LINGUIST List 14.2659

Thu Oct 2 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Singh (2000) (2nd review)

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  1. Kerry Varcoe, Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction

Message 1: Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction

Date: Wed, 01 Oct 2003 19:27:34 +0000
From: Kerry Varcoe <>
Subject: Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction

Singh, Ishtla (2000) Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction, Oxford
University Press.

Announced at

Kerry Varcoe, Literacy-based Rural Development and Endangered Language
Conservation, Indonesia Branch, SIL International.

[For another review of this book, see --Eds.]


Singh intends her book to be used as an intermediate level university
textbook to introduce the processes and factors which influence the
development of pidgins and creoles. The author seeks to fill a
perceived gap between existing introductory and advanced treatments.

Consisting of four chapters, the book is prefaced with two maps which
indicate the location of a few creoles and pidgin languages. One map
is entirely devoted to creoles and pidgins of the author's
homeland. The other map locates pidgins and creoles which have mostly
developed out of contact with European languages.


The first chapter begins by defining the terms jargon, pidgin and,
most importantly for Singh, creole. Singh neatly deconstructs various
metaphors used to model creolistic theory. She critiques both the way
such metaphors or paradigms screen out or hide other interesting facts
and she also exposes how the metaphors were used as a means to further
marginalize and denigrate pidgins and especially creoles.

The chapter continues with a discussion of how creolistics has
impacted the related fields of sociolinguistics, historical
linguistics and language acquisition and learning studies. Singh
concludes chapter one by calling for more data-based studies on
creolization, pidginization and second language acquisition.

In the second chapter Singh introduces the debate over how creole
languages develop. She discusses a variety of creole genesis theories;
the Foreigner Talk Theory, the Imperfect L2 Learning Hypothesis, the
Nautical Jargon Theory, the Monogenesis Theory and finally the
Language Bioprogram Hypothesis (LBH). The author concludes that the
first two theories, the Foreigner Talk Theory and the Imperfect L2
Learning Hypothesis, over-emphasize the role of the ''superstratal''
language. She deconstructs and rejects the next two theories, the
Nautical Jargon Theory and the Monogenesis Theory, citing lack of
evidence as their main problem. Singh then devotes the rest of the
chapter to the LBH in order to explain the commonalities between
creole languages. She points out that some of the reasoning in LBH is
circular, and that the available data can be inconclusively
interpreted in different ways. She concludes the chapter by qualifying
creole genesis theory development as provisional and in dire need of a
good deal more data.

The third chapter describes the creole continuum theory as an attempt
to explain what happens when the former supertstrate language of a
local creole continues to be used in the locality as the official and
most prestigious language. In regards to prestige, as baso-and
mesolectal creole is spoken in increasingly more prestigious settings,
more lexico-grammatical forms of the acrolect are employed. Singh
terms as language suicide or death that state of affairs when the
speakers of a less prestigious language will switch entirely and
permanently to a more prestigious one.

Singh informs us that, while the creole continuum model has value, its
unidimensionality ignores other continua at play, such as the ''sweet
talk/broad talk'' and ''careful/casual'' continua. She points out that
illustrative benefits can accrue from using other descriptive
metaphors such as images of webs, marble cakes or masses of soap
bubbles. The creole continuum is refreshingly made transparent as she
models alternate theories and tries to factor in more
social-psychological motivators for speech variation, implicitly
inviting the intermediate student reader to see that language
variation is as complex as society itself and that the reader is free
to try for themselves formulating alternate explanatory models.

After a brief definition of language planning as it relates to
creoles, illustrated with historical references to the standardization
of modern Hebrew, French and English in their respective homelands,
Singh uses a Trinidadian case study to alert the reader to the problem
that European-language lexifier creoles are often still considered by
their native speakers as deficient and shameful forms of the
standardized Indo-European acrolect.

Language programmers operating on this assumption tried making the
standardized Indo-European language the medium of instruction in
primary and secondary education. However, the very high rate of
failure to attain fluency in the standardized form made some language
planners and critics realize that they were really looking at a
diglossic situation. This in turn led to concessions wherein primary
instruction has been permitted in the creoles in order for children to
obtain necessary literacy tools before learning the acrolect as a
second language. However, the continuing ''failure'' to acquire the
standard form continues to vex the program planners, and persists as
proof that creoles are different languages from their lexifiers, not
just dialects.

The ongoing problem as the author sees it is that many creoles with
Indo-European languages as the lexifier are still considered by both
the populations that speak them and by the language planners
themselves as inferior to their standardized European forms. This
attitude is seen in the preservation of the European language as the
sole language of government and education while the creoles are
excluded from most print or allowed only in bracketed form in jokes,
cartoons and some narrative. According to Singh this bracketing
maintains the false dichotomy between the official European language
as prestigious and the creoles as base.

Singh recommends that language programming be more inclusive of
creoles by treating them as viable means of communication worthy of
preservation, and by taking steps to increase the prestige of creoles
in the eyes of both their speakers and others. While the globalization
of international commercial relations influences creole speakers to
learn the more standardized forms of the European lexifier languages,
the esteem of creoles, and by extension, creole speakers, needs the
intervention of language program planners.


While it is refreshing to hear a mother-tongue Creole speaker
introducing creolistics from a Caribbean perspective, on the other
hand the book is heavy on Caribbean examples. Singh over-emphasizes
European-superstrate creoles and European colonial history. Little
mention is made of the development of creoles with non-European
languages serving as the supertstrate and where slavery was absent,
such as in the case of the Malay-superstrate creoles of Indonesia.

While Singh critiques the use of binary oppositions such as
''natural/non-natural'' and the metaphor of language ''families'' as
value- laden and discriminatory against pidgins and creoles (p.33,
top), she then apparently uncritically uses the similarly dichotomized
and value- laden binary terminology ''central/marginal'',
''master/slave'' and ''colonizer/colonized''. Her analysis of creole
development and use as it relates to ''power'' could benefit from
reconceptualizing ''power'' as diffuse and existing everywhere in

In chapter two, Singh wisely locates in an holistic, historical matrix 
her introduction to theories of creole genesis. The quotes from some 
old European linguists were fascinating. However, the extended 
historical treatment meant less space was available to discuss various 

In discussing creole genesis, Singh might have questioned the role of
social dynamics and power between subaltern individuals and groups on
a ''horizontal'' orientation, rather than looking to biological
determinism on one hand, and dichotomistic master/slave relations on
the other. Singh tantalizingly approaches such an analysis in the
intriguing account of Nicaraguan sign language. On p.61 she mentions
that one child in particular amongst the G2 signers, Mayela, had
exceptional ability and flare. Singh quotes Judy Kegl as saying she
felt ''someone had given this woman the rule book''. Could it be that
this influential individual's idiolect formed the syntactic and
grammatical pattern to which the other young signers willingly
conformed for social/relational reasons?

The same sort of horizontal social analysis might have been applied to
the case of Hawaiian Creole English. Singh recounts how the creole
abruptly emerged on sugar plantations after the native Hawaiian worker
population was augmented by a sudden influx of workers from China,
Portugal, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Puerto Rico during a 25-45
year period (p.53). Singh could have enhanced her discussion of LBH by
also questioning the role of differing levels of prestige and
influence between the subaltern groups. If one group were relatively
few in number and lacking status and influence in the plantation
worker society, they may have exerted less influence on how the creole
developed and may have been more likely to assimilate to a more
influential subaltern group's contributions. An influential clique
with one particular set of grammatical rules could by their influence,
by their assertions of being central and by the motivations of their
peers to be included, have drawn their peers to adopt their own
particular creole variety.

There are numerous other problems with Singh's supportive discussion
of the LBH. Whereas Singh suggests a list of twelve possibly
biologically determined grammatical features, when offering Nicaraguan
sign language as proof for LBH she can only identify three grammatical
features in sign language that correspond to her list of bioprogram
universals. This is less than convincing support for the LBH.

Some of the twelve possible universals on Singh's list could also
result from reduction and simplification processes. The fact that
children use a simplified form of adult speech could also be
influenced by adult-to-children talk, similar to foreigner talk,
rather than from bioprogramming alone. And finally, since there are
still upward of 4000 living languages yet to be documented, it is
somewhat premature to speak of universals.

In her discussion of the ''creole continuum'' in chapter three Singh
refers to ''sweet talk/broad talk'' and ''careful/casual'' as
Trinidadian creole speech varieties that are not explainable by a
simplistic, unidimensional continuum model, but there is no
consideration of the influence of dialect variation. The
sociolinguistic factors which determine which dialect variety is used
in a given context in a monolingual setting could also be at work
alongside the creolic dynamics in a ''creole continuum''. In other
words it would have been interesting if the dynamics of ''creole
continuua'' had been compared and contrasted with the dynamics of
dialect variation, where those who desire to be identified as
belonging to the most influential classes conform their speech to the
influential class, and those who for other motivations wish to
distance themselves from the status quo speak non- standardized speech

In the book's last chapter on language program planning, in the light
of globalization of languages such as English, Singh raises the
question, Is there room for creoles?

Singh's focus on the relationship between European standard acrolects
in contrast to creoles in former European colonies constitutes a
somewhat skewed matrix within which to locate language program
planning. Language planning and the attempt to assimilate indigenous
languages in developing countries is carried out on the large part by
non-European language speaking governments. In the Republic of the
Philippines for example, Tagalog, the minority language of the
political elite, has been declared the national language and the
education system used to promote Tagalog over other indigenous speech

While Singh suggests how language planners could help extend the use
of creoles, she does not consider that permanently and irreversibly
switching from creole to a superstrate language may actually be a
viable option for some individuals and communities. While it may not
sound politically correct, people and communities should also be free
to switch languages if they feel it will make their lives more

I recommend this book for use by 2nd year university educational and
linguistics students. The book's brevity and restricted scope and
depth lend it well as an introduction to creolistics within a more
general course introducing sociolinguistics. I believe 2nd year
college students would have no problem reading this as a companion to
a selection of other texts in one course. The author's perspective on
minority rights also lends the book well to use as an introduction to
issues of fairness in bilingual and multi-ethnic education.


Kerry Varcoe currently works in Indonesia as a linguistics consultant
in endangered language conservation and literacy-based rural community
development. Kerry holds an MA in applied linguistics from Charles
Darwin University. Kerry is interested in critical semiotics and in
the use of psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and anthropological
linguistics in understanding minority deconstructions of and
resistances to dominant metaphors and cultural themes involved in the
narrative formation of personal identity (a la Foucault's
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