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Review of  Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction

Reviewer: Kerry James Varcoe
Book Title: Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction
Book Author: Ishtla Singh
Publisher: Hodder Education
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 14.2659

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Date: Wed, 01 Oct 2003 14:44:04 +0800
From: Kerry Varcoe <>
Subject: Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction

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

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

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 everyone.

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

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 varieties.

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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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 "subjugation").

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