A creole language is one which arises from the fusion of two or more cultures, typically in a colonial context. It is distinct from a pidgin, which is the name given to the rough-and-ready dialect spoken when people of different language groups are obliged to interact. Unlike a creole, a pidgin is not, strictly speaking, a language.
A pidgin arises out of necessity, and is informed by the inbuilt human aptitude for communication against the odds. It will be drawn from the different languages of those people who participate in its creation, and will typically be based in the language of the dominant social group – thus, in the British Caribbean, the pidgins spoken were noticeably derived from English.
A pidgin will not, however, be grammatically coherent: each speaker of a pidgin will put their own twist on it, using grammatical elements or vocabulary derived from their birth language, meaning that there will be as many versions of a pidgin as there are speakers of it.
Miraculously, almost, a pidgin becomes a creole with the first generation who speak the language from birth. Whilst their parents speak a sort of Frankenstein’s monster dialect, all of the children born speaking the same pidgin will do so consistently, both with each other and within their own use of it. In other words, in the space of one generation, the scrappy, inconsistent dialect spoken by the parents emerges as a smooth, polished, fully formed language: a creole. The study of this process is a sub-set of linguistics, known as creolistics.
Chomsky famously used the example of the progress from a pidgin to a creole to support his hypothesis of an innate language function in the brain. He argued that human beings will take the language being spoken around them as infants (lit: ‘without speech’), feed it through a sort of grammatical paradigm, and end up speaking a perfectly consistent version of that language. We see something similar in cases where a child is born to two deaf parents who communicate through sign language. If the parents learned sign language later on in life, they will speak it imperfectly, but, regardless of whether the child is deaf, it will end up fluent in sign language.
A particularly interesting example of this tendency comes from Nicaragua. When the first deaf school was established in Nicaragua in the late 70s, the teachers communicated with the children by way of simple fingerspelling and lipreading, but the children failed to progress with this method. Instead, independently, in the playground and on the way to school, they developed a system of signs and gestures with which to communicate. This system rapidly progressed from a rudimentary pidgin to a fully-fledged, internally-coherent creole sign language, now known as Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN).
An important effort of the movement which became known as post-colonialism was the revindication of creoles, and their elevation to the status of literary languages. Derek Walcott is perhaps the most famous proponent of this re-evaluation, mixing Caribbean creole and ‘standard’ English in his poetry, most notably in his Omeros. But the most prominent example of the strength and vivacity of creole languages is, of course, the worldwide spread of Jamaican musical forms. In a curious inversion of the political situation which gave rise to creole languages in the first place, the ‘patois’ used by Bob Marley, for example, is recognised throughout the world.
Here is a poem in Jamaican creole by the most famous Jamaican “patois” poet, Louise Bennett. ‘Back to Africa’ addresses many of the key questions behind creole languages and culture.
Back to Africa
Back to Africa, Miss Mattie?
You no know wha you dah seh?
You haf fe come from somewhe fus
Before you go back deh!
Me know say dat you great great great
Granma was African,
But Mattie, doan you great great great
Granpa was Englishman?
Den you great granmader fader
By you fader side was Jew?
An you granpa by you mader side
Was Frenchie parlez-vous?
But de balance a you family,
You whole generation,
Oonoo all barn dung a Bun Grung-
Oonoo all is Jamaican!
Den is weh you gwine, Miss Mattie?
Oh, you view de countenance,
An between you an de Africans
Is great resemblance!
Ascorden to dat, all dem blue-yeye
Who-fa great granpa was Englishman
Mus go back a Englan!
What a debil of a bump-an-bore,
Rig-jig an palam-pam
Ef de whole worl start fe go back
Whe dem great granpa come from!
Ef a hard time you dah run from
Tek you chance! But Mattie, do
Sure a whe you come from so you got
Somewhe fe come back to!
Go a foreign, seek you fortune,
But no tell nobody say
You dah go fe seek you homelan,
For a right deh so you deh!
And here is a fantastic blog about translating Creole poetry from Haiti. As the author Merete Mueller observes:
Syntax and vocabulary are not only tools for communication, but for organizing and understanding the world that surrounds us. The moment that I really understood this was when I looked up the word “poverty” in my Creole-English dictionary and found that it was also the used to describe a “hollow tin can.” The power of this image is breathtaking, and one that belongs solely to Creole.