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Review of  An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles

Reviewer: Patrick-André Mather
Book Title: An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles
Book Author: John Holm
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Creole English, Jamaican
Tok Pisin
Issue Number: 12.1330

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Holm, John (2000) An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles.
Cambridge University Press, xxi+282 pp. ISBN 0 521 58460 4
(hardback), 0 521 58581 3 (paperback).

Reviewed by: Dr Patrick-Andre Mather, McGill University


This textbook is based in part on two earlier volumes by
the same author in the Cambridge Language Surveys series:
Pidgins and creoles (vols. I and II), but has been
substantially updated using data from two major research
projects on comparative Creole syntax and on semi-
creolization, undertaken by John Holm at the City
University of New York in the 1980s and 1990s.

The book is divided into 7 chapters: After a brief
introduction, chapter 2 outlines the development of
theories on the genesis of pidgins and creoles. Chapter 3
explores social, historical and demographic factors in the
emergence of various English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
and Dutch lexifier creoles, in addition to Nubi Creole
Arabic. Chapters 4 through 6 contain detailed comparative
descriptions of the lexicosemantics, phonology and syntax
of several pidgins and creoles, and chapter 7 provides a
recap of the main theoretical issues discussed throughout
the book.


Chapter 1 (Introduction) provides definitions of basic
concepts in creolistics, including terms like pidgin,
creole, continuum, post-creole, decreolization and
interlanguage. Though most of these standard definitions
will be familiar to creolists and sociolinguistics, they
are very helpful in an introductory textbook. For example,
Holm stresses the fact that pidgins and creoles "are not
wrong versions of other languages but rather new languages"
(p. 1). A pidgin is defined as a reduced language
resulting from extended contact between speakers who have
no language in common, for some specific purpose such as
trade. A creole on the other hand is defined as a language
which has become the native or primary language of a speech
community, and whose structure is more complex than that of
a pidgin. On page 12 the author outlines his own view on
the origin of creole languages, by presenting a mixed bag
of second-language acquisition processes, substrate
transfer, creole-internal innovations, and borrowings,
which he characterizes as a "moderate substratist
position". Interestingly, the author does not seem to
attribute a major role to nativization, and in this sense
his theory is diametrically opposed to the Bioprogram
Hypothesis (Bickerton 1981, 1984).

Chapter 2 provides a comprehensive account of the
development of theories on the genesis of pidgins and
creoles. Contrary to other contemporary textbooks (e.g.
Arends, Muysken & Smith 1995) which typically present
competing theories in a binary fashion, for example
substratist versus universalist positions, or mono- versus
polygenetic theories, this chapter recounts the historical
development of theoretical thinking over the past
centuries, citing early accounts and comments on pidgins
and creoles. This presentation is very refreshing, and is
really more in the French tradition of the historical
approach to linguistic theory, rather than the more
contemporary "state-of-the-art" approach of Anglo-American
linguists. The chapter is a delight to read, full of
fascinating citations that illustrate how attitudes have
changed over years. One example of such citations is from
a traveller in the 11 th century who made the following
comment on a form of pidginized Arabic (p. 15): "The Blacks
have mutilated our beautiful language and spoiled its
eloquence with their twisted tongues". This outrageous
comment is not very far from disparaging comments made
today by non-linguists about pidgins and creoles. After
citing some early attestation of European lexifier creoles
in the 18 th century, Holm explains how creole studies
blossomed in the 1880s under the influence of Schuchardt
and others, who were the first to realize the theoretical
significance of pidgins and creoles for historical
linguistics (e.g., creoles do not fit in the genealogical
tree model of language families), and who first made
hypotheses about the role of language transfer and second
language acquisition, issues which are still the focus of
much debate today. An interesting hypothesis first
formulated by Schuchardt (1914a or 1980: 91-2) is the idea
of mutual accommodation, hinting that both blacks and
whites played a role in creole genesis. Another original
contribution is that of Sylvain (1936), later reformulated
as the relexification hypothesis for Haitian Creole
(Lefebvre 1998), which considers Haitian as a Kwa language
with French vocabulary. The most popular hypothesis is by
Hall (1962) who developed the pidgin-into-creole life cycle
hypothesis, which is generally accepted to this day, even
though the idea of an obligatory pidgin stage has been put
into question by many creolists over the past two decades
(e.g. Chaudenson 1981, 1989; Arends 1989; Mather 2000).
Holm also provides a fair coverage of Bickerton's language
bioprogram hypothesis (Bickerton 1981), which was a
revolutionary theory but is very much the minority view
Though chapter 2 is a well-documented and clear survey of
successive theories on creole genesis, one sometimes gets a
sense of a lack of critical assessment of some recent
theories, for example McWhorter's (1998) claim that creoles
are distinguishable from non-creole languages based solely
on structural grounds: for McWhorter, creole languages
combine all three of the following traits: (i) little or no
inflectional affixation; (ii) little or no use of phonemic
tone; and (iii) semantically regular derivational
affixation. These three unrelated features are very weak
as defining features for an entire group of languages, and
one wonders what it means to have "little or no
inflectional affixation". How much, or how little,
affixation does it take to conclude that a language falls
into the creole category? The fact is that there are many
borderline cases (e.g., so-called semi-creoles, and also
some creoles with phonemic tone), and that creoles cannot
be defined using structural features only since these
features are not all-or-nothing, but rather general

Chapter 3 explores social factors that played a role in the
development of pidgins and creoles, and in particular the
respective roles of the superstrates and substrates.
Interestingly, Holm provides a counterargument to
McWhorter's (1998) claim by pointing out that "the purely
linguistic elements in the definition of creoles... do not
distinguish them from other natural languages"(p. 68). He
adds that a creole "grew out of a pidgin (or possibly an
unstable pre-pidgin) that had become nativized in a
particular speech community." Even though this particular
claim is accepted by many, many creolists question this
universal pidgin-into-creole hypothesis, given the lack of
evidence for pidgins in most Caribbean settings, and
increasing evidence of gradual creolization, as I pointed
out above. Some of the most important sociolinguistic
factors are the power and prestige of the speakers of the
various languages; the number of languages involved; the
degree of bilingualism among the populations; the
linguistic homogeneity of slaves brought in to work on the
plantations; and the different policies of European powers
in colonizing new territories, which explains why there are
few Spanish-lexifier creoles, with the exception of
Papiamentu (spoken in Curacao and Aruba) and Palanquero.
In some communities (e.g. Jamaica) the creole co-exists
with the lexifier language, creating a continuum of
intermediate varieties ranging from basilectal creole to
acrolectal varieties (close to the European lexifier). In
other cases there is no such continuum, either because the
country was cut off from the European power long ago (Haiti
gained its independence in 1800), or because it was taken
over by another European power (thus in Surinam, Sranan, an
English-lexifier creole co-exists with official Dutch).
Though chapter 3 focuses mainly on Caribbean creoles, it
also mentions French and English-based creoles in the
Pacific, in addition to pidgins and creoles based on other
languages, including Kituba, Linguala and restructured
Swahili (spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo),
and Nubi Creole Arabic (Uganda and Kenya).

Chapter 4 (Lexicosemantics) discusses the sources for the
lexicon and morphology of creoles of various lexical bases,
in particular superstrate sources, substrate influences, as
well as internal morphological and semantic changes within
the creoles. The emphasis is on the similarities shared by
various creoles, and the relevance of these similarities
for theories on the origins of creoles, mainly the
monogenetic versus polygenetic theories, and universalist
versus substratist theories. The author points out that
typically, creoles draw a considerable part of their
lexicon from superstrate languages, i.e. European languages
for plantation creoles. However, some of the vocabulary is
not derived from the standard form of European languages,
but from regional and archaic usages. One example is the
word "bay" in many varieties of creole French, from 17 th
century French "bailler" (to give, deliver). Another
example is the existence of some regionalisms, such as the
progressive pre-verbal marker "ap", from French "etre
apres" (attested in Quebec French but absent from current
varieties of European French). Concerning substrate
lexical sources, the survival of African-derived words is
relatively low, though their existence gives important
clues to the ethno-linguistic origin of African slaves in a
particular colony, e.g. Ewe-Fon in Haiti, Ijo in Suriname,
etc. However, Holm points out (p. 117) that substrate
semantic influence is much greater: "African semantic
influence had a far-reaching effect not only on the
lexicon, but also in the syntax of the Atlantic creoles; it
is particularly noticeable in the semantics of preverbal
tense and aspect markers, which are fundamental to the
structure of the creoles." This point has been well
illustrated in Lefebvre (1998), who claims that Haitian is
basically a variety of Ewe (a Kwa language spoken in West
Africa) relexified with French phonetic strings (see also
Mather 2001). Substrate influence is also obvious in the
reanalysis of European adjectives as creole verbs, since in
many West African languages adjectives are a type of verb
and require no copula, e.g. "o tobi", literally 'he big' in
Yoruba. There is also evidence of many African idioms
surviving as word-for-word translations in Atlantic
creoles, which Holm calls "substrate calques". In
morphology as well, European morphemes changed status in
the creoles, from inflectional to derivational for example;
in French-lexifier creoles there are many examples of
changes in morpheme boundaries, for example in Haitian
"zie" ('eye') where the final sound of the French plural
definite article has been agglutinated to the creole noun
to form a single morpheme (p. 128). Finally, there is
considerable evidence of changes in the syntactic functions
of words. It is common knowledge for example that lexical
items in many Atlantic creoles have become grammaticized as
grammatical items: with respect to tense-mood-aspect
markers, we have a change where modal verbs are reanalysed
as preverbal functional categories, a point which is not
sufficiently stressed by Holm.

Chapter 5 focuses on some phonological features found in a
number of creoles, which are absent from their lexical
sources languages. Here, there is evidence that
phonological patterns have been heavily influenced by
substrate influences, rather than by superstrate languages.
For example, Holm shows that phonotactic rules from West
African languages have been carried over into several
Atlantic creoles, such as the dominance of the basic CV
syllable structure. Another important point is the general
absence of front rounded vowels in West African languages
(p. 145), the result being that in French and Dutch
lexifier creoles, front vowels have been unrounded, e.g.
French /koer/ becomes /kE/ in Haitian creole. Other cases
of substrate influence on the phonology include the
existence of progressive nasalization, vowel harmony, and
the existence of pre-nasalized and co-articulated stops in
some creoles (e.g. Palanquero and Saramaccan respectively),
as in many Niger-Congo languages. Holm provides useful
tables of consonants on pages 153, 158, and also points out
the existence of phonemic tone in some creoles, e.g.
Papiamentu and Saramaccan.

Chapter 6 ("Syntax") is the longest of the descriptive
chapters, for obvious reasons: the main reason why creoles
cannot be classified as dialects of their lexifier
languages is precisely because their syntax is so utterly
different from that of English, French or Dutch. One of
the most salient syntactic features of creoles is the
existence of preverbal tense, mood and aspect markers which
are completely absent from European languages, where tense
and aspect is expressed using inflectional endings instead.
Although plantation creoles draw most of their vocabulary
(though not the lexical semantics) from their respective
lexifier languages, there seems to be no easy answer, and
indeed no consensus, concerning the origin of creole
syntax. It is no easy feat to tease apart the relative
contribution of superstrates, substrates, second-language
acquisition processes and creole-internal motivations, but
Holm does a very good job at trying. For example, he
points out that "basilectal creoles rely on free rather
than inflectional morphemes to convey grammatical
information. This seems likely to have resulted from a
universal tendency in adult second-language acquisition...
However this universal tendency was probably reinforced by
a similar tendency in many substrate languages, such as
those of the Kwa group spoken in West Africa, which
typically isolate morphemes carrying grammatical
information." (p. 171). This problem is typical of the
universalist versus substratist debate, where it is very
difficult to decide between the two explanations, though
some creolists have suggested (e.g. Mufwene 1986) that both
are complementary. Concerning tense-mood-aspect markers,
similarities with Kwa languages, especially in the
semantics and combinations of markers, build a very strong
case in favour of substratum influence. For example, the
anterior tense marker found in most creoles ("te" in
French-lexifier creoles, "ben" in English-lexifier creoles)
does not correspond to the past tense of European
languages, but instead to anterior markers in a number of
Niger-Congo languages, where "the anterior is relative to
the time in focus in the preceding discourse rather than to
the time of the utterance" (p. 178) Similarly, creoles
have progressive, habitual, completive and irrealis markers
which are phonetically derived from European languages, but
which semantically and syntactically mirror West African
patterns. This is well illustrated in the various tables
and charts, which provide a very useful comparative
inventory of forms (e.g. table 4 on page 176) in creoles
and in some West African languages. What is also
interesting is the way markers can be combined, for example
the combined anterior and irrealis markers produce a
conditional meaning in many Atlantic creoles (p. 189).
Another feature which sets creole apart from their European
lexifier is the negative particle, which is placed before
the verb phrase, e.g. "Shi no kom op de" ('She doesn't come
up there', Miskito Coast Creole English, p. 194), or "Jan
pa t av ale nan marche" ('Jan would not have gone to the
market', literally 'Jan not ANTERIOR IRREALIS go to
market'). Another syntactic distinction found in various
creoles and in African languages, and not in most European
languages, is the distinction between various forms of the
verb "to be": equative ('Mary is my sister'), locative ('He
is here'), adjectival verbs ('He is sick'), and highlighter
'be' ('It's John who lives there'). Again, table 5 (p.
198) provides convincing evidence that Atlantic creoles
mirror African languages such as Yoruba and Mandinka.
Though Holm provides many interesting examples to
illustrate his points, here and elsewhere he sometimes
forgets to provide the glosses (e.g. p. 202). While it may
be obvious to guess for English lexifier creoles, if one
does not speak Dutch or Portuguese the guessing game can be
tedious. Holm also looks at the syntax of the noun phrase
(p. 212), comparing determiners in various creole
languages, and examining number, gender, possession,
personal pronouns, and other function words.

Chapter 7 ("Conclusions") provides a brief summary of
several theoretical issues and problems raised in the book,
in particular the genetic relationship (if any) between
creoles and their contributing languages. Citing Stein
(1984: 102), Holm suggests a "Doppelzugehoerigkeit", or
double belonging, whereby creoles belong to both the family
of their lexical source and their own family, the Atlantic
creoles. This notion of double genetic classification may
seem like a bizarre notion, but Holm forgets to mention the
third logical possibility, namely that some creoles could
also be classified as West African languages. After all,
this has been suggested by Lefebvre (1998), who considers
Haitian as a Kwa language with French phonetic strings, and
this idea is not far-fetched if one considers the striking
similarities in the phonology, lexical semantics and
morphosyntax among some basilectal creoles (e.g. Haitian)
and their respective West African substrate languages.
Such double or triple belongings would no doubt horrify the
more orthodox historical linguists, but these issues must
be raised and debated nevertheless.

Overall, Holm's book is clear, concise, informative,
coherent and up-to-date and will be an excellent textbook
for advanced undergraduate and even graduate students
interested in pidgins and creoles, and in language contact
in general. While it is interesting to have separate
chapters on lexicosemantics, phonology and syntax comparing
a wide range of creoles, these cannot be used as references
for any specific creole language, and perhaps coherent
sketches of a few representative creoles would have been
useful. Also, though Holm does allude to second language
acquisition processes, he makes little reference to
research on adult second-language acquisition, yet this
research would certainly shed light on many aspects of the
genesis of pidgins and creoles, including the respective
roles of universals and L1 transfer.


Arends, J. (1989) Syntactic developments in Sranan:
Creolization as a gradual process. Dissertation,
University of Nijmegen.

Arends, J., P. Muysken, and N. Smith (1995) Pidgins and
Creoles: an introduction. Amsterdam: Benjamins

Bickerton, D. (1981) Roots of Language. Ann Arbor:

Bickerton, D. (1984) The language bioprogram hypothesis.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 173-221.

Chaudenson, R. (1981) Textes cr�oles anciens (La R�union
et Ile Maurice). Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag

Chaudenson, R. (1989) Cr�oles et enseignement du
fran�ais. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Holm, J. (1988-89) Pidgins and creoles. Cambridge
University Press, 2 vols.

Hall, R. A. Jr. (1962) The life cycle of pidgin languages.
Lingua 11:151-56.

Lefebvre, Claire. (1998) Creole genesis and the
acquisition of grammar: The case of Haitian creole.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McWhorter, J. (1998) Identifying the creole prototype:
Vindicating a typological class. Language 74:4, 788-818.

Mather, P.-A. (2000) Creole Genesis: Evidence from West
African L2 French. In Languages in Contact, D.G. Gilbers,
J. Nerbonne et J. Schaeken (Eds.). Amsterdam - Atlanta:
Rodopi, 247-261.

Mather, P.-A. (2001) Review of C. Lefebvre (1998), Creole
genesis and the acquisition of grammar. Studies in
Language 25:1, 125-137.

Mufwene, S. (1986) The Universalist and Substrate
Hypotheses Complement One Another. In: Pieter Muysken and
Norval Smith, eds. Substrata versus Universals in Creole
Genesis. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 129-162.

Schuchardt, H. (1914) Die Sprache der Saramakkaneger in
Surinam. Amsterdam: Johannes Mueller. (Preface, pp. iii-
xxxvi translated in Schuchardt (1979), pp. 73-108; (1980),
pp. 89-126).

Stein, P. (1984) Kreolisch und Franzoesisch. Tuebingen:

Sylvain, S. (1936). Le creole haitien: morphologie et
syntaxe. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de Meester.


Patrick-Andre Mather teaches French, linguistics and
translation at McGill University (Montreal). He has
published several articles on language contact in Eastern
France (French-German) and on the genesis of French-
lexifier creoles. His current research focuses on case
studies of second-language acquisition, and their
significance for theories on the origin and development of
pidgins and creoles in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean.


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