What is the Creole Language?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Drummers at the Gullah Festival in South Carolina. Based on English, with strong influences from many African languages, Gullah is a creole spoken by the "Geechees" on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. (Bob Krist/Getty Images)

In linguistics, a creole is a type of natural language that developed historically from a pidgin and came into existence at a fairly precise point in time. English creoles are spoken by some of the people in Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and parts of Georgia and South Carolina.

The historical transition from a pidgin to a creole is called creolizationDecreolization is the process by which a creole language gradually becomes more like the standard language of a region (or the acrolect).

The language that provides a creole with most of its vocabulary is called the lexifier language. For example, the lexifier language of Gullah (also called Sea Island Creole English) is English

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Creolization
    - "A pidgin is the combination of two or more languages which sometimes occurs in trade contact, multi-ethnic or refugee situations, where participants need a functioning common language. . . . Sometimes the pidgin becomes stable and established and comes to be spoken as a mother-tongue by children: the language has then become a creole, which quickly develops in complexity and is used in all functional settings. The process of turning a pidgin into a creole is called creolization."
    (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2007)
    -  "A creole has a jargon or a pidgin in its ancestry; it is spoken natively by an entire speech community, often one whose ancestors were displaced geographically so that their ties with their original language and sociocultural identity were partly broken. Such social conditions were often the result of slavery."
    (John A. Holm, An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Similar Features of Creoles
    "Linguists have been struck by the similarities between widely separated creoles. These include such features as SVO word order, pre-verbal negation, lack of a formal passive voice, questions with the same forms as statements, and copula deletion. Some linguists argue that such similarities are evidence of an innate language faculty or 'bioprogram'—that in conditions of impoverished linguistic input, children will nevertheless develop a fully fledged syntax based on 'universal grammar.'"
    (Michael Pearce, The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies. Routledge, 2007)
  • Gullah
    - "The English variety spoken by descendants of Africans on the coast of South Carolina is known as Gullah and has been identified as a creole. Of all the vernaculars associated with African Americans, it is the one that diverges the most from (White) middle-class varieties in North America."
    (S.S. Mufwene, "North American Varieties of English as Byproducts of Population Contacts," in The Workings of Language, ed. by R. S. Wheeler. Greenwood, 1999)
    - "On possible to get straight wood from crooked timber."
    (A Gullah proverb, from The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, 2005)
    - "The Gullah lexicon is largely English. From his research conducted in the late 1930s, Lorenzo Turner was the first linguist to document over 4000 Africanisms in the Gullah lexicon, many of them used as basket names (e.g. Gullahnicknames). Today you can still hear in normal everyday conversations such African retentions as buckra 'white man,' tita 'elder sister,' dada 'mother or elder sister,' nyam 'eat/meat,' sa 'quickly,' benne 'sesame,' una 'you,' and da the verb 'to be.' Other Gullah Africanisms such as cooter 'turtle,' tote 'to carry,' okra 'plant food,' gumbo 'stew,' and goober 'peanut' are widely used in mainstream American English."
    (Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, ed. by Keith Brown and Sarah Ogilvie. Elsevier, 2009
  • Disagreements Over the Creole Roots of Black English in the U.S.
    "[A]s for various arguments that Black English displays African or creole roots because of the role that aspect plays in its grammar (e.g., DeBose and Faraclas 1993), the issue is in fact not yet sufficiently examined to stand as an accepted fact. For one, tense plays a much more central role in Black English grammar than in Creoles or the West African languages of the 'Upper Guinea' region, underlyingly marking the past and future as obligatorily as any Indo-European grammar (cf. also Winford 1998: 116). Second, typical of Creolist Hypothesis advocates' generally insufficient attention to English dialects, the aspect arguments do not address the role that aspect in nonstandard British dialects may have played. This gap in argumentation alone renders the linkage of Black English aspect to Africa and creoles seriously incomplete, which is all the more significant given that there is indeed evidence that nonstandard British dialects are more aspect-focused than standard English (Trugdill and Chambers 1991)."
    (John H. McWhorter, Defining Creoles. Oxford University Press, 2005)

    Pronunciation: KREE-ol