LINGUIST List 15.1689

Tue Jun 1 2004

Review: Morphology: Kouwenberg (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  1. Mike Maxwell, Twice as Meaningful: Reduplication in Pidgins, Creoles

Message 1: Twice as Meaningful: Reduplication in Pidgins, Creoles

Date: Mon, 31 May 2004 23:09:05 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mike Maxwell <>
Subject: Twice as Meaningful: Reduplication in Pidgins, Creoles

EDITOR: Kouwenberg, Silvia 
TITLE: Twice as Meaningful
SUBTITLE: Reduplication in Pidgins, Creoles and Other Contact Languages
SERIES: Westminster Creolistics Series - 8
PUBLISHER: Battlebridge Publications
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Mike Maxwell, Linguistic Data Consortium / University of Pennsylvania.

For those who speak languages like English, reduplication seems at the
same time exotic, rare, and (for linguists, at least) fascinating.
Fascinating it may be, but at least in Creole languages it is not
rare. This volume brings together a wealth of studies on
reduplication in Creoles.

The relevance of this book for creolists and for morphologists
interested in reduplication should be obvious. Lest other readers
turn to other matters, at the end of this review I will suggest some
reasons this book may be important for language documentation and

Most of the papers here were originally presented at the 4th
Westminster Creolistics Workshop on reduplication in contact
languages, in 1999. But there appears to have been a great deal of
revision between workshop and publication, and a few of the chapters
have other sources.

The editor, Silvia Kouwenberg, does an excellent job of setting the
stage for the collected papers. First, she notes that defining
reduplication is not as simple as it might seem. She proposes a
working definition, but notes that this very definition is in need of
study. (And I would add that it may in part be a theory-internal

With this caveat, Kouwenberg outlines the issues discussed in the
remainder of the book:

 o whether the substrate languages are the source of the
 reduplicative processes in the daughter languages, or
 reduplication arose independently in creoles;

 o reduplication in creoles vs. pidgins;

 o the form of reduplication in creoles (complete vs.
 partial reduplication);

 o the meaning of the reduplicated forms.

To attempt to summarize and comment on all 34 papers would result in a
truly boring review. It should suffice to say that while there is the
occasional misunderstanding of some theoretical point, or evidence
which is not quite strong enough to support the conclusion that an
author attempts to draw, I did not find a single paper which did not
make some interesting points. And while this is not really a comment
on the value of the papers, I found it refreshing to read a linguistic
analysis of other languages in which I could more or less understand
the example sentences without laboriously working through the
word-by-word translations. For instance, example (38a) from Hubert
Devonish's article on reduplication in Guyanese Creole:

 Mi sii wait daag, wait daag, wait daag,
 aal oova di plees.
 ''I saw large numbers of white dogs everywhere.''

(Not all the languages are English-based creoles, of course!)

So instead of reviewing each paper, I will try to summarize some of
the main issues which the papers focus on, including the issues
mentioned by Kouwenberg (above).

I begin with the genesis question: is reduplication in creoles
inherited from the languages out of which the creoles arose, or did it
arise independently?

One form of the independent origin theory would say that reduplication
arose from the innate language learning program, operating not just to
support learning of a language, but in the creation of a new language.
Demonstrating this, however, requires demonstrating the implausibility
of other explanations for the origin of reduplication in the creoles.

Naively, this might seem an easy question to answer: if reduplication
happens in the same way, performing the same function, in the
substrate language and in the creole, then surely the simplest
explanation is that reduplication in the creole was borrowed from the
substrate (or substrates). And indeed one can point to similar kinds
of reduplication in many of the predecessor languages (e.g. the West
African languages spoken by the presumed ancestors of the later
speakers of Caribbean creoles).

Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that the reduplication processes
found in the creoles were inherited. The functions of reduplication
(and in many, if not most, of languages, both creole and substrate,
reduplication plays many roles) are not an exact match, and the form
of reduplication is often quite distinct. (More on the latter below.)
Moreover, the function of reduplication is so often iconic (bearing
meanings like ''more of'', ''repeated action'', etc.) that even where
functions match between substrate and creole, one is left wondering
whether this is simply coincidence.

Given that reduplication is so often iconic, the best evidence for
transfer might come from non-iconic reduplication, provided this can
be related to similar non-iconic reduplication in one of the source
languages. An example might be the use of reduplication to indicate
attenuation (such as 'redi-redi' for ''a little red'', an example in
Parkvall's paper ''Reduplication in the Atlantic Creoles''). But in
the end even this is questionable; relatively few productive uses of
reduplication are truly non-iconic, and for those that are non-iconic,
the correspondences between reduplication in substrate and creole
often seem shaky.

Concerning this last point, Bakker writes (pg. 79):

 Reduplication exists in (almost?) all West
 African language families, although its
 semantic functions vary widely. It should
 be easy to find productive process of
 reduplication in West African languages that
 are similar to [Saramaccan] reduplications.

I suspect that it may be all too easy, so that any similarity between
the function of reduplication in Saramaccan and a West African
language might be purely coincidental.

But suppose for a moment that reduplication in creoles is in fact
carried over from pidgins. One might then hope that the mechanism of
this transfer would be discoverable. In particular, if one assumes
that creoles arose from the substrate languages by way of an
intermediate pidgin, then one might suppose that reduplication entered
the creole by way of that intermediate. And until recently, it was
believed that reduplication was commonplace in pidgins, allowing for
just such an uninterrupted trail. Un- fortunately for this theory,
Bakker shows in his paper (and several other authors further
substantiate the point) that contrary to the received notion, there
are very few attested instances of reduplication in (true) pidgin
languages. Assuming Bakker to be correct--and his evidence seems
quite convincing, once languages which have been called pidgins but
which for one reason or another do not fall squarely into this
category (I will resist the temptation to say 'pigeonhole') are
removed from the sample--the presumed simple chain of transfer is

However, it seems quite possible that creoles and other languages
having reduplication co-existed for a period in an adstrate relation,
and that bilingual creole speakers borrowed reduplication from the
latter. Something very much like this situation existed (and still
exists) in some of the Creole Englishes of Liberia, one of which
Singler discusses in his article. Unfortunately for our purposes,
this is not a good test case for the borrowing theory, since true
reduplication turns out not to be productive in this language. The
situation is clearer for some of the Indo-Portuguese Creoles, where
borrowing of reduplication from the adstrate languages seems
indisputable. This does not of course establish that this form of
inheritance accounts for all cases, but it is at least suggestive.

The form of reduplication is given some attention in many of the
papers, although for some of the languages with partial reduplication,
I would have preferred more details. In particular, there are a few
cases where the rules or generalizations do not seem to match the

Whole word reduplication is common in the creoles, almost to the
exclusion of partial reduplication, whereas partial reduplication
seems the norm in ''older'' languages, including many of the substrate
(and adstrate) languages where these are known. The difference in the
form of reduplication again makes the case for a substrate source of
reduplication again seem weak (and it might argue against an adstrate
source, although this is perhaps less clear).

But this difference between the form of reduplication in the substrate
or adstrate language and in the creoles seems to me to be one of the
more interesting stories these studies have to tell; for it seems at
least plausible that we have found reduplication in its basic form,
and that we can track its historical development from the beginning
stages of iteration (repetition, presumably at the syntactic level),
through its early morphological stages (full word reduplication), and
on to various sorts of partial reduplication--if not in a single
language, at least in related languages. Indeed, several of the
creoles show what look like early stages of partial reduplication,
attributable to the differential affect of phonological rules on base
and reduplicant, or length-based effects (such as reduction of
unstressed syllables).

One of the generalizations that one is tempted to make, is that
repetition consists of an essentially unbounded number of copies of a
word (think of ''big, big, big!'') or even a phrase; whereas
reduplication is usually grammaticalized to allow a single, not
necessarily complete, copy of the base. Intriguingly, one paper (that
of John Ladhams, Tjerk Hagemeijer, Philippe Maurer, and Marike Post)
alludes to what may be a counterexample: multiple iterations with only
partial copying. Unfortunately, no data are given.

The meaning of reduplication also receives a great deal of attention.
I mentioned earlier that the this meaning is often iconic. But there
is a substantial range of these iconic meanings, as well as many
non-iconic (or even seemingly anti-iconic) meanings, and most of the
authors go to great pains, within the limits of article length, to
elucidate and illustrate this. In sum, there is a wealth of
information on the meaning of reduplication here.

At the beginning of this review, I suggested that this book may hold
interest for language documentation and description, that is, for
efforts to preserve for future generations the properties of languages
which may some day go extinct. And extinction is a possibility for
nearly all the languages of this book--indeed, for Limonese Creole (of
Costa Rica), two of the authors report that the language is already
experiencing both loss in number of speakers, and loss in terms of the
usage of reduplication among the remaining speakers. In my opinion,
reduplication is the morphological process that can tell us the most
about the nature of both morphology and phonology. It is bad enough
when a language becomes extinct; speaking as a linguist, it is even
worse when that language holds clues that would help us in a unique
way to unlock one of the mysteries of human language. The papers in
this book, then, serve an especially important role in documenting a
particular aspect of languages, many of which may become extinct, and
the editors are to be commended for encouraging this.

However, I believe there is more that this book can teach us about
language documentation than just the familiar precept ''document
before extinction.'' The terms ''language documentation'' and
''language description'' cover a wide range of practices, from simple
(if extensive) transcription of texts at one end, to more or less
detailed grammatical and lexical analysis at the other. The argument
in favor of the former is that there are so many endangered languages
that there is time for only text collection. The argument in favor of
the latter is that detailed analysis may uncover rare but interesting
phenomena, and that unless further data collection is guided by
analysis, there may be insufficient examples of these rare phenomena
in the corpus for future linguists to be able to tell what is going

The data collection methodologies in this book span this range of
practices: Nordlander and Shrimpton explore reduplication in a
comparatively small (and translated) corpus, namely the New Testament;
and at several points, they are forced to refrain from making stronger
generalizations because of the sparseness of the data. Gooden's
article, on the other hand, benefits from elicitation of acceptability
judgements from native speakers, including the author himself,
allowing for a correspondingly more detailed analysis. (Dictionaries
are a third commonly cited source of information, although I question
whether lexicographers will document productive reduplication.) My
point is not to that Gooden's methodology is better than that of
Nordlander and Shrimpton (both have their place), but rather that the
range of studies in this book of a single phenomenon, reduplication,
provides a unique window into the strengths and weaknesses of the
various methodologies.

(For the record, the studies do show that even substantial corpora
leave unanswered questions. Particularly unclear in the corpora-based
studies is the productivity of reduplication. This can be a crucial
question: since morphology, unlike syntax, can in principle be simply
memorized, one should hesitate to base ones theory on a process which
may turn out to be unproductive. My conclusion is that if you are
documenting a language which has reduplication, you should do more
than collect corpora.)

Finally, I wish to add what may seem like a trivial comment, about the
cover. Finding appropriate illustrations for covers of linguistics
books must tax the abilities of whoever does this. In the case of
this book, however, the illustration is wonderfully appropriate. (And
no, I won't give it away!)


Mike Maxwell works on morphological processing and language resource
collection at the Linguistic Data Consortium. He has also studied
indigenous languages of Ecuador and Colombia, under SIL.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue