Creole Languages

Paul V. Hartman

There is Creole, and there are "creole languages". It's the difference in the "c".

A creole language (small "c"), like a pidgin language, is one which develops when two or more people of different tongues, obliged to communicate (for commercial reasons, mutual protection, etc.), settle (by trial and error) on a set of words which both groups can understand.

A creole language was a common outgrowth of European colonization in the Americas (and elsewhere in the world) and, in particular, as a result of the slave trade. Slaves from different parts of Africa, speaking different languages, brought to an island or country by European owners whose language is the "authoritative" one, were highly likely to create a creole language taken from all the spoken tongues, mixing and morphing them together. With time, a creole language matures, along with a parallel culture.

A good example of a creole language is that named Gullah, which developed among slaves brought into US states extending from North Carolina to upper Florida. Today's Gullah speakers had ancestors who came from Senegal, Gambia, the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and some others. When many escaped to uninhabited barrier islands along the Carolina and Georgia coasts, the language matured along side the development of a common culture: music, dress, folk beliefs, crafts, farming, and so forth.

There is a generation of white folk in Charleston and Savannah who can understand Gullah, because they were raised by Gullah-speaking house workers. A stage production of "Porgy and Bess" in Charleston, SC, for instance, done entirely in Gullah, will be viewed by a mostly white audience. Some Gullah people have migrated to Northern cities, like New York City, where Gullah churches may be found. (Gullah people are also known as "Geechee".)

Creole, with a large "C", is the short name for Haitian Creole, which is a creole language spoken today by more than 12 million people in the Caribbean, and scattered points elsewhere such as Louisiana. It is the source of confusion about creole as a recognized type of language, and Creole as the name of a language.

Long before there even was an America, there were creole languages: several are spread throughout Asia. The best studied creole language is the "Lingua Franca"* of the Mediterranean Basin which flourished from the 11th to the 19th Century.

Beginning with a base of Latin and Italian, it quickly acquired Portugese and Spanish elements, and later borrowed words and features from French, Greek, Persian, and Arabic. Invented and nurtured by the sea-going inhabitants of all countries trading on the Mediterranean, it satisfied the need to communicate for commercial and diplomatic purposes among all these diverse language/culture peoples.

So - when you find reason to speak about creole - you will now know when to use the small c and when to use the capital.
* Lingua Franca translates as "Language of the Franks", meaning, not French, necessarily, but Roman-origin Christians.   World wide, the "lingua franca" of today is English.

Language scholars have fun tracing the roots of modern day English. If we define creole as the appearance of a "mutual language of convenience" or as a "collection of words understood by most", among people of different tongues, English does not fit the definition, since it began as a derivative of tongues spoken among the Celtic people scattered over Northern Europe, and then was greatly influenced by successive waves of invaders over the course of centuries. A language, therefore, which evolved by adding stuff (words, forms, pronunciation, etc.) over a long time period. Two groups have had the most influence: Western Germanic and Scandinavian during the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Norman invasion in 1066. (Read "A Short History of Early England" HERE). In the classification of languages, modern English is identified as a West Germanic language. (See also "How the Days of the Week Got Their Names" HERE.)

The English now identified as the first "global lingua franca", spoken by over a billion people, and representing the second language for many of them, is the American form, which took precedence after World War II. That form took shape during another long interval spanning the 17th through the 20th centuries. For example, worldwide, a device which carries people up and down in a tall building is called an "elevator" - the American form - and not a "lift", which is the British form.

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