What do you know about creole languages? I find the whole topic of creole languages to be absolutely fascinating. As such, today I’m going to be looking at things like creole language origin, creole grammar, examples of creole language, creole speaking countries and much, much more.
There’s so much to say on this topic that you could spend your whole life studying it. Some people do, in fact – they’re called creolists and their field of study is creolistics (also known as creology).
I think part of the attraction, for me, is linguists’ inability to entirely classify how creoles have come about. There are plenty of theories relating to the evolution of creole languages, but no theory fits with every creole. And while there are many similarities between creoles, there is also no fixed set of rules that governs every creole language.
I’ll look at this in more depth below, along with some of the socio-historical factors behind the proliferation of creole languages over the last 500 to 600 years.
First, I want to address the most pressing question on this topic: what is creole language?
The creole language definition is broadly accepted as: a stable natural language that has been created through the mixing of two other languages. There are around 100 examples of creole language in existence today, with many of them (but far from all) based on English, French and Portuguese.
Creole languages differ from pidgin languages in that people grow up speaking creoles as their first language. Pidgins, on the other hand, are learned as a second language in order to facilitate communication in areas where different, mutually unintelligible languages are spoken. For further insights into the differences between languages, dialects and more, you can click the link below.
Creoles take the mixing of languages to the next level, with their own grammatical structures and native speakers. The term ‘creole’ is from the French ‘créole,’ which is itself descended from the Latin ‘creare,’ meaning to create or produce. It was originally used (along with ‘criollo’ in Spanish and ‘crioulo’ in Portuguese) in colonies established by Europeans during the Age of Exploration. In some colonies, the term referred to those of European descent who were born within the colony, rather than having immigrated. In others, such as Brazil, the term was used to describe people of African descent who were born in Brazil, as opposed to those who were brought there on slave ships.
Today, ‘creole’ is used by many distinct ethnic groups to describe themselves. It is also used to describe the 100 or so languages that have arisen through the blending of two other languages.
Creole languages are hugely diverse and there is no single theory that can explain every creole origin. Of course, that hasn’t stopped linguists from trying and there are several theories out there around the development of creole languages. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
The most commonly accepted theory, and the one behind the usual creole language definition, is that a creole language is a pidgin that has ended up replacing settlers’ original language, with their descendants growing up speaking the creole as their mother tongue.
As they evolve into stable languages, creoles take on their own grammatical structures, as well as vocabulary. And it is in relation to creole grammar that linguists’ views diverge quite significantly. I’ll include some examples of creole language grammar theories here.
There are three main camps when it comes to creole origin and development theories.
The substrate theory is that the structural features of African languages were laid over the top of European languages as part of creole formation.
The superstrate theory is that creoles’ structural features are drawn from the European languages on which they are based.
Then there’s the universalist theory, which asserts that those learning to speak creoles natively imposed new structures, based on the principles of universal grammar.
The issue, of course, is that creoles can’t be neatly boxed into any of these categories. Each creole has its own structural quirks. Many more closely reflect the grammar of one of their parent languages than the other, but there are no set rules that seem to apply to this. Many creoles are also notable for the simplicity of their grammatical structure.
I’ve mentioned the Age of Exploration above, as this played a key role in the development of many of the creoles that are in use today. European colonial trade patterns and the slave trade did much to lay the foundations of many of the English, French and Portuguese-based creoles that are still in use today.
Pidgins arose where communication was required but where those speaking could not understand each other’s language. These pidgins facilitated trade, including the trafficking of Africans en masse across the Atlantic as slaves for the European colonies in the Americas.
In both Africa and the Americas, many of these pidgin languages evolved over time to become stable natural languages – creole languages. Many of the parent pidgins have been lost to the sands of time, which is one of the things that can make it hard for us to trace the precise foundations of a particular creole language.
Creole languages were, of course, not solely the result of the slave trade or of colonisation, though those two factors have been the most influential. Other types of creole have also sprung up elsewhere around the world, as we’ll look in more depth at below.
While I can’t cover all 100 or so creoles here, I’ve picked out some of the most widely spoken in order to provide a flavour of the extent to which creoles are used.
When British sailors established colonies and trading outpost in the Americas and Africa, they took their language with them. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, both pidgins and creoles developed in order to facilitate communication.
Today, English creole examples can be found in Africa, in the Caribbean and in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Some of the most widely spoken include:
Nigerian Pidgin, despite the name, is in fact a creole language. It is widely used across Nigeria and is thought to have around 30 million first language speakers and 40 million second language speakers.
87% of the population of Sierra Leone speaks Krio. That includes some 473,000 people who speak it as a first language and as many as four million who speak it as a second language.
Over three million people speak Jamaican Creole. It’s spoken not only by residents of Jamaica but by the Jamaican diaspora. The language is based on English and Akan, along with other West African linguistic influences.
Also known as Cameroonian Pidgin English and Kamtok, this creole language is spoken natively by around 5% of Cameroonians and as a second language by around 50%. In total, it’s spoken by over two million people.
Evolved from English and the local languages of Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin has up to a million native speakers now, with around four million second language speakers.
Hawaiian Creole English has a total of a million speakers, including 600,000 first language speakers and 400,000 people who speak it as a second tongue.
Spoken in Suriname, where it is used as a lingua franca, Sranan Tongo has around 550,000 total speakers.
Around 400,000 people in the Bahamas speak Bahamian Creole natively. There are significant links between this creole and many of those spoken throughout the Caribbean region.
Spoken in Barbados, Bajan is also known as Barbadian Creole. It is used as a main language by some 286,000 Barbadians (compared to around 1,000 Barbadians who use English as their main language).
Also referred to as Sea Island Creole, Gullah has around 250,000 speakers, spread across the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States. Gullah speakers can also be found in north-eastern Florida and the south-east of North Carolina.
This is the collective name for the creole languages spoken in Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the British territories of Anguilla and Montserrat. Together they are home to around 150,000 speakers of Leeward Caribbean Creole English.
Belizean Kriol has around 150,000 native speakers and approximately 200,000 second language speakers. It is the lingua franca in Belize, while a number of speakers have also moved to the US.
I touched on the topic of French-based creoles ever so briefly recently, when writing about French-speaking countries (you can click the link below to jump to that article). Now, I would like to explore some of the most widely spoken in a little more detail.
Haitian Creole is the most widely spoken of any creole language, with between 10 and 12 million speakers. It is one of two official languages in Haiti, where the majority of the population speak it.
Antilliean Creole has around 1.2 million native speakers, spread across Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Îles des Saintes, Martinique, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and The Grenadines, French Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela
Also called Morisien, Mauritian Creole is spoken natively by over a million people in Mauritius, with a further 200,000 second language speakers.
The island of Réunion is home to around 560,000 native Réunion Creole speakers. Like many creoles, it is largely used as a spoken language rather than a written one.
One of the three official languages of the Seychelles, Seychellois Creole has around 73,000 native speakers.
Also known as Kouri-Vini, Louisiana Creole is spoken in Louisiana, in the United States, as well as in southern California, Illinois and eastern Texas. It is an endangered language, with fewer than 10,000 native speakers.
Portuguese navigators took their language around the globe – something I explored in my recent article on Portuguese-speaking countries (you can access it via the link below). They gave birth to a number of creoles, though many are now all but extinct. However, Portuguese-based creole examples can still be found in Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé e Principe and the Cape Verde Islands.
Referred to locally as Kriolu or Kriol, Cape Verdean Creole is spoken by around 870,000 people as a first language in Cape Verde.
Spoken in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau Creole has a million native speakers and another 600,000 second language speakers.
The most widely spoken language on the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, Papiamento has around 340,000 native speakers.
Forro Creole is spoken natively by some 70,000 people on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe, who also refer to it as Sãotomense Creole or Santomense Creole.
A number of other Portuguese-based creole languages exist, but speaker numbers are dwindling. Examples of Portuguese creole languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers include:
• Annobonese Creole
• Daman and Diu Indo-Portuguese
• Macanese Patois
• Sri Lanka Indo-Portuguese – on the brink of extinction, with just a few families left who speak it at home
As I mentioned above, creoles exist based on a wide variety of languages. Some examples of these include:
Kituba is spoken extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to some 4.2 million speakers of this Kongo-based creole.
With 2.7 million speakers, Betawi is the largest Malay-based creole. Speakers are based in Indonesia.
Chavacano is a Spanish-based spoken in the Philippines by around 290,000 people.
A Swahili-based creole, Cutchi-Swahili is spoken by approximately 46,000 people in Kenya and Tanzania.
A Malay-based creole, Malay Kupang is spoken in West Timor, by around 200,000 people.
We can learn a great deal from the creole language examples that exist around the world today. Creolized language examples provide insights into the way that languages develop and evolve. And as creole languages are found across the globe, there are plenty of learning points to study.
There is, in fact, an argument that all languages were creoles at some point. In 1933, for example, Sigmund Feist put forward a very credible creole origin theory for Germanic languages.
At a high level, creoles teach us that it’s possible to overcome a complete lack of shared language in order to achieve a goal. When the parties on both sides want to achieve that goal, they will do whatever it takes to do so – including the creation of entire new languages through which to communicate.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick dip into creoles. As I said at the start, it’s a huge topic and one that I find endlessly fascinating.
I’ve used this article to walk you through some of the basics, including:
• The definition of a creole language
• Creole origin and evolution theories
• Socio-historic factors in the proliferation of creoles
• A look at some examples of creole languages
• A list of creole languages
There are plenty of books out there on creoles if you want to further your knowledge. Or perhaps you could dive straight in and learn to speak a creole language yourself? And if you’re up for a real challenge, click the link below to discover which are the hardest languages to learn.
Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
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