Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Date: Sat, 11 Jun 2005 19:50:11 -0700 From: Elizabeth Grace Winkler Subject: Defining Creole
AUTHOR: McWhorter, John H. TITLE: Defining Creole PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2005
Elizabeth Grace Winkler, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona
In Part 1, "Is there Such a Thing as a Creole" McWhorter explains the motivation for putting together this series of conference presentations into book form and the philosophical reasoning behind why there should be a distinct category of languages called 'creoles'. For McWhorter, the creole categorization is not based solely on the socio-historical development of these languages as is traditionally defined by creolists. He asserts that there is a synchronic or typological rationale as well.
One difficulty McWhorter faces in establishing this claim is convincing creolists to give up a long held, almost knee-jerk defense of creoles as "equal" to other languages. This derives from past and ongoing disparagement of these varieties as incomplete and unsystematic varieties. As could be noted from verbal responses at Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics meetings and writings elsewhere, proposing that creoles are in some way different in their structural makeup makes some distinctly uncomfortable. However, if there is nothing structurally unique about creoles, then their study, McWhorter points out, contributes little more to our understanding of language development and change than the study of any other language - a statement that he contends few creolists would be comfortable with regardless of their positions on his theories. Nevertheless, there has been considerable resistance to the proposal that there is a set of synchronic features that differentiate creoles from other languages.
For some time McWhorter has been asserting that there are features, or more accurately a systematic LACK of features, that provides a synchronic description of creoles. He posits three features that are typologically absent from creoles specifically because they are newly formed languages. Accordingly, these features may develop later during the lifecycle of a language. They are:
1. the use of grammatical inflection via affixing; 2. the development of productive, nontransparent derivational affixes; and 3. the use of tone to either mark lexical differences or as grammatical markers.
These are language features that McWhorter claims would not have been found in pidgin languages because they are unnecessary to basic communication (which will be elaborated on later in this review). Because McWhorter asserts that a pidgin stage is crucial to creolization, it is useful to take a look at the languages that contributed to pidginization. McWhorter illustrates how some of the contributing languages make considerable use of grammatical inflection, tone and nontransparent derivational morphology yet these features are not present in the pidgins nor in the creoles that develop from them. Accordingly, "the birth of many creoles as pidgins leads us to the hypothesis that the natural languages of the world (which do not include pidgins) displaying the three particular traits above will be creole languages, and that conversely, no older languages will display them" (p. 11).
He does not claim that all creoles are perfect examples of the Creole Prototype, rather that because gradience is a normal feature of all languages "creoles confirm to the hypothesis in varying degrees" (p. 19). For example, Sango has a limited number of inflectional affixes and makes use of tone for grammatical marking. Another reason a limited use of these features may be present in some creoles is due to continued use of the substrate languages for a considerable period of time during creolization as exemplified by the presence of Ijo inflectional affixes of Berbice Dutch Creole. Furthermore, intense contact with the superstrate during creolization can cause the acquisition of these features as with Réunionnais French Creole. In addition, intense contact after creolization provides an opportunity for these features to be acquired as in the case of Louisiana Creole, which has existed in close contact with Cajun French since plantation days.
In Chapter 2, "The World's Simplest Grammars are Creole Grammars" McWhorter challenges the truism that grammars of all languages are equally complex, though that complexity may be manifest in different aspects of the system. His challenge rests on two unanswered questions: 1) how do you realistically measure supposed complexity for comparison, and 2) by what mechanism is this "equality" forced upon languages? The mechanism for how they somehow "calibrate themselves according to comparison with one another" (p. 44) is unexplained.
His claim is not that creoles are the MOST simplistic system possible under universal grammar, but that they are fundamentally different in the quality of their simplicity. Often creoles are described in comparison to superstrate, in terms of what features they "lack". McWhorter takes a different tactic. He prefers the view that non-creole languages are over- specified and have accumulated what McWhorter terms "ornamental elaboration" (like inflection). Ornamental features are those that appear only in a subset of the world's languages and do not contribute anything necessary to communication. He also calls this tendency of older languages "grammaticalized overkill" (p. 77).
Another concern expressed by some of his critics is that McWhorter is arguing that creole languages are in some way simplistic. Again, this is a misunderstanding based on his approach of looking at over- versus non- redundant-specification. He is solely arguing that older languages are over-specified with superfluous marking that serves no communicative purpose and that it is the quality of creole simplicity that is of interest, since it is fundamentally different than simplicity of other languages.
In the remaining chapters of Part One, McWhorter takes to task some of the competing theories of creole development. In "The Rest of the Story" McWhorter contends that explanations for creole grammar, like superstrate, substrate and syntax-internal explanations, do not take into account a pidginization stage and thus lack explanatory adequacy for the vast data that he has collected.
McWhorter then points out a number of items that the syntax-internal approaches (best elaborated by Michel DeGraff) fail to explain, for example, the lack of ergativity in creoles, which is a marked construction across the world's languages. He discusses the case of Korlai Portuguese Creole (not ergative) which is derived from Marathi, an ergative language. Because no pidgins are ergative, McWhorter posits that ergativity is a feature of older languages. McWhorter also elaborates on half a dozen other features distributed in Founder Community languages that appear in neither pidgin nor creole languages.
McWhorter claims that the syntax-internal explanations only explicate part of the picture and also make predictions that have not been borne out by data. McWhorter asserts that any grammatical feature from his "marked" list will not be acquired during pidginization, and thus, will not be available for transfer during creolization. McWhorter does not completely reject DeGraff's theory and details how the two theories complement each other.
In the next chapter McWhorter takes to task specific claims of LeFebvre, DeGraff and Arends through a detailed comparison of Haitian with Fongbe and Gbe (substrates for Haitian Creole) along with an analysis of Saramaccan. First he shows that Saramaccan does not pass its progenitor in complexity in any consistent way. It is just beginning the stage of "ornamentalization" of its systems. Then he shows how Lefebvre's relexification theory fails to explain how Haitian Creole differs from Fongbe. Finally McWhorter asserts that Arends' claim that not enough data is available on a wide enough variety of pidgin and creole languages is no longer fully accurate and not necessarily pertinent anyway. In the study of other natural languages, there are often gaps, but the research claims made are still considered valid.
Chapter 5 focuses on Mufwene's Founder Principle which taken in the extreme maintains that superstrate is the primary contributor to creole development; therefore, creoles are solely dialects of the superstrate. Furthermore, because these varieties began on homesteads that predated the creation of huge plantations, Africans had more access to the superstrate, and thus, acquired adult second language versions of the language. Later, when the homesteads morphed into plantations, it was the speech of these slaves that was the model for the hundreds of newly arrived Africans who were to have little direct contact with the superstrate as spoken by native speakers. It was here that additional reduction occurred. Mufwene claims that creoles are just contact varieties for which the contact was quite significant.
McWhorter refutes the main claims: first, through an analysis of the history of Suriname and Martinique, he shows that although Mufwene is correct in asserting that homesteading was significant, he is incorrect in his assessment of how much and what language was acquired there. McWhorter provides many speech samples from early documents that clearly show features in the speech of homestead slaves that make sense only if they acquired a pidgin at some point.
Next McWhorter takes on the claim that creoles are just varieties of the superstrate because many features of these varieties can be found in non- standard French varieties of the time. McWhorter counters by pointing out the numerous important features that can only be explained via substrate influence. He also points out that it is not enough to show that certain features occurred in older nonstandard varieties of a language; the variety must also be substantially available to slaves as they were acquiring the new language.
In the introduction to Part Two, McWhorter details some of the concerns about what he terms the "culture cult" which has pressured, to some degree, the direction of recent creole work, a pressure not commonly experienced by researchers of, for example, Scandinavian languages. He says that much of this grew out of a visceral reaction to Bickerton's early assertions that substrate influence was insignificant. McWhorter maintains that singular focus on substrate contributions, to the exclusion of other explanations that may have better explanatory adequacy, does no service to furthering our objective understanding of creole development.
The chapters of Part II look at a number of grammatical constructions to evaluate how they came to be in creole languages. Chapter 6, focusing on zero-copula, is a rich data-laden presentation about how this feature is common not just to pidgins and creoles, but to second language interlanguage varieties. McWhorter argues against this being a substrate feature because he believes that because it would not have been in a pidgin, and thus, it could not have transferred to any creole. He believes that zero-copula is better explained by normal second language acquisition processes.
In Chapter 7 McWhorter focuses on the emergence of predicate negation in Saramaccan. He has chosen Saramaccan specifically because it has had very limited European language influence since it developed in ex-slave communities located far in the interior. This linguistic isolation has caused some scholars to speculate that it is a closer reflection of universal grammar (UG) than other creoles with more contact influence.
In the following chapter "A case for Genetic Relationship", McWhorter make a fairly convincing argument that the English-based creoles of the Atlantic are all descendants of a stabilized West African Pidgin. He builds his case not by looking at shared lexical items (since these creoles share the same lexifier, it is not a useful argument) but by focusing on features that he asserts are not traceable to either the superstrate or substrate groups. He details six such features and provides a wealth of examples. These are compared with examples from non-creole languages to show how the processes match historical processes that happened to non-creole languages.
He claims that it is unlikely that these remarkably similar forms would appear independently in so many creoles found in distinct places nor can they be explained as a product of diffusion. Only shared inheritance effectively accounts for their similarities. He convincingly argues against a substrate explanation because although these grammatical morphemes may have the same function in the substrate languages, they are phonetically dissimilar. It is unlikely that early creole speakers would have all chosen the same or very similar forms if they had not been previously available to speakers via a locally used pidgin.
In "Creole Transplantation" McWhorter looks at how 'limited access' to the target language appears to be the common denominator of theories of creole development. He shows how the outcome can be the same in the different situations in which creoles emerged and compares places 1) where the demographics are the same, and 2) where the quality of the contact with the superstrate was significant. Again genetic shared history can only account for similarities found across diverse situations.
Then, in a discussion on the lack of Spanish-based creoles, McWhorter shows that the same conditions existed in the colonies of Spain as elsewhere and yet almost no creoles developed there. Spanish colonies, like Mexico, had the same proportions of slave-to-European, and the same lack of rich language contact with the superstrate. Nor did Spanish slaves acquire Spanish because the Spanish were "kinder" to them as sometimes claimed. The same brutality existed despite laws requiring better treatment. McWhorter discounts Schwegler's (and other's) contention that there were creoles in these areas that have since disappeared. He asks why creoles would only disappear from the Spanish areas and not elsewhere. The answer lies elsewhere. He attributes the lack of Spanish-based creoles to the fact that the Spanish did not maintain slave ports in Africa; therefore, a Spanish pidgin was not created and was not available as a target to slaves and others in the new world. Still the fact that Spanish slaves did manage to learn Spanish must be explained. McWhorter posits that although the recently arrived adults in the community only managed to acquire second language approximations of Spanish, their children, having access to language acquisition abilities of their youth, were able to pick up Spanish. This of course begs the question "Why didn't this happen to other creoles?"
McWhorter claims that the English creoles originated as pidgins in Africa and became creoles precisely because the pidgin was available to New World- born children as a target. The children could have learned English, like the children in Hawaii could have learned Standard English, yet created Hawaiian Creole from their community's pidgin, despite the fact that they were taught standard English in school.
Therefore, McWhorter posits that creoles developed in situations in which there was a pre-existing pidgin available to the speakers. The need to learn the lexifier language was circumvented because the pidgin was the target. Having the expanded pidgin as the target neatly deals with something else that has always troubled me as well. When I read that a creole "lacks" a feature, usually an ornamental one at that, or has "null specification" (like zero-copula), it implies that acquiring such a feature is an expected step on the road to language "development". It is telling about our general theoretical bent that we have generally focused on the lack of over-specification rather than the elegance of non- redundancy.
Part III begins with a lengthy section on how and why English became a minimally specified language. Purpose of this section is to show that not all languages are over specified equally contrary to the oft-held assumption that they are. McWhorter does not claim that English is a creole, rather that the extent of its restructuring can shed some light on contact phenomena because this is another type of incomplete second language acquisition by adults.
In the final chapter "Where does Black English come from?" McWhorter argues for the new dialectologist position (DP) rather than the creolist hypothesis for creole genesis. The DP, though not particularly politically correct, has certainly been well substantiated by statistical comparisons of Black English features with nonstandard varieties of English to which slaves would have been exposed. The majority of the chapter is an analysis of "The English History of African American English", edited by S. Poplack. McWhorter's conclusion is that although the contributors to this volume and others have established that Black English is essentially a dialect of English, the proponents of DP have not addressed the existence of creole features whose presence is better explained by the creole hypothesis.
The main thrust of his argument for why Black English is a dialect of English is that diaspora varieties of Black English are quite varied and do not appear to be transplanted Gullah as has been asserted. McWhorter believes that Gullah was basically spoken only in the area in which it is now found.
He takes to task traditional views of the creole continuum and posits (like others before him) that mesolectal and basilectal varieties could have coexisted from early on considering that slaves on homesteads would have been in a better position to acquire a second language variety of English than slaves on large plantations. As homesteads turned into plantations or as homestead slaves were sold to plantations, they may have provided a language target. Thus, features that appear in Black English that had disappeared from white varieties of English before the dominance of large plantations, may have been acquired through these homestead slaves.
McWhorter also asserts that it is necessary to look at both what creole features are both present and absent to understand the puzzle of Black English. Black English is similar to creoles in the features that it is MISSING (zero copula, negative concord, limited inflectional morphology) which he claims can be accounted for by normal Second Language Acquisition processes like ellipsis or overgeneralization. What make Black English different is the LACK of creole features that appear in substrate varieties and pidgins, like serial verb constructions, features that are found in creoles throughout the Atlantic area. Put simply, Black English looks more like a West Germanic language than a West African one and always has.
Some general comments first about the structure of the book. Although the text was primarily taken from past conference presentations and shorter publications, it is not simply a recitation of these works. It has benefited both from McWhorter's addressing many of the critiques of and commentaries on aspects of those earlier works as well as from his oft- heard requests for data from lesser-known languages to support or refute his claims. The breadth of the language samples offered is one of the strong aspects of this work.
Although it is certainly not what the author intended, the sections of the book are so different that they will appeal individually to a variety of specialties and interests and may be read independently of the rest of the text -- especially the chapters of the final section of the book.
Lastly, in terms of general comments, I would have like to have had a concluding chapter in which McWhorter tied together or summarized his arguments.
The fact that the features of the Creole Prototype are missing from early creoles and only develop over time seems plausible from the extensive evidence that McWhorter provides. But if this is accurate, we are back to creoles being no different from other languages in form. They are just new languages, which have not as yet accumulated the flotsam and jetsam of older languages. McWhorter only briefly addresses that point -- "to even elaborate on the fact that creoles will eventually be synchronically indistinguishable from older languages is a rather vacuous detour. The discussion has an air about it of implying that this transformation will constitute 'progress'" (p 100). I have to disagree because this smacks of a cultural justification rather than a linguistic one. When creoles become "older" languages, the presence or absence of the "male nipples" of language, as McWhorter terms these over-specifications, will be judged the same way we judge languages like English today that lack a good deal of ornamentation that is found in many other world languages.
As convincing as are many of McWhorter's arguments on the surface (and well substantiated by examples from a broad range of languages, both creole and non-creole) what I am going to have to do, as I expect others will as well, is to spend a considerable amount of time to both reanalyze his arguments and his assessment of competing explanations. As long as McWhorter has been presenting these ideas at conferences and in journals, he has been asking for data from scholars who work with languages with which he is less familiar. The publication of this book, presenting these papers in one place, should broaden the response to his queries and help to either support or disprove the arguments he makes. I certainly expect that this book will evoke responses from scholars of opposing viewpoints.
Finally, McWhorter is very good at teasing out both the small, and major, inconsistencies in our long-held assumptions about creoles and language change and whether we agree with him or not, he often shake us out of our comfortable complacency over unchallenged issues. He's the 800 pound gorilla in the room. You may not want to hear him, but he's hard to ignore.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Elizabeth Grace Winkler is a visiting professor 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. She has also authored a dictionary of Kpelle, a Mande language of Liberia. She is currently writing on differing uses of tag questions by gender among the Afro-Limonese: a community in which the connections between language and power differ from many of the previous groups studied.