to extensive European colonial empires and an intense slave trade. Like most non-official and minority languages, creoles have generally been regarded as degenerate variants or dialects of their parent languages. Because of that prejudice, many of the creoles that arose in the European colonies have become extinct. However, political and intellectual changes in recent decades have improved the status of creoles, both as living languages and as object of linguistic study. Some creoles have even been granted the status of official or semi-official languages.

Linguists now recognize that creole formation is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the European colonial period, and an important aspect of language evolution (see ). For example, in 1932 Sigmund Feist postulated a creole origin for the Germanic languages.


Origin of the concept

The English term creole comes from French créole, which in turn is believed to come from Spanish criollo and/or from Portuguese crioulo, both stemming from the verb criar ("to breed" or "to raise"), ultimately from Latin creare ("to produce, create"). The specific sense of the term was coined in the 16th and 17th century, during the great expansion in European maritime power and trade that led to the establishment of European colonies in other continents.

The terms criollo and crioulo were originally qualifiers used throughout the Spanish and Portuguese colonies to distinguish the members of an ethnic group that were born and raised locally from those who immigrated as adults. They were most commonly applied to nationals of the colonial power, e.g. to distinguish españoles criollos (people born in the colonies from Spanish ancestors) from españoles peninsulares (those born in the Iberian Peninsula, i.e. Spain). However in Brazilmarker the term was also used to distinguish between negros crioulos (blacks born in Brazil from African slave ancestors) and negros africanos (born in Africa). Over time, the term and its derivatives (Creole, Kreyol, Kriol, Krio, etc.) lost the generic meaning and became the proper name of many distinct ethnic groups that developed locally from immigrant communities. Originally, therefore, the term "Creole language" meant the speech of any of those Creole peoples.

Geographic distribution

As a consequence of colonial European trade patterns, most of the known European-based creole languages arose in the equatorial belt around the world and in areas with access to the oceans, including the coastal regions of the Americas, western Africa, Indiamarker, and along the coast of South and Southeast Asia up to Indonesiamarker, Macaumarker, the Philippinesmarker, Malaysiamarker, and Oceania.

Many of those creoles are now extinct, but others still survive in the Caribbeanmarker, the north and east coasts of South America, western Africa, and in the Indian Oceanmarker.

Atlantic Creole languages are based on European languages with elements from African and possibly Amerind languages. Indian Oceanmarker Creole languages are based on European languages with elements from Malagasy and possibly other Asian languages. There are however creoles like Nubi and Sango that are derived solely from non-European languages.

Social and political status

Because of the generally low status of the Creole peoples in the eyes of prior European colonial powers, creole languages have generally been regarded as "degenerate" languages, or at best as rudimentary "dialects" of the politically dominant parent languages. Because of this prejudice, the word "creole" was generaly used by linguists in opposition to "language", rather than as a qualifier for it. This prejudice was compounded by the inherent instability of the colonial system, leading to the disappearance of creole languages, mainly due to dispersion or assimilation of their speech communities.

Another factor that may have contributed to the relative neglect of creole languages in linguistics is that they do not fit the 19th century neogrammarian "tree model" for the evolution of languages, and its postulated regularity of sound changes (such as the earliest advocates of the wave model, Johannes Schmidt and Hugo Schuchardt, the forerunners of modern sociolinguistics). This controversy of the late 19th century profoundly shaped modern approaches to the comparative method in historical linguistics and in creolistics.

Because of social, political, and academic changes brought on by decolonization in the second half of the 20th century, creole languages have experienced revivals in the past few decades. They are increasingly being used in print and film, and in many cases, their community prestige has improved dramatically. In fact, some have been standardized, and are used in local schools and universities around the world. At the same time, linguists have began to come to the realization that creole languages are in no way inferior to other languages. They now use the term "creole" or "creole language" for any language suspected to have undergone creolization, terms that now imply no geographic restrictions nor ethnic prejudices.

Classification of creoles

Historic classification

According to their external history, four types of creoles have been distinguished: plantation creoles, fort creoles, maroon creoles, and creolized pidgins.

Whose creole?

By the very nature of the subject, the phylogenetic classification of a particular creole usually is a matter of dispute; especially when the pidgin precursor and its parent tongues (which may have been other creoles or pidgins) have disappeared before they could be documented.

Phylogenetic classification traditionally relies on inheritance of the lexicon, especially of "core" terms, and of the grammar structure. However, in creoles, the core lexicon often has mixed origin, and the grammar is largely original. For these reasons, the issue of which language is the parent of a creole — that is, whether a language should be classified as a "Portuguese creole" or "English creole", etc. — often has no definitive answer, and can become the topic of long-lasting controversies, where social prejudices and political considerations may interfere with scientific discussion.

Substrate and superstrate

The terms substrate and superstrate are often used when two languages interact. However, the meaning of these terms is reasonably well-defined only in second language acquisition or language replacement events, when the native speakers of a certain source language (the substrate) are somehow compelled to abandon it for another target language (the superstrate). The outcome of such an event is that erstwhile speakers of the substrate will use some version of the superstrate, at least in more formal contexts. The substrate may survive as a second language for informal conversation. As demonstrated by the fate of many replaced European languages (such as Etruscan, Breton, and Venetian), the influence of the substrate on the official speech is often limited to pronunciation and a modest number of loanwords. The substrate might even disappear altogether without leaving any trace.

However, there is dispute over the extent to which the terms "substrate" and "superstrate" are applicable to the genesis or the description of creole languages. The language replacement model may not be appropriate in creole formation contexts, where the emerging language is derived from multiple languages without any one of them being imposed as a replacement for any other. The substratum-superstratum distinction becomes awkward when multiple superstrata must be assumed (such as in Papiamentu), when the substratum cannot be identified, or when the presence or the survival of substratal evidence is inferred from mere typological analogies. On the other hand, the distinction may be meaningful when the contributions of each parent language to the resulting creole can be shown to be very unequal, in a scientifically meaningful way. In the literature on Atlantic Creoles, "superstrate" usually means European and "substrate" non-European or African.


Since creole languages rarely attain official status, the speakers of a fully formed creole may eventually feel compelled to conform their speech to one of the parent languages. This decreolization process typically brings about a post-creole speech continuum characterized by large scale variation and hypercorrection in the language.

Shared features

It is commonly assumed a priori that, compared to other languages, creoles have a simpler grammar and more internal variability. However, these notions may be little more than prejudices.

Phylogenetic or typological comparisons of creole languages have lead to divergent conclusions. Similarities are usually higher among creoles derived from related languages, such as the languages of Europe, than among broader groups that include also creoles based on non-Indo-European languages (like Nubi or Sango). French-based creoles in turn are more similar to each other (and to varieties of French) than to other European-based creoles. It was observed, in particular, that definite articles are mostly prenominal in English-based creole languages and English whereas they are generally postnominal in French creoles and in the variety of French that was exported to the colonies in the 17th and 18th century. Moreover the European languages which gave rise to the creole languages of European colonies all belong to the same subgroup of Western Indo-European and have highly convergent grammars; to the point that Whorf joined them into a single Standard Average European language group. French and English are particularly close, since English, through extensive borrowing, is typologically closer to French than to other Germanic languages. Thus the claimed similarities between creoles may be mere consequences of similar parentage, rather than characteristic features of all creoles.

Creole genesis

There are a variety of theories on the origin of creole languages, all of which attempt to explain the similarities among them.
 outline a fourfold classification of explanations regarding creole genesis:

  • Theories focusing on European input
  • Theories focusing on non-European input
  • Gradualist and developmental hypotheses
  • Universalist approaches

Theories focusing on European input

The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles

The monogenetic theory of pidgins and creoles hypothesizes that they are all derived from a single Mediterranean Lingua Franca, via a West African Pidgin Portuguese of the 17th century, relexified in the so-called "slave factories" of Western Africa that were the source of the Atlantic slave trade. This theory was originally formulated by Hugo Schuchardt in the late 19th century and popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Taylor, Whinnom Thompson,, and Stewart However, this hypothesis is no longer actively investigated.

The domestic origin hypothesis

Proposed by for the origin of English-based creoles of the West Indies, the Domestic Origin Hypothesis argues that, towards the end of the 16th century, English-speaking traders began to settle in the Gambia and Sierra Leone rivers as well as in neighboring areas such as the Bullom and Sherbro coasts. These settlers intermarried with the local population leading to mixed populations, and, as a result of this intermarriage, an English pidgin was created. This pidgin was learned by slaves in slave depots, who later on took it to the West Indies and formed one component of the emerging English creoles.

The European dialect origin hypothesis

The French creoles are the foremost candidates to being the outcome of "normal" linguistic change and their creoleness to be sociohistoric in nature and relative to their colonial origin. Within this theoretical framework, a French creole is a language phylogenetically based on the French language, more specifically on a 17th century koiné French extent in Parismarker, the French Atlantic harbours, and the nascent French colonies. Descendants of the non-creole colonial koiné are still spoken in Canadamarker (mostly in Québecmarker), the Prairies, Louisianamarker, Saint-Barthélemymarker (leeward portion of the island) and as isolates in other parts of the Americas. Approaches under this hypothesis are compatible with gradualism in change and models of imperfect language transmission in koiné genesis.

Foreigner talk and baby talk

The foreigner talk hypothesis (FT) argues that a pidgin or creole language forms when native speakers attempt to simplify their language in order to address speakers who do not know their language at all. Because of the similarities found in this type of speech and the speech which is usually directed at children, it is also sometimes called baby talk.

 suggest that four different processes are involved in creating Foreigner Talk:
  • Accommodation
  • Imitation
  • Telegraphic condensation
  • Conventions

This could explain why creole languages have much in common, while avoiding a monogenetic model. However, , in analyzing German Foreigner Talk, claims that it is too inconsistent and unpredictable to provide any model for language learning.

While the simplification of input was supposed to account for creoles' simple grammar, there are a number of problems with this explanation:
  1. There are too many grammatical similarities amongst pidgins and creoles despite having very different lexifier languages
  2. Grammatical simplification can be explained by other processes, i.e. the innate grammar of Bickerton's language bioprogram theory.
  3. Speakers of a creole's lexifier language often fail to understand, without learning the language, the grammar of a pidgin or creole.
  4. Pidgins are more often used amongst speakers of different substrate languages than between such speakers and those of the lexifier language.

Another problem with the FT explanation is its potential circularity. points out that FT is often based on the imitation of the incorrect speech of the non-natives, that is the pidgin. Therefore one may be mistaken in assuming that the former gave rise to the latter.

Imperfect L2 learning

The imperfect L2 learning hypothesis claims that pidgins are primarily the result of the imperfect L2 learning of the dominant lexifier language by the slaves. Research on naturalistic L2 processes has revealed a number of features of "interlanguage systems" that one also sees in pidgins and creoles:
  • invariant verb forms derived from the infinitive or the least marked finite verb form;
  • loss of determiners or use as determiners of demonstrative pronouns, adjectives or adverbs;
  • placement of a negative particle in preverbal position;
  • use of adverbs to express modality;
  • fixed single word order with no inversion in questions;
  • reduced or absent nominal plural marking.

Imperfect L2 learning is compatible with other approaches, notably the European dialect origin hypothesis and the universalist models of language transmission.

Theories focusing on non-European input

Theories focusing on the substrate, or non-European, languages attribute similarities amongst creoles to the similarities of African substrate languages. These features are often assumed to be transferred from the substrate language to the creole or to be preserved invariant from the substrate language in the creole through a process of relexification: the substrate language replaces the native lexical items with lexical material from the superstrate language while retaining the native grammatical categories. The problem with this explanation is that the postulated substrate languages differ amongst themselves and with creoles in meaningful ways. argues that the number and diversity of African languages and the paucity of a historical record on creole genesis makes determining lexical correspondences a matter of chance.
 coined the term "cafeteria principle" to refer to the practice of arbitrarily attributing features of creoles to the influence of substrate African languages or assorted substandard dialects of European languages.

For a representative debate on this issue, see the contributions to ; for an more recent view, .

Because of the sociohistoric similarities amongst many (but by no means all) of the creoles, the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system of the European colonies have been emphasized as factors by linguists such as .

Gradualist and developmental hypotheses

One class of creoles might start as pidgins, rudimentary second languages improvised for use between speakers of two or more non-intelligible native languages. Keith Whinnom (in ) suggests that pidgins need three languages to form, with one (the superstrate) being clearly dominant over the others. The lexicon of a pidgin is usually small and drawn from the vocabularies of its speakers, in varying proportions. Morphological details like word inflections, which usually take years to learn, are omitted; the syntax is kept very simple, usually based on strict word order. In this initial stage, all aspects of the speech — syntax, lexicon, and pronunciation —tend to be quite variable, especially with regard to the speaker's background.

If a pidgin manages to be learned by the children of a community as a native language, it may become fixed and acquire a more complex grammar, with fixed phonology, syntax, morphology, and syntactic embedding. Pidgins can become full languages in only a single generation. "Creolization" is this second stage where the pidgin language develops into a fully developed native language. The vocabulary, too, will develop to contain more and more items according to a rational of lexical enrichement.

Universalist approaches

Universalist models stress the intervention of specific general processes during the transmission of language from generation to generation and from speaker to speaker. The process invoked varies: a general tendency towards semantic transparency, first language learning driven by universal process, or general process of discourse organization. The main universalist theory is still Bickerton's language bioprogram theory, proposed in the 1980s. Bickerton claims that creoles are inventions of the children growing up on newly founded plantations. Around them, they only heard pidgins spoken, without enough structure to function as natural languages; and the children used their own innate linguistic capacities to transform the pidgin input into a full-fledged language. The alleged common features of all creoles would then be the consequence of those innate abilities being universal.

Recent study

The last decade has seen the emergence of some new questions about the nature of creoles: in particular, the question of how complex creoles are and the question of whether creoles are indeed "exceptional" languages.

The creole prototype

Some features that distinguish creole languages from noncreoles have been proposed (by Bickerton, for example), but no set of features uncontestably unique to creoles has been put forth so far. Features that are said to be true of all (or most) creole languages are in fact true of all isolating languages.

John McWhorter has proposed the following list of features to indicate a creole prototype:

  • a lack of inflectional morphology (other than at most two or three inflectional affixes),
  • a lack of tone on monosyllabic words, and
  • a lack of semantically opaque word formation.

McWhorter hypothesizes that these three properties exactly characterize a creole. However, the creole prototype hypothesis has been disputed:


Building up on this discussion, McWhorter proposed that "the world's simplest grammars are Creole grammars," claiming that every noncreole language's grammar is at least as complex as any creole language's grammar. Gil has replied that Riau Indonesian has a simpler grammar than Saramaccan, the language McWhorter uses as a showcase for his theory. The same objections were raised by Wittmann in his 1999 debate with McWhorter.

The lack of progress made in defining creoles in terms of their morphology and syntax has led scholars such as Robert Chaudenson, Salikoko Mufwene and Henri Wittmann to question the value of creole as a typological class; they argue that creoles are structurally no different from any other language, and that creole is a sociohistoric concept---not a linguistic one---encompassing displaced population and slavery.

 spell out the idea of creole exceptionalism, claiming that creole languages are an instance of nongenetic language change due to language shift with abnormal transmission. Gradualists  question the abnormal transmission of languages in a creole setting and argue that the processes which created today's creole languages are no different from universal patterns of language change.

Given these objections to creole as a concept, publications such as Against Creole Exceptionalism and Deconstructing Creole have arisen which question the idea that creoles are exceptional in any meaningful way. Additionally, argues that some Romance languages are potential creoles but that they are not considered as such by linguists because of a historical bias against such a view.

See also

Related articles

Creoles by main parent language


  1. ; cited in
  2. Wittmann (1999), , , , , .
  3. Holm (1988, 1989)
  4. .
  5. See .
  6. See .
  7. Holm (1988, 1989)
  8. Recent investigations about substrates and superstrates, in creoles and other languages, includes , , , , , , and .
  9. , , .
  10. such as in
  11. ,
  12. .
  13. There are some similarities in this line of thinking with Hancock's domestic origin hypothesis.
  14. Wittmann (1983, 1995, 2001), Fournier (1998), Fournier & Wittmann (1995); cf. the article on Quebec French and the History of Quebec French
  15. See, for example,
  16. Based on 19th century intuitions, approaches underlying the imperfect L2 learning hypothesis have been followed up in the works of Schumann (1978), Anderson (1983), Seuren & Wekker (1986), Arends et al. (1995), Geeslin (2002), Hamilton & Coslett (2008).
  17. See the article on relexification for a discussion of the controversy surrounding the retaining of substrate grammatical features through relexification
  18. See , , , , and
  19. See
  20. See and
  21. Wittmann-McWhorter debate
  22. Mufwene (2000), Wittmann (2001)
  23. i.e.
  24. i.e.


  • Anderson, Roger W., ed. (1983). Pidginization and creolization as language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Fournier, Robert & Henri Wittmann, eds (1995). Le français des Amériques. Trois-Rivières: Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières. (ISBN 2-9802307-2-3)
  • Geeslin, Kimberly L. (2002). "Semantic transparency as a predictor of copula choice in second-language acquisition." Linguistics 40:2.439–468.
  • Hamilton, A. Cris & H. Branch Coslett (2008). "Role of inflectional regularity and semantic transparency in reading morphologically complex words: Evidence from acquired dyslexia." Neurocase 14:4.347-368.
  • Schumann, John H. (1978). The pidginization process: : A model for second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Seuren, Pieter A.M. & Herman C. Wekker (1986). "Semantic transparency as a factor in creole genesis." In Muysken, Pieter & Norval Smith (eds). Substrata versus universals in creole genesis. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 57–70.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1983). "Les réactions en chaîne en morphologie diachronique." Actes du Colloque de la Société internationale de linguistique fonctionnelle 10.285-92.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1999). "Prototype as a typological yardstick to creoleness." The Creolist Archives Papers On-line, Stockholms Universitet.[8019]
  • Wittmann, Henri (2001). "Lexical diffusion and the glottogenetics of creole French." CreoList debate, parts I-VI, appendixes 1-9. The Linguist List, Eastern Michigan University|Wayne State University

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