Saturday, December 22, 2018

Pidgins, creoles, and other marginalized varieties

So if no language is better than any other, and every language fulfills the needs of the people who speak it, what is a marginalized variety?

Well, a marginalized variety is no better or worse, and it fulfills the needs of its speakers BUT it is viewed as inferior by others and often by the speakers themselves. This is not uncommon with creoles, because by definition they are linked to a dominant language and that language is considered the standard. So the creole, compared to the standard, is "inferior".  So if the dominant language were to disappear, leaving only the creole, it would be considered simply a language in its own right, not a "bastardized" form of the standard language.

Creoles are is a common understanding of how they come to exist.

First, you have a situation where three or more languages are spoken. It's often in a trade situation. One of the languages is dominant and the other speakers attempt to communicate with them. This may result in a simplified code, called a pidgin. A pidgin is not a language. It has a limited vocabulary (to words related to trade and the products). It has a simplified sentence structure with few morphemes--ie, you might say "buy yesterday" rather than learn and use the past tense irregular form "bought". Its semantics and pragmatics are limited to the needed meanings and interactional phrases. And its phonology is quite varied. The pidgin is often spoken with the various native accents in the mixed situation.

Pidgins are usually short-lived. They will continue as long as the context of trade and multiple languages continues. Once the community changes, the pidgin changes as well, and might simply disappear. Or the dominant language might replace the others, especially if other speakers leave the situation. Or one of the other languages might, due to numbers of speakers and/or economic benefits, take the primary position. Or the pidgin might evolve into a creole....

A creole, unlike a pidgin, is a language. Its genesis lies with the children in the community who grow up in an environment where the primary language input is the pidgin. But pidgins are not languages; they are simplified codes. Children acquire languages. So a reserve process begins, that of complexification. Being "wired" for language, children naturally expand the vocabulary, stabilize the pronunciation (introducing phonemic distinctions that might be needed to differentiate words and meanings), and begin using grammatical distinctions, again to clarify meaning and communication. When that new language, that creole, becomes dominant and is the default language of the area, it is truly a language.  Their children will grow up learning and using the creole.

Interestingly, some linguists who study creoles note that there are similarities among creoles that arose in entirely different parts of the world. The use of reduplication, for example, is common in many creoles. Reduplication is repeating an element to make it stronger or more emphatic, so "good good" is very good, or better. "Gogo" might be go quickly. Perhaps this says something about the universality of the "wired" language we all have as humans.

Some examples of existing creoles include Haitian French, Cajun French, Jamaican English, Papiamentu, Belize Kriol, Krio, Hawaiian English, and others. Each is associated with a dominant language and by comparison, is considered inferior though  I repeat, a creole is a fully formed language and if the dominant comparison weren't there, it would simply be seen as a language.

There is some debate about African American English. Some consider it a creole, rooted in the slave trade, mixing African languages with the dominant English. There are features of AAE that can be connected to features in Western African languages, and the policy of mixing slaves who spoke different native languages gives rise to the multilingual environment.  AAE also shares features with some Southern varieties of English. Per this thread, AAE is likely moving closer to Standard American English rather than diverging--ie decreolization. Yet as long as AAE is also an ethnic and cultural mark of identification, it is unlikely to disappear entirely.

One final area of interest is the colonial legacy of English (and others, but my focus is on English here).  The British colonized and introduced English into the USA, India, Kenya, South Africa, and parts of the Caribbean, among others. English did not become creolized in all these locations. Instead, English became "nativized", acquired by new native speakers but influenced by the structures and vocabulary (and pronunciation etc) of other languages spoken by the people. If these are not creoles, what are they?

Braj Kachru, a native Indian English speaker and linguist, (and one of my professors) coined the term "Englishes". USA  English was, at one time, a colonial language considered a "bastardized" form of British English. Not until the USA became economically and politically more powerful did this perception change. Now the "traditional" home bases of English are Canada, the USA, Australia, the UK, and New Zealand. Yet there are varieties of English that are spoken as native languages, as in India, that are not dialects nor are they creoles.  Thus the term Englishes. And while some in the traditional homelands of English might consider these non-standard varieties, they are full and complete languages in and of themselves.

A couple of notes: English is a global and international language. There are more non-native speakers of English than there are native speakers. English is NOT the official language of the USA, which has no official language (deliberately so). It is, however, the de facto national language and those coming to the USA recognize this. Immigrants and refugees realize this and there are studies showing that there is a strong desire to learn English (there are obstacles, but that is another post).

Those of us in the traditional homelands of English are quite fortunate, but we are not superior. Our varieties are neither better nor worse than any other varieties. All varieties of English are equally valid. And that's all I have for now.....

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