Language explained
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Language explained

LANGUAGE EXPLAINED

Are Creole Languages Inherently Simple?

And do creoles resemble each other?

Written by Anna Prickarz

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

Introduction and background

Many creole languages first emerged as new languages in settler colonies. The coloniser’s language usually provided most of the lexicon, but the mother tongues of the colonised and the slaves brought by the coloniser influenced the formation of the creole as well. One creole, which has formed under such circumstances, is Jamaican. The Jamaican sentence “Rat nyam chiiz” (Farquharson 2013) means “Rats eat cheese” (Farquharson 2013) in English. The example illustrates the formation and shape of a creole: Words like “rat” and “chiiz” are provided by the coloniser’s lexicon, but “nyam” seems to have a different origin.

As far as the sociohistorical circumstances of creole formation are concerned, linguists tend to agree. However, they disagree about several other aspects regarding creole linguistic features. In this essay, I focus on two; whether creoles are very similar to each other just because they are creoles, and whether they are inherently simpler than other languages, such as English or French. Some linguists, for example Peter Bakker, a professor at the universities of Aarhus and Amsterdam, support the idea that creoles are simpler (e.g., Bakker et al: 2011: 8). John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, suggests that creoles are simpler because they are young and did not have as much time to form “needless complexity” in grammar and lexicon (2005: 132).

Other linguists, such as Umberto Ansaldo, a professor at Curtin University, disagree. They neither believe that creoles form one specific type of language, nor that creoles are inherently simple (e.g., Ansaldo et al: 2007). Ansaldo et al argue that what is characteristic of creoles, is their “sociolinguistic histories of contact and multilingualism” (2007: 14). Susanne Michaelis, a linguist, and researcher at the Max-Planck-Institute in Leipzig, warns that the research on creoles has been biased (2020: 4). Simply put, linguists have been using unrepresentative data sets to prove that creoles are inherently simpler than other languages, and that they resemble each other because they are creoles. The data has been unrepresentative because a certain group of creoles has been overrepresented; namely, Atlantic creoles (Michaelis: 2020: 4). The following map shows where Jamaican, an Atlantic creole, and Kinubi, a non-Atlantic creole, are spoken.

From https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/welt-karte-weltkarte-erde-mercator-2169041/, (free licence: https://pixabay.com/de/service/license/). Edited by author.

As indicated on the map, Jamaican’s lexicon is mostly provided by English, since it was the British who colonised Jamaica after 1655 (Farquharson: 2013). The slaves brought by the British came mostly from the West African Sub-Saharan region, as well as their mother tongues (Farquharson: 2013). Michaelis (2020: 4) explains that Atlantic creoles, such as Jamaican, have usually experienced contact with languages of typologies similar to their own; European languages, which provide most of the lexicon, and languages spoken in the West African Sub-Saharan region. Languages that have been in contact are expected to show similarities. An overrepresentation of Atlantic creoles in linguistic research is thus problematic. It misleadingly suggests a large number of similarities among all creoles (Michaelis: 2020: 4). For this reason, in this essay I compared Jamaican to a non-Atlantic creole, Kinubi, see map above. The aim of this essay is to investigate if the differences between Atlantic and non-Atlantic creoles can provide further evidence for or against the idea that creoles are inherently simple and resemble each other by virtue of being creole languages.

Non-Atlantic creoles have experienced contact with languages which are structurally and typologically very different from Atlantic creoles. In the case of Kinubi, the lexicon is mostly provided by Sudanese and/or Egyptian Arabic, but most sources suggest Sudanese Arabic as the main provider of the lexicon (e.g., Owens: 1985). The sociohistorical circumstances of Kinubi’s formation also differ from those of Jamaican. Owens (1985: 229) mentions this historical event as the beginning of Kinubi’s formation: “Emin Pasha in the southern Sudan fled with his soldiers from the Mahdi”. Emin Pasha and his soldiers spoke Arabic but they fled to the regions where Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan languages were spoken (e.g., Avram: 2020). Apart from the sources already mentioned, I took Kinubi data from Kihm (2011), and Luffin (2013). For background and comparison, I consulted Arabic data from Alkuhlani & Habash (2012), Betti & Ulaiwi (2018), and Freedman & Kleinhaus (2018). Information and data on Jamaican were taken from Farquharson (2013).

Methodology

In my comparison of Jamaican and Kinubi, I focused on comparing the formation of plural. As the two creoles have entirely different histories of language contact, I expected plural formation to differ greatly. I compare Jamaican and Kinubi not only to each other, but also to the languages that provide most of their lexicon, Arabic and English. For English, I relied on my own knowledge as a student of English Studies, while for Standard Arabic, I consulted a native speaker of Egyptian Arabic, Kh. E. on the fourth of March 2022. Examples from the Jamaican language were taken from APiCS Online (Farquharson: 2013). Examples from Kinubi were taken from Kihm (2011), as his paper offers data on Kinubi plural formation. I assumed that the morphology of a creole is more complex the more strategies of plural formation, including changes in the noun roots, there are.

Photo by Rock Staar on Unsplash

Plural formation in Jamaican

In Jamaican, plural is formed by following the noun with dem (Farquharson: 2013). The noun itself remains unchanged. Farquharson (2013) gives the following example.

(1) di tuu ogli man dem

(literally that two ugly man PL(plural))

“The two ugly men.”

English, the language providing most of Jamaican’s lexicon, has other ways of forms plural differently from Jamaican. Men is an example of irregular English plural formation. A change of vowel occurs in the noun itself. Regular plural formation in English works by attaching -s to the singular form, but even then, many nouns must be adapted to attach -s. Overall, Jamaican plural formation is less complex than that of English, as it has only one way of forming plural, and the noun remains unchanged.

Plural formation in Kinubi

Kinubi forms plural quite differently from Arabic, and there are also several ways in which plural can be formed. One is to use suffixes, word endings that attach to a noun. Kinubi has seven, which are always used with an additional shift in stress. One suffix is very similar to one of the suffixes Standard Arabic uses for regular plural formation (Kihm: 2011: 6f).

Table 1. Kinubi data from Kihm (2011: 6f).
Table 2. Standard Arabic data from consultation with Kh. E., 04.03.2022.

Comparing Table 1 and 2, we see that although Kinubi nouns are similar to Standard Arabic, they developed their own system of plural suffixes. Even the suffix -ín in Table 1, which is most similar to the Standard Arabic suffix -iin in Table 2, is used with different nouns. In addition to using suffixes, there are six other ways in which Kinubi forms plural. Among them is the stress shift, as in gidída “a singular chicken” and gididá “multiple chickens” (Kihm: 2011: 7). This type of plural formation indicates that stress can distinguish words in Kinubi, which is not possible in Standard Arabic (Betti & Ulaiwi: 2018). There are also ways of plural formation that change vowels in the noun, as in nyúndu “hammer” and nyóndo “hammers”, as well as nouns that are replaced completely, as in márya “woman” and nuswán “women” (Kihm: 2011: 8). There is no regular plural formation in Kinubi according to Kihm (2011: 6).

Photo by Damian Patkowski on Unsplash

Standard Arabic uses four suffixes in regular plural formation (Kihm 2011: 4). However, regular plural formation amounts to less than half of all plural formation in Standard Arabic (Alkuhlani & Habash: 2012: 675). Even in regular plural formation, the noun is often changed (e.g., Kihm: 2011) or replaced completely as in the example given in Table 3 below, which additionally shows Standard Arabic double plural formation.

Table 3. Example from consultation with Kh. E., 04.03.2022.

For the reasons given above, it remains up to debate whether Kinubi plural formation is more or less complex than Standard Arabic plural formation. However, given a large number of suffixes and other ways to form plural, the use of stress for distinguishing plural from singular forms, and noun root changes, it is undeniable that Kinubi plural formation is more complex than that of Jamaican, which has only one way of forming plural where no change occurs in the noun itself. Kinubi plural formation is also more complex than that of English, which does have irregular plural formation, but generally forms plural by using only the suffix -s.

Discussion

Alain Kihm, the researcher I have taken the Kinubi data from, suggests that Kinubi’s first speakers tried to learn Arabic plurals but were unable to grasp the rules behind them and therefore formed an overly complex system (2011: 16). He argues that the unpredictability of Kinubi’s plural formation, as well as the existence of several plural forms for one singular form, are signs of “arbitrary assignment and brute memorizing” (2011: 16). However, Standard Arabic itself displays a large proportion of unpredictability. As mentioned previously, more than half of all Standard Arabic plurals are irregular. Furthermore, Standard Arabic often has several plural forms for one singular form, too, as shown in Table 4 below.

Table 4. Example from Freedman & Kleinhaus (2018), translation resulting from consultation with Kh. E., 04.03.2022.

Furthermore, if the first speakers of Kinubi tried to acquire Arabic plural formation and failed to acquire the rules, creating a complex system of plural formation accidentally, the question remains why it supposedly happened in Kinubi but not in Jamaican. Moreover, if creoles were inherently simpler than non-creoles, the question remains why Kinubi’s plural formation is more complex than that of English. Given that Kinubi’s plural formation is not simpler than in Arabic, and more complex than English and Jamaican, while Jamaican plural formation is simpler than that of any of the languages discussed in this essay, no generalisation over the complexity of creoles’ plural formation is possible.

McWhorter’s idea that creoles are simpler because they are younger and did not have as much time to form complexity (2005: 132) also fails to explain why Jamaican plural formation is so much simpler than that of Kinubi. Jamaican formed in the late seventeenth century (Farquharson: 2013), while the earliest documentations of Kinubi are from the early twentieth century (Luffin: 2013). The photo below was taken when Jamaican was already spoken, while Kinubi had not yet formed. Jamaican is thus older and should have had more time to form complexity. However, as the comparison shows, plural formation is much simpler in Jamaican than it is in Kinubi.

Sugar cane harvest in Jamaica, 1880. From https://pixabay.com/de/photos/zuckerrohrernte-zuckerrohr-jamaica-62895/ (free licence: https://pixabay.com/de/service/license/).

Conclusion

In this essay I compared plural formation in Jamaican, an Atlantic creole, to plural formation in Kinubi, a non-Atlantic creole. Expectations that the creoles’ plural formation would differ greatly from one another were met. Jamaican plural formation is simpler than that of English, Kinubi and Standard Arabic, given that there is only one way to form plural and the noun remains unchanged in the process. Kinubi plural formation is more complex than that of Jamaican and English, as it uses seven suffixes in addition to six other ways of forming plural, of which several require a change in the noun. Whether Kinubi’s plural formation is more or less complex than that of Standard Arabic remains up to debate.

The dramatic difference in plural formation between Jamaican and Kinubi suggests that a generalisation over the complexity of all creoles is impossible, at least regarding plural formation. It suggests that creoles are neither inherently simpler than non-creoles, nor are they inherently more complex. The comparison also underlines the importance of using representative data sets in the research on creoles, as the results emphasise that Atlantic creoles’ characteristics are not characteristics of all creoles. The results also call into question whether creoles form one specific type of language at all. It must, however, be pointed out that a comparison of only one feature in only two creoles is insufficient to generalise over all creoles. More research that considers the languages that have influenced the creoles in question is needed for further conclusions.

About the author: Anna Prickarz

I am a student of English Studies (major) and Linguistics (minor) at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf. In English studies, I mostly engage with post-colonial literature and literary theory. In Linguistics, I am most interested in learning about smaller languages and how they challenge Euro-centric views on language, but I am also interested in the linguistic consequences of language contact.

About the editor: Ana Krajinović

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf. In 2020 I completed my PhD in linguistics at the Humboldt University Berlin and the University of Melbourne on Nafsan, an Oceanic language spoken in Vanuatu. On Medium I write about a variety of topics. See also https://anakrajinovic.com.

References

Alkuhlani, Sarah & Nizar Habash. 2012. Identifying broken plurals, irregular gender, and rationality in Arabic text. In Proceedings of the 13th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (pp. 675–685).

Ansaldo, Umberto, Stephen Matthews & Lisa Lim (Eds.). 2007. Deconstructing creole (Vol. 73). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Avram, Andrei A. 2020. Substrate and Adstrate Influence on (Ki) Nubi: Evidence from Early Records. Academic Journal of Modern Philology, 10(2020), 7–21. https://www.ceeol.com/search/article- detail?id=937072. Accessed 26.01.2022.

Bakker, Peter, Aymeric Daval-Markussen, Mikael Parkvall & Ingo Plag. 2011. Creoles are typologically distinct from non-creoles. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 26(1), 5–42.

Betti, Mohammed Jasim & Warkaa Awad Ulaiwi. 2018. Stress in English and Arabic: A contrastive study. English Language and Literature Studies, 8(1), 83–91. http://doi.org/10.5539/ells.v8n1p83. Accessed 05.04.2022.

Farquharson, Joseph T. 2013. Jamaican. In: Michaelis, Susanne M. & Maurer, Philippe & Haspelmath, Martin & Huber, Magnus (eds.) The survey of pidgin and creole languages. In “The survey of pidgin and creole languages”. Volume 1: English-based and Dutch-based Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://apics-online.info/surveys/8.

Freedman, Vera & Michaela Kleinhaus. 2018. Arabisch Intensiv. Aufbaustufe. Glossar. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

Kihm, Alain. 2011. Plural formation in Nubi and Arabic: A comparative study and a word-based approach. Brill’s Journal of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics, 3(1), 1–21.

Luffin, Xavier. 2013. Kinubi. In: Michaelis, Susanne M. & Maurer, Philippe & Haspelmath, Martin & Huber, Magnus (eds.) The survey of pidgin and creole languages. In “The survey of pidgin and creole languages”. Volume 3: Contact Languages Based on Languages from Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://apics- online.info/surveys/63.

McWhorter, John H. 2001. The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. In “Linguistic Typology”. Volume 5(2–3), 125–166. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Michaelis, Susanne Maria. 2020. Avoiding bias in comparative creole studies. Isogloss. Open Journal of Romance Linguistics, 6, 1–35.

Owens, Jonathan. (1985). The Origins of East African Nubi. Anthropological Linguistics, 27(3), 229–271. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30032239. Accessed 02.01.2022.

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Ana Krajinovic

Ana Krajinovic

A linguist, PhD and comic creator writing about mental health, languages, creativity, and life stuff (anakrajinovic.com).