LINGUIST List 27.2332

Tue May 24 2016

Review: Historical Ling; Socioling; Typology: Velupillai (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 15-Jan-2016
From: David Robertson <>
Subject: Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Viveka Velupillai
TITLE: Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages
SUBTITLE: An Introduction
SERIES TITLE: Creole Language Library 48
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson,

Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


Among the more rapidly evolving subfields in linguistics wanting a state-of-the-art summary is the study of contact languages. Building on newly available descriptive surveys (Haspelmath et al. 2005 [''WALS''], Michaelis et al. 2013 [''APiCS'']), Viveka Velupillai (hereafter ''VV'') has created such a handbook in a bipartite format whose brevity (with chapters averaging around 15 pages) is accessible for those with basic linguistic knowledge, and whose breadth (knowledgeably referencing hundreds of scholarly sources) makes it a useful reference for advanced researchers. Its organization is referenced in the following discussion.


This book is valuable as a reference summarizing the state of linguistic understanding about contact languages. It usefully outlines an introductory course though its chapters' brevity necessitates clarifications and invites instructor-led discussion. My discussion of Chapter 1 will illustrate several points that this volume suggests that would reward some elaboration in the classroom or in a second edition. For subsequent chapters, I will limit my remarks.

Chapter 1 “Pidgins” illuminates individuals' subtle accommodation in tourist-type contact between mutually intelligible languages as “dialect levelling” (p.16), a concept, normally conceived at the abstract group level and on historical timescales, which could be overtly contrasted with the more urgent and thoroughgoing restructuring that marks pidginization. Section 1.1.1 contrasts contact outcomes: ad-hoc versus languages per se, varying by “Levels of Stability”, though that metric isn't defined. (It seemingly conflates structural complexity, temporal persistence, and “uniformity”, cf. p. 70.) Unpacking this concept to demonstrate how it validates accepted categories--jargon vs. pidgin vs. extended pidgin/pidgincreole--would help. Perhaps the category “jargon” should be moved into the chapter's opening remarks on nonce communication strategies, as “an individual solution...not typically passed on to others” (p.19)—a jargon is not an identifiable entity, a “language”. Thus the valuable Snapshot of understudied Sami-Swedish “trade jargon” Borgarmålet (§1.4.1) might withstand relabeling; it meets VV's pidginhood criteria, being structurally consistent (contra VV herself, p. 32) except lexically. “Synonyms are generally not expected” in pidgins (p.31), while here ''give'' has four synonyms—but this is the extent of variation in the data, and other languages acknowledged as pidgins, such as Russenorsk (§12.4.1), vary more in lexicon.

Pages 17, 19, etc. continue the valid generalization that “a pidgin is typically not the mother tongue of its speakers”, although “communitywide mother tongue” would give optimal contrast within VV's contact-language typology. Her apparent characterization of pidgins as the initial level of “stabilization” from a jargon stage (§1.1.12) is hard to disprove, but we have scant evidence for clearly structureless precursors to any pidgins. VV rightly observes “most of those who use a pidgin will have some other primary language that they...use...for more expressive functions, such as story telling or poetry” (p. 20). However, because it is sociohistorical factors that best define pidgins (cf. p.19 and Chapter 4), the counterexample bears noting: in some pidgins, like Chinuk Wawa, songs are typical and frequent (Boas 1888, also evidently Russenorsk, pp.417-418 of this volume). The typology of contact outcomes could note that contact situations logically can, and sometimes do, persist but with shift away from pidgin use: either back to an extant L1 (pidgin language death, a phenomenon warranting investigation) or to an L2 (language shift, cf. Thomason and Kaufman 1988:110-146). The impressionistic categorization of pidgin types at §1.2 focuses on kinds of interactions occurring at genesis, but it could be pointed out that categories like “plantation” and “military” can apply to creoles too (viz. Berbice Dutch, Kinubi), and “urban” probably to creoles and mixed languages. The chapters on various contact-language types could further integrate if comparable metrics were introduced early, for example the creole chapter's “endogenous-exogenous” distinction (§2.2), and mixed languages' “in-group” orientation (Chapter 3) which implicitly contrasts with the out-of-group orientation leading to pidgin/creole genesis.

With regard to pidgincreoles (§, such a language is aptly distinguished in sociological terms as a “main language for its community”, typically “a mother tongue for some of its speakers” (pp. 20-21). The separate formal claim—it will have “a larger set of structural norms” than a pidgin (p. 21)--suffers from another non-definition, that of linguistic complexity and levels thereof; §1.3.1 contrasts pidgins and lexifiers pretty explicitly in these terms, but without mentioning pidgincreoles. Adding to §1.3 some discussion of the burgeoning topic of structural complexity/simplicity (e.g. Miestamo et al. 2008) might help. Finally, the observation (p.21) that pidgincreoles have “an—in principle—unlimited use” is trivial since it applies to all languages.

Chapter 2, “Creoles”, presents these as community L1s emerging from intense contact, often remaining stigmatized for generations and tending to result in diglossia with a socially favored language. This compares implicitly with pidgins' definitional trait (above) as L2s. VV's exogenous/endogenous creole typology (§2.2) – contrasting languages newcomers create against those formed by indigenous populations – highlights the wide range of contact contexts. The tally (§2.3) of features generally assumed typical of creoles, e.g. less-marked phonemes, CV syllables, simple/regular morphology etc., implicitly invites discussion about how much these characteristics differ from those of pidgins at §1.3. Such a classroom debate could proceed from the pithy Snapshots (§2.4) of Negerhollands, Nengee, and Diu Indo-Portuguese.

Chapter 3, “Mixed Languages”, identifies this more recently established taxon as resulting from communitywide bilingualism or, VV adds, multilingualism (§3.1). She adduces no examples of the latter, which would be a compelling case study of the complex dynamics in this category of contact outcome. Her discussion of the “intertwined”-structure type (§ stipulates exactly two parent languages, so we cannot expect either the “G-L” [grammar from one parent versus lexicon from the other] nor the “N-V” [nouns versus verbs] subtypes to provide an example. Likewise, the other type, “converted”/“F-S” [form versus structure] languages (§, is illustrated only with dual-source languages. Students new to contact linguistics ought to be aware, too, that especially this chapter assumes “grammar” equates to morphology, “syntax” evidently denoting some undefined abstract structure, yet in most contact languages it is constituent-order SYNTAX that functions to distinguish grammatical roles such as agent, patient, subject, focus, etc. Word order is discussed in this book (later, at §13.2), but only as universal tendencies; its outsized importance in contact linguistics goes unmentioned. The apt sociolinguistic typology (§3.1.2) sees some mixed languages marking a new, versus others expressing a retained, in-group identity; an instructor could compellingly show that both express the trait of newly CONTRASTIVE identity. This can be distinguished from genetically descended languages, which are likewise in-group mediums but not necessarily in contrastive use with another language; the generalization (p.78) that all but one known mixed language are “symbiotic” (spoken alongside parent languages) reinforces this suggestion. The examination (§3.2) of no less than six competing mixed-language formation theories indicates the newness and vitality of this subfield, fuel for in-class debates, which again can proceed from the Snapshots. I suspect students will find this chapter particularly exciting, as it shows that new languages continue being discovered.

The sociologically-themed latter half of Part I commences with Chapter 4, “Sociohistorical Contexts of Pidgins and Creoles”, pointing out (§4.1) that most known contact languages directly or indirectly trace to European colonial expansion: from exploration to trading, then homesteads and plantations with slaves and indentured servants major players. This chapter distills demography, social factors like prestige, and diffusion of contact mediums to new locales into a few stimulating pages bound to open students' eyes to why these languages abound. If anything, the theme of new languages transported to and used in new situations could stand to be elaborated on; this phenomenon is probably more frequent and important than the literature has noted. For example, Chinuk Wawa owes much core structure to the preexisting pidgin Nuuchahnulth, Métis French, and apparently pidgin Haida. The many theories on pidgin formation processes (Chapter 5) and creoles (Chapter 6) receive fair thumbnail representation. The strength of VV's discussion is in comprehensively surveying the history of the field to date, noting each theory's merits and weaknesses, while specifying that none suffices to account for the known facts. This splendidly invites student debate over what type of synthesis is called for. Had a parallel chapter on mixed-language genesis been included it would surely be equally compelling, but students must rely on pages 81-84 of Chapter 3 for an all too tantalizing start on such a discussion.

Two strictly sociolinguistic chapters round out Part I. Chapter 7, “Variation and change”, introduces us to various social roles a contact language can play qua form of speech: it can vary internally (lects), or its vary against use of a wholly different language (diglossia). The standard gradation into basilect, mesolect, and acrolect is illustrated and examined in §7.1.1, where examples from Jamaican Creole show the importance of accounting for community-internal usage differences. The direct variation of overt prestige with (closeness to) the lexifier is rightly stressed, and covert prestige of nonstandard varieties is mentioned (pp. 214-215). Following directly upon VV's examination of language-genesis processes, Chapter 7 may leave students wondering how lects, too, form; viz. her remark “it does not seem implausible that a continuum of ''lects'' existed from the very beginning” in creoles (p. 223). Other questions for a future edition is WHICH levels on a continuum a polylectal speaker is likely to command (surely only adjacent ones?), and whether lects, like languages, can be code-switched among. An excellent point embracing the complexity of language use is VV's observation that diglossia and continua can coexist, again surely material for illuminating class discussions.

In Chapter 8, “Language and Society” turns the focus to a number of compelling social issues, although this chapter presents the least contact-language-specific information of any in the book. When considering official recognition, standardization, orthography choices, education, planning and so forth, understandably VV says much about creoles and almost nothing mixed or pidgin languages, as the former probably are in more common use than the latter. But in the light of both observations just made, instructors might be well advised to encourage students to extend Chapter 8's concepts to other types of contact idioms. For example, as noted regarding Chapter 1, there actually are pidgins for which cultural genres such as songs are integral to their social context.

Moving beyond situating contact languages within the several strands of general linguistic analysis, Part II ''LINGUISTIC FEATURES'' sets itself the big task of objectively testing many oft-repeated claims, central to the practice of the subfield, about the typological distinctiveness of contact-language structures. Based on WALS and APiCS statistics, the student is invited to determine whether anything besides social factors characterizes pidgins, mixed languages, and creoles as kinds (or even families) of languages. As a specialist, I find VV's non-inclusion of Chinuk Wawa in the category of extended pidgins (a.k.a. pidgincreoles) inexplicable, and I wonder how many similar cases slipped through the cracks, but she declares she found too few such to be “able to give meaningful statistics” (p. 289). Likewise, although VV consistently finds that mixed-language features draw from one or a compromise among source languages, Part II draws few statistical conclusions about mixed languages, so that it is mainly – and rewardingly – pidgins and creoles about which we can draw insights here. (A problematic Key Point summarizing Chapter 9 is the claim that “extended pidgins...align with creoles rather than pidgins with respect to phoneme inventory size, syllable structure and tone” (p. 323), untenable if we truly can't meaningfully generalize about pidgincreoles.) Part II's data-oriented chapters are set out in a streamlined, approachable format whose tables of statistics should hardly daunt even the most math-phobic student, but some will need it pointed out that references to ''chi-squared'' and ''χ2'' are synonymous. The various facets of structure evaluated are not summarized by chapter, so users of this book must separately examine e.g. the phoneme-inventory sizes of pidgins and those of creoles in order to compare and contrast them (§9.2).

The number-crunching in Chapter 9 ''Phonology'' reaches a conclusion that pidgins tend toward smallish consonant inventories (p. 297) although students might take this with a grain of salt since the typical data corpus for a pidgin is scant and inconsistent. Pidgin prosody too is seldom reliably documented, and while VV abstains from generalizing in the text, the Key Points (p. 323) imply “pidgins...lack tone”. An interesting finding on creole phonologies is their tendency to significantly differ in number of segments from lexifier languages (p. 301) and to favor complex syllable structures (p. 304); tone systems are underrepresented in creoles (p. 307), but one could add that recent scholarship, e.g. on Papiamentu by Rivera-Castillo (1998) and Remijsen and Van Heuven (2005), seems to be changing this picture.

Chapter 10, ''Morphology'', deviates from the quantitative to an impressionistic approach in discussing morphological analyticity vs. synthesis. VV acknowledges these poles of a complexity continuum as difficult to quantify (p. 326-327). She points to the large literature on that controversy but opts for a quick survey of contact language morphologies, so instructors have an opportunity to further engage students via case studies, perhaps using the Snapshots languages (Turku, Sranan, Media Lengua). Reduplication is equally under enormous debate in the subfield, and occupies an entire section (§10.3), which concludes that reduplication is decidedly underrepresented in pidgins but is neither more nor less common in creoles than in the world's languages overall.

Chapter 11, ''The Noun Phrase'', features two issues, nominal plural marking (§11.2) and articles (§11.3). Most pidgins apparently lack the former. (It is not quite true that “In [pidgin] Chinuk Wawa...there is no plural” because some nouns carry optional productive plural marking, cf. Robertson 2011:55-57.) Creoles, however, typically show optional plural morphology for all nouns. The expected finding that pidgins usually lack articles is confirmed; however, creoles unexpectedly tend to have articles at a rate well above the crosslinguistic average. Such a fascinating result would merit a further thought-question in the Exercises (§11.7), “What might be reasons creoles so often possess articles?”

The final word in Chapter 12's title, ''The Verb Phrase and Predication'', intends to address that most verb-like category: copular constructions. Throughout the chapter, VV meets terminological stumbles, due possibly to a reluctance to use the label ''copula'' in distinction from “predication”. Notably, the Glossary at book's end defines ''predicate'' in the broad pretheoretical sense – “[t]hat part of the clause which asserts something about the subject” – but not as copula. Many compelling questions reside within the fertile ground of tense, mood, and aspect (TMA) marking in contact languages, but having established that pidgins rarely mark these, VV restricts the scope to whether creoles match Bickerton's (e.g. 1981) hypothesized prototype: one each of Tense, Mood, and Aspect (TMA) markers. The statistics in §12.2.3 starkly contradict that proposal: a large majority of creoles, it emerges, have multiple marking in each category and especially aspect; additionally, constituent ordering of these categories is non-predictable. The one validation of the creole prototype is that unmarked, ''base'', verb forms' tense reading tends to be affected by their lexical aspect, but as VV remarks (p. 402), we do not know yet whether this is a difference from other languages. Her brilliant paragraph suggesting likely sources of TMA marking in each kind of mixed languages deserves unpacking, at least via an added question in the Exercises. Section 12.3 on copular constructions, unusually, separately examines ''predicative noun phrases'' and ''predicative adjectives''. Thanks to VV's making this extra effort, it becomes evident that in pidgins overt copulas are somewhat more common with NPs than with adjectives, but are uncommon and frequent than in other languages. Copulas are more characteristic of creoles, but the statistics do not suggest significant differences from noncontact languages.

Chapter 13, “Simple Sentences” (main clauses), investigates constituent order (§13.2), and finds that unlike pidgins, creoles typically hew to their lexifiers' ordering (pp. 438-439). The following section enters the fraught topic of passives, with confusing results. The sole exemplar of a claim that “[p]idgin languages are usually described as lacking any passive construction”, a Chinuk Wawa example (p. 440), seems to be invented: its first gloss, ''The dog eats bread'', is conceivable but the second, ''The bread was eaten by the dog'', is bizarre. In practice, speakers avoid voice ambiguity thanks to formally distinct (quasi-)passive strategies literally meaning ''become X'', ''catch X'', or ''they do X'' (Vrzić 1999:102-103, Robertson 2011:127-128). More mysterious is the pidgin-language dataset's transformation from robustly significant in preceding chapters to “too small for any statistical analyses” about passives! In addition, VV acknowledges that her criteria for calling any creole construction passive differ substantially from those of WALS, and finally, no statistically significant findings emerge from comparison with pidgins. Instructors might lead a class discussion of such issues, and guide an analysis of some particular contact languages' strategies for conveying agent-demotion-like meanings.

Chapter 14, ''Complex Sentences'', (subordinate clauses) praiseworthily takes on some portion of this vast syntactic area. Although main-verb dependents (perhaps the most frequent kind of embedded clause) are not investigated, two types are focused upon: subject relative clauses (§14.2) and directional serial verb constructions (§14.3). I found the exposition of the former mildly confusing due to the absence of a concept ''complementizer'' in the theoretical preliminaries (pp. 464-466), and to the pidgin examples' being relativized objects. Creoles tend to at least optionally mark relativization; unlike other languages it seems they never use a ''non-reduction'' strategy (p.470), though this is undefined in the book and hard to evaluate. The section on serial verb constructions generates fewer findings than might be expected, giving figures only for creoles and concluding only that these languages more commonly have directional SVCs than not.

Chapter 15, ''Pragmatics'', really looks more at the propositional level than the utterance or at language in real-world context. VV's statistical analysis reveals that pidgins and creoles are much more likely than other languages to use a negative-particle strategy, and to lack any other negation (pp.499-501), as well as to prefer intonational over segmental marking of polar questions (pp. 504-507). Data on second-person pronoun politeness distinctions seems scant, but evidently creoles can be shown to parallel noncontact languages in using this strategy (pp. 510-512).

The preceding critique should suggest no fundamental inadequacy, but instead the promise, of this volume. Few surveys of contact linguistics have been so committed to remaining based in documentation, and VV covers so much material that she could not address all possible viewpoints and implications. She excellently summarizes e.g. the salient points of numerous creole-genesis theories (in tables on pp.187-188). Her empirical statistical testing in Part II of traits assumed typical of contact languages is groundbreaking. In many instances, it provides surprising insights, in others it finally confirms long-promoted hypotheses, and in the considerable number of cases where VV is able to demonstrate objectively that we lack sufficient data for generalization, we are effectively directed to specific questions needing further research. The latter, if emphasized by an attentive instructor, could prove a life-changing encounter for budding young contact linguists, and this in itself is a great reason to highly recommend this book.


Bickerton, D. 1981. Roots of language. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma.

Boas, F. 1888. Chinook songs. Journal of American Folklore 1(3):220-226.

Haspelmath, M., M.S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (eds.). 2005. The World Atlas of Language Structures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miestamo, M., K. Sinnemäki and F. Karlsson (eds.). 2008. Language complexity: Typology, contact, change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (Studies in Language Companion Series, volume 94.)

Michaelis, S.M., P. Maurer, M. Haspelmath, and M. Huber (eds.). 2013. The Atlas and Survey of Pidgin & Creole Languages, 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Remijsen, B. and V.J. van Heuven. 2005. Stress, tone, and discourse prominence in the Curaçao dialect of Papiamentu. Phonology 22:205-235.

Rivera-Castillo, Yolanda. 1998. Tone and stress in Papiamentu: The contribution of a constraint-based analysis to the problem of creole genesis. Journal of Pidgin & Creole Languages 13(2):297-334.

Robertson, D.D. 2011. Kamloops Chinúk Wawa, Chinuk pipa, and the vitality of pidgins. PhD dissertation, University of Victoria. Download at

Thomason, S. and T. Kaufman. 1988. Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vrzić, Z. 1999. Modeling Pidgin / Creole genesis: universals and contact influence in Chinook jargon syntax. PhD dissertation, New York University.


DAVID DOUGLAS ROBERTSON is a Pacific Northwest consulting linguist (PhD, University of Victoria, 2012). He specializes in language contact. (Especially Chinuk Wawa / Chinook Jargon, and its endangered Chinuk pipa writing system; also the pidgins French of the Mountains and Heiltsuk Pidgin.) He also works to rescue the understudied documentation of the region's languages. (Particularly Salish, for example łəw̓ál̓məš / Lower Chehalis, as well as eight British Columbia languages' first community literacies.) This work involves analyzing weatherbeaten 1890s grave markers, blogging frequently at, dictionary making, grammar writing, and assisting community members in becoming speakers of their heritage language.

Page Updated: 24-May-2016