Defining Creole

Defining Creole

Defining Creole

Defining Creole


A conventional wisdom among creolists is thatcreoleis a sociohistorical term only: that creole languages share a particular history entailing adults rapidly acquiring a language usually under conditions of subordination, but that structurally they are indistinguishable from other languages. The articles by John H. McWhorter collected in this volume demonstrate that this is in fact untrue.

Creole languages, while complex and nuanced as all human languages are, are delineable from older languages as the result of their having come into existence only a few centuries ago. Then adults learn a language under untutored conditions, they abbreviate its structure, focusing upon features vital to communication and shaving away most of the features useless to communication that bedevil those acquiring the language non-natively. When they utilize their rendition of the language consistently enough to create a brand-new one, this new creation naturally evinces evidence of its youth: specifically, a much lower degree of the random accretions typical in older languages, which only develop over vast periods of time.

The articles constitute a case for this thesis based on both broad, cross-creole ranges of data and focused expositions referring to single creole languages. The book presents a general case for a theory of language contact and creolization in which not only transfer from source languages but also structural reduction plays a central role, based on facts whose marginality of address in creole studies has arisen from issues sociopolitical as well as scientific. For several decades the very definition of the termcreolehas been elusive even among creole specialists. This book attempts to forge a path beyond the inter- and intra-disciplinary misunderstandings and stalemates that have resulted from this, and to demonstrate the place that creoles might occupy in other linguistic subfields, including typology, language contact, and syntactic theory.


This volume gathers thirteen of my articles over the past decade on creole languages. I have chosen those pieces that demonstrate several related general points that have most concerned me in my work: the definition of creoles as a synchronic, rather than solely sociohistorical, type of language; the grammar-internal diachrony that creoles have undergone apart from contact-related processes; and the fact that structural reduction, far beyond mere inflectional loss, can play as significant a role in language contact as calquing.

Overall, I believe that in much work in creole studies over the past few decades, sociopolitical persuasions have had a way of channeling and even distorting empirical engagement. The themes I treat in this volume are an attempt to identify this tendency for the purposes of pointing the way beyond it, which I believe will benefit creole studies, as well as linguistics as a whole.

All of the papers have been dusted off as thoroughly as possible. New data and sources are included wherever possible. Bibliographical citations are updated. Small errors that have come to my attention over the years are corrected. In many cases, I have even altered or revised observations or argumentation to reflect progress in my own thinking or in scholarly consensus. Some of the chapters are considerably abbreviated versions of the articles they were based on, my aim having been to fashion them as much as possible for the purposes of this anthology.

While I have assembled the papers to illustrate general themes, and have provided section introductions in support of that goal, obviously I did not originally write the papers for the purpose of later including them in a single volume. As such, there are inevitable overlaps between many of the chapters—for example, in terms of data adduced for particular points. I have tried to minimize this as much as possible. However, the fact is that very few readers will have occasion to read the anthology in its entirety, and for that reason, there are various cases where I decided that allowing the overlaps was the best choice.

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