Until the latter half of the twentieth century creoles were largely ignored by linguists. At best they were viewed as quaint novelties, and at worst simply ‘bad’ versions of the parent language; often derogatorily named, for example ‘broken English’ or ‘bastard Portuguese.
This contempt persists today. Haitian Creole, the most spoken of all creole languages, only gained official status in Haiti in 1987, and only in the 1990s did the president first speak Haitian Creole publically. Even today, French remains the language of politics, commerce, law and academia in Haiti. More shockingly, Jamaican Patois has never been afforded official status within Jamaica despite being the native language of the majority of Jamaicans. Societal elites still view the creole as inferior and dismiss speakers as uneducated. Recently, a Patois translation of the Gospel of Luke, Jiizas: di Buk We Luuk Rait bout Im, was met with hostility from both academic and religious circles in Jamaica. Yet the fact it was published at all is a sign of the increasing prestige of creoles within their respective communities; fortunately too, for they serve as an absolutely fascinating case study in language evolution, and can teach us much about linguistics as a whole.
Creoles evolve from an ancestral pidgin language. Pidgins, although also languages in their own right, are grammatically and lexically restricted, and used for communication between groups who do not share a common language. Simply, they adopt only the most necessary vocabulary from one or more languages, and simplify their grammar as far as possible. Indeed, the language from which we derive the term lingua franca, Sabir or Mediterranean Lingua Franca, was itself a pidgin language, used primarily for commerce, but not spoken natively by any one group.
Creoles differ from pidgins in that they become the native language of a group of people, and are thereafter expanded and increase in complexity. Whereas pidgins can only be used with a limited sphere such as work or trade, creoles are complex enough to be used for every sphere of life. In recent history, creoles have typically arisen in response to colonialism. A standard creole creation story would be as follows:
Plantation slaves from various different countries need to work together, yet share no common language. In order to communicate, they use very limited vocabulary from the slave master’s language. However, owing to the short time frame they have to learn the language and a lack of any formal education, it is impossible to master the grammar and so a simplified grammar based upon one of the dominant native languages is used. After some time, this language would be expanded until it could be used for more diverse activities such as socialising and worship. The children of speakers of this pidgin would eventually find it more useful than their native tongue, and after some generations it would become the native language of the majority of the population. At this point it would have become a creole and continue to increase in complexity and prestige.
Naturally not all creoles follow this process exactly. Their development is varied, nuanced, and hard to predict, but this simplified history is typical of most. To give an example, Bislama is a creole, and one of the official languages in Vanuatu alongside English and French. Today it is the native language of most urban Vanuatuans, and the primary second language of the remainder of the population. During the 1860s European colonists in Australia, New Calendonia, Fiji and Samoa coerced or kidnapped many Vanuatuans to work as indentured servants on plantations in a process termed as blackbirding. These Vanuatuans came from one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world with around 113 languages in a country of only just over 200,000 people. To cope in this new environment, they needed to develop a common language, and a basic pidgin quickly emerged. This evolved into a full-fledged creole in only a few generations.
The influence of English on Bislama is clear, yet it is also clear that it has become its own language. Phonologically, the soft h in the th sound has been substituted for t in words like ‘tankio’ (‘thank you’), and ch is typically replaced with k as in the case of ‘Krismes’ (‘Christmas’). Comparing the grammars, the relationship is often not as apparent. The past tense and possessive still exist, but are constructed entirely differently to English. ‘Julie i brekem leg blong hem’ means ‘Julie broke her leg’. Bislama does not conjugate verbs to reflect tense, but rather uses the particle ‘I’. The preposition ‘blong’ here is used to express possession rather than the pronouns or apostrophe s used in English. Literally ‘blong hem’, means ‘belonging to her’, and so ‘leg blong hem’ means ‘her leg’.
Bislama is a fascinating example of the standardisation that creoles go through, often incredibly rapidly. In less than two centuries, it has evolved from a rudimentary tool for basic communication to the native language of an entire people group, complex enough to be entirely functional, but standardised enough to be learnable by anyone. It is also one of the few creoles to garner high levels of respect among societal elites. Despite being spoken by a relatively small population, more resources exist to learn Bislama than almost any other creole. This has made it an incredible case study for linguists, and serves as an example for how other creoles can attain prestige in their societies. Given that creoles can teach us so much about languages generally this is an incredibly exciting trend, and one we can only hope continues into the future.