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Sociolinguistic Development of Creole Languages Essay


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Sociolinguistics refers to all the social and cultural aspects that define the use of a language (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 2008). Creoles are contact languages which develop where people who speak different languages need to communicate with each other (Siegel, 2010). Creoles are developed from one dominant language known as the lexifier and other languages known as substrates (Harry, 2006). Nevertheless, the morphology, phonology and syntax of the Creoles are distinct from those of the lexifier (Siegel, 2010). Creoles differ from pidgins in that they are much better developed over time (Harry, 2006). Pidgins have a heavy presence of the lexifier in them, but this reduces with time as the language is passed down generations. In many cases, those who inherit the language take it as their mother-tongue and develop it to the extent that it becomes an independent language, a Creole (Siegel, 2010).

Creoles mainly developed in small countries such as Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique and Reunion, among other places. Their main lexifiers are English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (Harry, 2006). With time they developed into languages with well-established grammar, written work, teaching methods and scholars. These factors contributed to their transfer down the generations and widespread use among the population. In that way they became full-fledged languages in their own right (Siegel, 2010).

Interestingly though, some of the lexifier languages themselves developed as Creoles. English, which is a common lexifier for many Creoles, is considered such a language. For this reason, many of the sociolinguistic features of the English language are similar to those of many Creoles (Algeo, 2010).

This paper is written to discuss the sociolinguistic development of the syntax, morphology and lexical variation in Creole languages, due to the mixed cultural interactions that created them. The discussion is based on an analysis of previous studies carried out on the languages. The English based Jamaican Creole and the French based Haitian Creole are considered, to show that the manner of development was similar despite the lexifier. Comparative cases of development in the English language are used to illustrate these soemo f the points. The paper concludes that, indeed, the Creoles developed due to the interaction of disparate cultures that came into direct contact.

Hypothesis of the Study

This study posits that aspects of the Creole languages including syntax, morphology and lexical variations, were formed as derivatives of the interaction between two or more disparate cultures and languages. It is a fact that such cultural interaction defined the formation of words and grammatical rules of the Creoles. Similarly, English itself is a derivative of several cultures over a long duration.


In this study there is an endeavor to carry out a comparative analysis of sociolinguistic development of the linguistic features of the Creole languages, based on previous studies. The features are syntax, morphology and lexical variations. The Creole languages chosen for the study are Jamaican Creole [English lexified] (Harry, 2006), and Haitian Creole [French lexified] (Bonenfant, 2011). The study traces the manner in which words have been formed, some of the rules that govern their use and the cultural motivations behind such rules. The examples discussed are drawn from a wide array of literature reviewed, all drawn from previous studies carried out on Creole languages.

Historical Development of Creole languages

The Jamaican Creole, or Patois as it is better known, developed from a mixture of English as the lexifier and West African languages, mainly the Akan, as the substrates (Harry, 2006). The language was spoken by African slaves who were transported to work in farms in Jamaica by English speaking slave masters (Harry, 2006). As the slaves learned English, to communicate to their masters, they incorporated many of their mother tongues thus creating the new Patois Creole. Over time though, Patois developed into a distinct language with words and expressions that were very different from English. As the slaves taught the language to their children down generations, it became a fully developed language in its own right. It became largely unintelligible with English. There are traces of other languages including Spanish and French in the creole as well (Harry, 2006).

The Haitian Creole developed much in the same manner. It is a French lexified Creole, with West African Niger-Congo languages as the main substrate (Bonenfant, 2011). However, the language has elements of Spanish, English and Portuguese which its speakers interacted with at different times (Bonenfant, 2011). It is also different from the Jamaican Creole in that it is spoken by a larger number of people, estimated at 12 million people worldwide (Bonenfant, 2011). Like the Jamicans, Haitians know this Creole as their native or only language.

Similarly, English is an old West Germanic language that has developed over several centuries since about 5 AD. It is such a diverse language that its words are drawn from almost all the major languages in the world (Algeo, 2010). It is classified as Germanic owing to its lexical roots, but it is mutually unintelligible with the German language, which has itself also evolved over time (Algeo, 2010). English is so widely spoken that it is replete with dialects in various parts of the world. It is the official language of diplomacy, business, computing and aviation thus it has a major influence on other world languages (Algeo, 2010).

This kind of checkered history is the first thing the Creoles have in common. It is true that all languages actually borrow from one another over time. However, the Creoles were developed based on a major language and sub-languages (Siegel, 2010). Another similarity is that the languages were all formed due to the urgent necessity to communicate under duress. Both the Jamaican and Haitian Creoles came about due to Slave trade. Once slaves were brought in from West Africa to work on the farms in the two Islands, they had to communicate to their English and French speaking bosses respectively. They brought with them West African languages but now had to learn the new tongues. Their original languages thus combined with the foreign tongues to later merge into the Creole languages.

Linguistic Development Analysis

Syntactic structure

The syntactic structure of Jamaican creole is markedly different from that of English. The inclusion of word order derived from the Niger-Congo languages significantly changed the lexical structure as seen in Fig 1 below.

Fig 1 Variations in Syntax between Jamaican Creole and English

Jamaican Creole English
/no crai/ Don’t cry
/mi did a run/ I ran
/dat a fi me bu:k/ That is my book
/me a go plei/ I am going to play

In negation, no is used instead of don’t as shown in the example above. Did is used to express past tense, but in a completely different way as shown in the second example. Dat is used instead of that, just like da is used instead of the. Dat a is used instead that is as shown in the third example. Me is used instead of I, while a go is used to represent future tense (Harry, 2006).

All these came about as a result of the influence of Niger-Congo expression on English statements. While the examples above are quite easy to follow for an English language speaker, it gets a bit more complicated.

/dem pikni de outah audah/ means: The children are noisy. Pickney is a derivative of the Spanish work pequeno meaning small (Harry, 2006). This shows how the language has gradually gained its independence by deviating from English.

Similar examples abound from Haitian Creole which has greatly deviated from French. The syntactic structure of the language is closer to that of the Fon language of West Africa, while the words used are derivatives of French. Examples are shown in Fig 2 below.

Fig 2 Variations in Syntax between Haitian Creole and French

Haitian Creole Fan French English
bekann mwen keke che ma bécane my bike
bekann mwen yo keke che le mes bécanes my bikes
kay la afe a la maison the house

For instance bekann mwen is equivalent to the old French ma bécan meaning my bike. In the Fon language the possessive pronoun follows the noun, unlike in French or English. Moreover, in plural form bekann mwen becomes bekann mwen yo instead of the French mes bécanes or English my bikes.

A similar deviation is seen in modern English from old English which was closer to the Germanic roots. Examples of this are seen in Fig 3 below.

Fig 3 Old and Modern English Syntax

Old English Modern English
hē þæs frōfre gebād, fate repaid him
gomban gyldan gave him gifts
sceaþena þrēatum escaped from squadroned foes

What can straight away be gleaned from Fig 3 by any modern English speaker, is that there is little similarity between the two language versions. However, on checking further, the word paes in the first example bears similarity to repaid in the translation (Algeo, 2010). Gyldan in the second line, is also somewhat similar to gold which could have been a form of a gift. The last example of old English in the table sounds more like Latin than English. Straight away though it can be established that the old sceapena and modern day escaped have some similarities (Algeo, 2010). The connection between old English to Latin can be seen in this last line. This connection was partially lost when English went on to interact with other languages (Algeo, 2010).

Morphological Structure

In Fig 5 below are examples of variations that exist in the morphological structure of Haitian Creole and French

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Fig 5 Variations between Haitian Creole and French

Haitian Creole French English
papa père father
chèz chaise chair
zanmi ami friend
vwazen voisin neighbor

The African form papa for father has become accepted as part of the French language. Though the French word chèz means home of, it is accepted as the short form of chair in Haitian Creole. Moreover, zanmi and vwazen have French roots but have taken on a distinctly African sound (Bonenfant, 2011).

A comparative state of affairs about old and modern English can be used as an illustration of these developments as seen in Fig 6.

Fig 6 Old versus Modern English Morphology

Old English Modern English
hwa who
hwaes whose
hwon why

The older words have a distinctly Germanic sound to them, but then there is not too much difference between them and the modern words that replaced them. The addition of “se” to change the normative form who into the genitive whose appears to be an old practice here since hwa also became hwaes in the old form (Algeo, 2010). These changes have been attributed by some scholars to the influence of other languages on English. For instance the English form “why” sounds almost like the French “quoi”/kwa/ (Algeo, 2010).

Lexical Variation

Variation by Social Class

The first notable thing about the term Creole is that it is a socially derogatory term. It is derived from old Latin and means a servant in another’s house (Bonenfant, 2011). For long time, Creole was derided as the language of servants, persons of low education and of the lower social classes (Bonenfant, 2011). People occupying higher echelons in society had no time for the language, in both Haiti and Jamaica. There emerged urban and suburban versions of the Creoles.

However, the Creoles grew to be very popular languages that have survived long after the abolition of slavery. Their speakers have increased in leaps and bounds. The Creoles became the only language their founders could be identified with, since they had no other known mother tongue (Mather, 2013). Subsequently, the languages came to be accepted by all cadres of society (Mather, 2013).

Variation by Age Groups

The Creoles developed their own variation among the speakers. There was widespread code switching as the younger speakers tried to outwit their elders on youth matters. The elders too developed code switching terms to keep the younger ones out of their level of conversation. In Haiti, this instability led to Government establishing an orthography to stabilize the language and later adopted it as the second national language after French (Mather, 2013). Another step by the government was to allow the language to be learned alongside French in public schools. This was to help maintain its standards in the face of this onslaught by age sets bent on outwitting each other.

Jamaican Creole was also affected by a wide variation of usage. There emerged American Patois spoken mainly by Jamaicans in the US and original Jamaican Patois (Mather, 2013). The American version was favored by the more urbane youth. However, the Original Jamaican Patois has been greatly popularized by popular reggae musicians, who have helped propel the language across the world. Many people across the globe simply know it as the language of reggae music (Mather, 2013).

The government too has taken the language seriously and recognized it as an official language. It is both a national language and an official one. There are some parents who were initially apprehensive that the learning of Creole in school would affect the overall student performance in English. On the contrary, this has not turned out to be the case (Mather, 2013). Children master both languages easily. Moreover, instruction in creole which is the native language of the children makes their learning even more effective.

Variation by Gender

The Female speakers of the Creoles tend to stick to the more formal versions of the languages, while the male speakers tend to stretch the rules (Bonenfant, 2011). This results in the men inventing new words and expressions every day that end up making the languages unstable. This has made the ladies to play the role of language custodians while the males become the unofficial language researchers (Bonenfant, 2011). Nevertheless, the publishing of books and other literature material using the languages, plus recordings in electronic form, have helped to maintain the standards of the languages. Still new words and expressions come up every day in keeping with a rapidly changing world.

One new area in which the Creoles have found expression is in the social media. The social media is a rapidly changing setting in which new words have to coined every time, to keep up with the first developing new phenomena (Bonenfant, 2011). Dynamic languages come up with requisite new terminologies each time it is needed. The creoles are not left behind in this either, thus making them join the league of modern languages, even though they developed from such humble (Bonenfant, 2011). Some of the short forms used as a matter of necessity in social media communication further adds to new word forms that add to the rich repertoire of Creole lexicon. This is true both for the Jamaican and Haitian Creoles, and indeed all other forms of Creole (Bonenfant, 2011).

Dialectical Variations

Language variation is not wholly a bad thing. There are variations such as American, British and Australian English, but they are all still mutually intelligible. The same variations exist among the Creole languages. To a stranger however, one variety cannot be easily differentiated from the others. There are the varieties that are very close to the lexifier known as the acrolect (Harry, 2006). The next variety is the mesolect , which is somewhere between the acrolect and the other extreme type, the basilect (Harry, 2006).

The acrolect is mainly found in urban areas and upper class settlements. It is considered a more prestigious form of the language and associated with better educated people (Harry, 2006). Since, English is the official language of instruction in public schools in Jamaica, the speakers of this dialect have acquired a better mastery of English, which comes with higher learning.

The mesolect is found among the lower middle and working class (Harry, 2006). Speaking it shows that one is not too badly off economically, and not too well off either. It is associated with urban populations desirous of making an impression, but limited in English vocabulary. It is the preferred language of the workplace where people from different classes interact (Harry, 2006).

Meanwhile, the basilect is more prevalent in the rural areas (Harry, 2006). It easily identifies a person as of lesser education and social standing. It is also associated with individuals without too much social exposure. It is called the basilect since it is viewed as being basic (Harry, 2006). It is characterized by a heavier leaning on the African substrates compared to the other versions. It is also the most original and conservative form of Creole since it is less exposed to external influences, thus it changes very slowly (Harry, 2006). Another important feature of the basilect is that it is richer in language features such as proverbs, sayings and figurative speech. These are language habits carried down generations from the African ancestors (Harry, 2006).

Naturally, the more urbane the version the more prestigious it is considered to be (Harry, 2006). Even then, the broad spectrum of the language remains the same across all versions, even though there are some words and phrases unique to certain social settings more than others.

Then there are rogue versions of a language that tend to greatly divert from the language. These are usually developed by sub-groups, and become a kind of pidgin (Harry, 2006). Nevertheless, these only go to prove that the languages are very well developed. A language with many speakers typically develops into many dialects in different places (Harry, 2006).


Creoles are contact languages which develop due to the interaction of one dominant language and a substrate. There are many types of Creoles, some based on English and others on French among other languages. They started as a result of the importation of slaves from West Africa into the Caribbean Islands. The Creole languages have in them a wide variety of borrowed syntactic structures, words and evolved lexical variations, which came about as a result of the active interaction between lexifier and substrate languages derived from different cultures. Both languages involved lent something to the new language, the Creole.

References: Sociolinguistic Development of Creole Languages Essay

Algeo, J. (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Bonenfant, J. L. (2011). “History of Haitian-Creole: From Pidgin to Lingua Franca and English Influence on the Language” (PDF). Review of Higher Education and Self-Learning, 3 (11), 10-34.

Gumperz, J. J., & Cook-Gumperz, J. (2008). “Studying Language, Culture, and Society: Sociolinguistics or Linguistic Anthropology?”. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12(4), 532–545.

Harry, O. G. (2006), “Jamaican Creole”, Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 36 (1): 125–131,

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Mather, P.A. (2013). “Creoles and Educational Policy. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 28:1 1–11.

Siegel, J. (2010 July). “Bilingual Literacy in Creole Contexts”. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development Vol. 31, No. 4, 383-402.