LINGUIST List 15.724

Sun Feb 29 2004

Review: Discours�/Socioilinguistics: M�hleisen (2002)

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  1. Elizabeth Grace Winkler, Creole Discourse

Message 1: Creole Discourse

Date: Sun, 29 Feb 2004 01:23:11 -0500 (EST)
From: Elizabeth Grace Winkler <>
Subject: Creole Discourse

M�hleisen, Susanne (2002) Creole Discourse: Exploring Prestige
Formation and Change across Caribbean English-lexicon Creoles, John
Benjamins, Creole Language Library 24.

Announced at

Elizabeth Grace Winkler, University of Arizona


This text is somewhat of a departure for the Benjamin's Creole
Language Library, which, in its more than two dozen publications, has
tended to focus on strict structural analysis of the traditional
subfields of creole linguistics or structural analyses of particular
creoles - which is somewhat amusing because as M�hleisen points out,
''studies of creoles are often automatically categorized as
'sociolinguistics' regardless of the fact that most research in this
field deals with syntactic, phonological phenomena or with theoretical
discussions of historical linguistics [and] has mostly neglected
recent trends in sociolinguistic theory and linguistic anthropology''
(p. 6).

With that said, this book is more of a philosophical challenge to past
approaches to understanding creole community discourse and the complex
notion of language prestige and legitimacy for speakers of these
varieties. This book, according to M�hleisen: ''moves away from the
exploration of status, macrofunctions and attitudes within a
(national) community and towards a discursive framework in order to
focus on the representations of Creole in various discourses and on
the changing micro-functions for which it is employed'' (p. 3-4).

M�hleisen evaluates the changing status of Caribbean English-lexicon
Creoles (CELCs) in recent times as they have gained prestige in
certain domains and have migrated from the Caribbean, especially to
Great Britain and how subsequent generations there have shifted in
their acceptance and use of Creole. She chooses to group these English
lexifier varieties as a whole rather than as individual languages
(like Jamaican Creole) based on the historical ties and continuous
immigration of many of its speakers from one region to another. This
decision makes sense in light of the evidence she provides of these
historical ties and even more so as she elaborates on CELC communities
in the diaspora.


In the first chapter M�hleisen challenges traditional views of status,
function, and attitude as ''too static'' (p. 9) and overly
descriptive. She asserts that they lack a comprehensive explanation
of the nature of language use of Creole speakers. She suggests that
the study of status has hardly developed over the last half century,
which limits our ability to understand the complex function of Creole
in these communities, especially the written use of Creole in more
formal domains. She also traces the development of Creolistics from
its early beginnings as a discipline to its dynamic present. Early on,
because Creoles were so often ranked with the speech of very young
children, and those in early stages of second language acquisition,
they were often not accorded serious attention. The stigmatization of
these languages has contributed to how they have been studied by
outsiders and viewed by their speakers. These attitudes were furthered
by the belief that the varieties spoken by Afro-Caribbean Creole
speakers were simply corrupted varieties of white speech. She shares
anecdotal data, which indicates that many of the whites in these
places also spoke some variety of Creole, and that for some of them,
it may have even been their only speech variety no matter the
prevailing attitudes towards Creole.

M�hleisen details some of the difficulties in truly evaluating the
prestige of a language, including the fact that the terms used are not
well defined and can be applied to many different aspects or features
of a language. For example, in the research and discussions on status,
function, and attitudes, terms often over lap in usage or are even
used ''interchangeably''. For the purpose of this text, she defines
status in three ways: demographic, legalistic, and linguistic. In
addition, she contrasts various definitions of status with
ethnolinguistic vitality, which not only includes status but
demography and institutional support aspects rarely taken into account
when testing status of CELCs.

In Chapter Two, ''Forming Language Prestige'' M�hleisen looks at
similarities between CELC languages. Here she lays out the
argumentation for looking at them as a group rather than as individual
languages. She claims that ''the socio-political and epistemological
conditions for the formation of language prestige in the past, as well
as the modes of interaction in the present are shared by all of these
varieties'' (p. 11). She continues with a convincing argument
concerning the historical similarities that contribute to the
similarity in native speaker reactions concerning prestige. She admits
that these varieties do differ in some significant ways but that the
essence of them is shared both linguistically and culturally.

In this chapter, she also provides an interesting discussion of the
history of the word creole and the ramifications for the choice of
this term on both speaker and observer attitudes. She also takes a
look at how the notion of creole as a language type unfolded in these
communities. Due to this history, she suggests a complete abandonment
of the term in community language naming and suggests creole be
replaced with more appropriate local terms like Jamaican (among

In the third chapter: ''Negotiating language prestige: Towards a
functional/discursive framework'', the author begins by describing the
philosophical bent of previous work on native speaker attitudes of
CELCs and discusses the methodological problems associated with this
research. M�hleisen mostly focuses on challenging the methodologies of
this research that she asserts ignored a number of important factors.
In addition, claims were based on very generic classifications of
people (for example: gender, age, ethnicity), which she asserts do not
really represent the defining characteristics of the speakers in terms
of really representing their discourse communities. It is important to
take into account the relationships of power, social dynamics, and
discourse -- factors which she contends have often been overlooked.
She says that a greater focus must be made on ''the connection between
social practices and code choice in discourse, rather than on H/L
(high/low) dichotomies of domain configurations'' (p. 126) and that
''discourse communities'' are more significant than national
identities - especially in the diaspora where so many interesting
developments are unfolding.

The forth chapter, ''From speech community to discourse communities:
Changing Creole representations in the urban diaspora'', she focuses
on creole communities in London. She begins by tracing patterns of
migration, followed by well-constructed sections on language shift and
maintenance. She discusses the use of CELCs as identity markers
between speakers from distinct linguistic backgrounds. Additionally,
she provides a wealth of elaborative transcriptions of discourse
providing the reader with a good feel for the varieties of which she
is writing. She also provides a contrast of some of the features of
the Caribbean varieties with their daughters in the diaspora.

In ''From badge of authenticity to voice of authority: Changing Creole
representations in writing she links the solidification and rise in
prestige of Creole identity in the diaspora to its purposeful use in
literary expression. The most interesting part of this chapter is the
discussion of the differing views on how to represent creole sounds in
writing (what is a reasonable orthography for representing creoles in
writing). She compares some of the orthographies in use and comments
on the philosophical ideologies that are reflected in the choices
being made. As I have argued in my own work, the use of more
International English orthographic representations of Creole words
certainly robs the reader of a broader feeling for the music of these
varieties. However, this is also true of the representations of
thousands of other varieties whose music is lost in the translation of
the spoken word to the written one.

In the final chapter: ''From Invisibility to register variation:
Changing Creole representation in translation'' M�hleisen addresses
the complexities and the linguistic and cultural challenges of
translating both into and from CELCs. The translation of Creole texts
to other languages provides additional complications to the already
complex set of difficulties already identified in the translation of
entrenched standardized languages. In the other direction, translation
into Creole languages provides an impetus for these languages to
expand in stylistic register and lexical expansion: other factors that
contribute to an increase in linguistic prestige.


M�hleisen's major contribution with this book is to provide a solid
rationale for understanding the need for a shift in how research into
the complex nature of social prestige for CELCs must be conducted.
Additionally, on a more concrete level, she has found out the

1) that the CELC communities in the diaspora are linked more by choice
of discourse function than national identity,
2) that the use of CELCs for written expression by the community is
significant and complex, even including the choice of orthography by
writers which reflects philosophical differences in the representation
of creole voice from what she terms ''badge of authenticity to voice
of authority'' (p. 265), and
3) that translations both into and out of Creole reflect a greater
understanding of the sociolinguistic complexities of the form and the
expansion of register and lexicon for these varieties.


Elizabeth Grace Winkler is an adjunct lecturer in linguistics at the
University of Arizona, USA. Her research publications have
concentrated on African substrate influence on the English-lexifier
language Limonese Creole and codeswitching between Spanish and
Limonese Creole in Costa Rica and Spanish and English in Mexico. She
has also authored a dictionary of Kpelle, a Mande language of Liberia.
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