LINGUIST List 24.1461

Sun Mar 31 2013

Review: Sociolinguistics: McWhorter (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 31-Mar-2013
From: Mauro Giuffre <>
Subject: Linguistic simplicity and complexity
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: McWhorter, John H.TITLE: Linguistic simplicity and complexitySUBTITLE: Why do languages undress?SERIES TITLE: Language contact and bilingualism, Vol.1PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011

Mauro Giuffrè, Dipartimento di Scienze Filologiche e Linguistiche,Italia-Sicilia-Università di Palermo

SUMMARYJohn McWhorter's Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity is the first volume inthe series “Language contact and bilingualism” and the main topics arelinguistic complexity, second language acquisition and languages in contact.

In McWhorter's earlier anthology, Defining Creole (2005), his view was thatcreole languages were definable not just socio-historically, butgrammatically. In Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity, John McWhorter gathersarticles he has written as responses to a wide range of creolists andlinguists and, as noted in the Acknowledgements, he uses them as the basis forthe nine chapters of this volume. They represent a considerable divergence indirection from his earlier works.

The volume is divided into three sections (Creole exceptionalism, Creolecomplexity and Exceptional language change elsewhere) and it opens with animportant Introduction (“The creole litmus test and the NCSL challenge”)outlining the basic arguments.

The basic proposition is that the difference in complexity between grammars isdetermined significantly by the extent to which second-language acquisitionhas played a role in their histories. A corollary is that grammaticalsimplification can be as significant in languages born of second-languageacquisition as grammatical mixture. That is, descriptions of creolization andother instances of language mixture as simple “feature selection” from thelanguages in a context are incomplete. According to McWhorter’s framework, theidea that any apparent simplification in a mixed language is always due to theselection of the least marked choice among the “features” available issimilarly incomplete. There are cases, of which creoles are a type, in whichthe choices made to encode most features are less “marked” than any that thesource languages offer. In other words, the guiding principle issimplification.

From McWhorter’s point of view, the framework for the analysis of creolesconsists of three main planks: 1) the normal state of language is highlycomplex, to the extent that it can seem extreme to speakers of languages likeEnglish. The natural state of human language is extensive marking of finesemantic and syntactic distinctions, plus rampant allomorphy and irregularity(typical of languages such as those of the Caucasus and Native America); 2)languages significantly low in this kind of complexity compared to theirsisters owe this condition to second-language acquisition in the past. Thisproposition seems to indicate that under ordinary conditions, languages lose amodest amount of complexity but maintain a basic level through the developmentof new complexities. In this perspective, languages that have not maintainedthis level have always been interrupted in their normal accumulation ofcomplexity (e.g. English, Romance languages, Persian, Mandarin Chinese, andIndonesian -- McWhorter defines languages of this kind as Non-HybridConventionalized Second-Language Varieties (NCSLs); 3) the languages whichshow the least complexity of all the languages in the world are creoles. Theauthor considers creoles to be considerably less complex than older languages,including NCSLs.

McWhorter argues that creole languages are synchronically identifiable, evenwithout recourse to information about their histories. That is, a creole is “akind of language”, not just a sociohistorical term. McWhorter stipulates thata subset of languages showing the following three patterns were born recentlyfrom pidgins: 1) phonological: little or no use of tone to distinguishmonosyllables or grammatical categories; 2) morphosyntactic: little or noinflectional morphology; 3) semantic: few or no non-compositional combinationsof derivational markers and roots. Following this perspective, the authordemonstrates that the Creole Prototype constitutes a litmus test forcreolization, with an examination of an isolating language that has not beenconsidered a creole under any other definition. This is a kind of languagethat could be seen as suggesting that even older languages can wend into acreole-like typology, and that there is therefore properly not a synchronicessence that is limited only to creole languages. The whole volume is intendedas a demonstration of these theoretical principles.

The first section, Creole exceptionalism, asks whether creolists have beenable to disprove that creole languages harbor evidence of their birth aspidgins. In the three chapters of the first section, he argues that they havenot and attempts to show that his Prototype and Complexity hypotheses have notyet been disconfirmed by others scholars in their substance.

Chapter One reviews the Prototype hypothesis, as put forth in McWhorter (2005:9-37). The Prototype hypothesis is here recast to refute the widely-heldopinion that a Creole is a mixture of two or more languages and that theresult of an unbroken grammar-internal development with merely moderateabbreviations deriving from adult second-language acquisition. By recastingthe Prototype hypothesis McWhorter affirms that a natural language is a creole(i.e. recently born from a pidgin) if it has: a) morphologically, little or noinflectional affixation, and among unbound inflectional markers, no contextualinflection, or inherent inflection of the paradigmatically complex sort; b)phonologically, little or no distinction of monosyllabic lexical items ormorphosyntactic distinctions via tone or register, and without anytypologically unusual proliferation of vowels; c) semantically, few or nononcompositional combinations of nonreduplicative derivational morphemes withroots. In his opinion, creoles are languages which emerged from structurallyreduced pidgins, and bear these hallmarks of that origin in their currentstructural makeup.

Chapter Two shows that the nature of creolization cannot be described inbinary terms. The author claims that creoles should be analyzed as a whole andthat the degree of complexity has to be considered generally. Creoles, asnatural languages, have phonology and morphology, even if those are lesselaborate than those of older languages. This point of view suggests thatcreoles are not just hybrids, but that they are human languages that werereborn only a few centuries ago.

Chapter Three contains a “scientific standoff” with Ansaldo, Matthews andLim’s Deconstructing Creole (2007), which denies that the creoles areidentifiable as a synchronic class. In McWhorter’s opinion DeconstructingCreole paradoxically seems to contain more arguments in favor of theexceptionalist conception of creoles than against it and reaches the goal ofdemonstrating the unexpected conclusion that creoles are the product ofgrammatical deconstruction.

The second section (Creole Complexity) contains three chapters, intended todemonstrate that creole exceptionalism is not based on ignorance of grammar.McWhorter examines three grammatical features of Saramaccan (spoken in theSurinamese rain forest, with a largely English and Portuguese lexicon). Theintention is to show that it is not sufficient, when demonstrating that acreole “has complexity”, to simply indicate that its determiners have someconditioned allomorphs, that it has derivational processes, or that itsphonology requires rule ordering. The author finds that some features manifesta more complex rendition of a given construction or semantic concept than inEnglish or related languages.

Chapter Four expounds the thesis that complexity in creoles grows over timefrom an original state. The growth process has occurred over a few centuriesrather than millennia and so the complexities in creoles are not maximallyelaborated in comparison to equivalent features in ‘older’ languages. TheSaramaccan data in this chapter support this view, taking into account some ofthe new information marking in Saramaccan. This process surpasses inoverspecification any overt, regularized mechanism in any Western Europeanlanguage.

The fifth chapter is a re-elaboration of McWhorter (2005: 102-41), where hediscussed creole grammar as a whole. Here he examines two serial verbconstructions encoding movement in the Saramaccan creole and tries to shedlight on the following themes: creoles’ relative complexity compared to olderlanguages and the possible inadequate description of the grammar of creoles.McWhorter shows that a construction typically lumped into a list of “serialverb constructions” in Surinam creole is actually at the heart of a morecomplex system for indicating direction than in Western European languages,where they are conditioned according to transitivity.

In Chapter Six McWhorter supports his scenario for creole genesis, that theywere born as structurally reduced pidginized varieties, eventually expandinginto new natural languages. Analyzing the full range of allomorphy of theSaramaccan copula, he suggests that grammatical complexity consists of a greatdeal more than inflectional affixation and its consequences. The Saramaccancreole has different levels of complexity in comparison to analytic languages,not just to Western European languages. The bipartite Saramaccan copulascenario occurred as the result of explainable but unpredictable processes ofchange. Saramaccan speakers have not processed the language as a variety ofany European language, and thus its development of copulas is not couched in adynamic relationship with a high superstratal language.

Finally the third section (Exceptional language change elsewhere) is composedby 3 chapters and represents extensions of the Author’s position on languagecontact and simplification to languages other than creoles. “Creoleexceptionalism is but one component of a framework devoted not to the singlingout of creoles for suspect or peculiar reasons, but of analyzing thedifference between human language as it presumably was for the most of humans’existence, as opposed to the way many languages are now as the result ofpopulation movements and second-language acquisition.” (McWhorter, 2011: 203).

Chapter Seven is adapted from McWhorter (2008), with a reconceived text flow,additional data and abridgment. This chapter was originally written inresponse to Gil (2001), whose article constituted the most challenging replyto creole exceptionalism. Gil showed that Riau Indonesian was proof that alanguage could wend into this “prototypical” state by chance. McWhorter (2008)concluded that Riau Indonesian is a product of extensive adult acquisition,and therefore supported the Creole Prototype hypothesis. Gil noted that thecolloquial Indonesian languages were almost all radically less complex thanthe standard. Given that Indonesian has been used as much if not more as asecond language than as a first language for over two millennia, McWhorterthinks that it would be almost bizarre if the nature of these colloquialdialects was not in some way related to this fact. In seeking to make thiscase for dialects like Riau Indonesian, the author surveyed some Austronesianlanguages to confirm his hunch that there were no other languages in thefamily that had drifted mysteriously into analyticity, but his hunch waswrong. So McWhorter’s suggestion is that there must be something particularabout the social histories of the Austronesian languages. These languagestherefore present a challenge to the Creole Prototype hypothesis.

Chapter Eight outlines the author’s conclusion concerning the languages ofFlores and Timor; according to him they can be accommodated within histheoretical proposal. The lexicon of these languages presents some extremelyunusual aspects, considered evidence of a massive interruption that impactedadult learners.

Chapter Nine is an analysis of English and makes the case that English is evenless “normal” than specialists in its history have typically supposed. In theauthor’s opinion English grammar was deeply impacted by Celtic, so thatdepending on where one draws the proverbial line, it could be seen as bothmoderately simplified as well as moderately mixed. The Celtic Hypothesis onEnglish diachrony would appear to be at a tipping point. Chapter Nine isintended as a spur for further study. As language change goes, the path takenby English, like that of creoles, has been exceptional because of the vaststreamlining and hybridization of its grammar.

EVALUATIONThe author assigns himself the task of testing the validity of his basicproposal, which is that “the difference in complexity between languages’grammars is determined significantly by the extent to which second-languageacquisition has played a role in their histories”. Each chapter presents aseries of “technical” aspects related to observations that the author links tothe individual languages under consideration. On that front, the author’sprose is passionate and “appealing”, much more than a standard scientificbook, and the method of investigation of the individual issues covered in thechapters of the book is rigorous and carefully applied. I reserve judgment onthe conclusions reached in the individual sections to specialists in creoles,second language acquisition and linguistic contact. I leave to them the valuejudgments of a book that for me was interesting to read, one I practicallydevoured.

Although they are the target audience of this publication, the title --Linguistic simplicity and complexity -- aims to reach an audience of scholarsof general linguistics. I belong to this group, with a perspective linked moreto the traditional European study of classical philology. From thatperspective I add a few observations on the project.

First, the use of concepts like “linguistic simplicity” and “complexity” seemsto have a certain pre-scientific quality (i.e. unscientific or unprovenprejudice). I see in his categorization an implicit gradation of value (simple= of little value; complex = not possessing a general harmony; intermediate =good, balanced), which becomes strange when we consider that in the categoryof the good and balanced he places English and the ‘normal’ Indo-Europeanlanguages (all of which have, however, an aurea mediocritas). I detect thescent of “Eurocentrism”.

Second, the author points out that all linguists “are comfortable with thebasic association between second language acquisition and analyticity as atendency. Fewer, however, are comfortable assigning the general typology of alanguage to widespread second-language acquisition, in view of the fact thataffixes can erode over time and there is, certainly, a chance element incomplexity differentials between languages.” Though I belong to that smallergroup -- those who can agree to link the general type of a language to itswidespread acquisition as a second language -- I cannot accept that theanalysis of creoles is reduced and confined to the mere perspective ofsynchronic analysis, with a general disregard for historical and socialfactors (which seem crucial for creoles in particular). Such an analysis seemsto underestimate certain factors in order to insist on the construction of ananalytical scheme composed of various boxes.

Third, the author’s programmatic desire to “work towards a typology oflanguage contact with not only descriptive but deductive power” causes meserious discomfort. In linguistics there is no predictive ability that couldbe refined to the point of eliminating with a single stroke of a pen the needto investigate phenomena such as creolization from a complex perspective, onewhich integrates synchrony and diachrony and makes it possible to balancehistorical and typological factors. Indeed we must recognize that Romance,Germanic and classical linguistics and their respective 1,500, 1,000 and 3,000years of scholarly tradition have taught us that this complex perspective isabsolutely essential.

REFERENCESAnsaldo, Umberto – Matthews, Stephen – Lim, Lisa (eds.) 2007 DeconstructingCreole. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gil, David 2001 Creoles, Complexity, and Riau Indonesian. Linguistic Typology2/3: 325-71.

McWhorter, John 2005 Defining Creole. New York: Oxford University Press.

McWhorter, John 2008 Why does a language undress?: strange cases of Indonesia.In Miestamo, Matti - Sinnemäki, Kaius - Karlsson, Fred (eds.) 2008 LanguageComplexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Singler, John 2006 Children and creole genesis. Journal of Pidgin and CreoleLanguages 21: 157-73.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERMauro Giuffré is a post-doc in Linguistics at the University of Palermo. Heholds a PhD in General Linguistics, with a dissertation titled TextLinguistics and Cognitive Sciences: the proceduralism of Dressler and DeBeaugrande. His main research interests concern the relationship betweenclassical studies (philology and ancient western European languages, such asLatin and Greek) and theoretical work in text linguistics; his scientificproduction is devoted to connecting theoretical linguistics with classicalstudies. He is the editor of STUDIES IN SEMIOTIC TEXTOLOGY IN HONOUR OF JANOSS. PETÖFI (2011, Supplement 1) (preview in of Sprachtheorie undgermanistische Linguistik (, directed by András Kertész.

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