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Creole Languages

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

When Europe’s colonial powers ventured across oceans to conquer new territories they created the need for a hybrid language to make inter-ethnic communication possible. Words and grammar were swapped and mingled until a pidgin language developed.

Over time, the pidgin replaced the original native language to become a Creole language. Mustgo.com notes “The difference between pidgins and creoles is that people grow up speaking creoles as their first language, whereas nobody speaks pidgin as their first language.”

This sign in Guadeloupe Creole has a literal translation that says "Lift your foot [from the gas pedal]. There are children playing here."

This sign in Guadeloupe Creole has a literal translation that says "Lift your foot [from the gas pedal]. There are children playing here."

Origin of Creole

The word Creole comes “from French créole, criole, from Spanish criollo, probably from Portuguese crioulo ‘black person born in Brazil’, from criar ‘to breed’, from Latin creare ‘produce, create’ (lexico.com).

Another definition of Creole is that it comes from a word used to describe the children of colonists who were born in the New World.

Richard Campanella of Tulane University says “The Creole identity is very fluid … there is no one right answer. The multitude of answers is the answer.”

Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral arrives in Brazil; but how to communicate with the locals?

Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral arrives in Brazil; but how to communicate with the locals?

Creole tongues have developed all over the world. English creoles developed wherever the Union Jack was planted in foreign soil and claimed for the British Crown. So, you have more than three million people speaking Jamaican Creole. Krio is spoken by about four million people in Sierra Leone. It was developed by the Krios people, freed slaves from the British Empire and the United States who were settled in the country.

The most widely spoken Creole language in the world is Haitian Creole used by between 10 and 12 million people. It developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a way of communicating between French colonists and African slaves working in the sugar cane plantations.

Louisiana Creole

The origin of Louisiana Creole is far to the north in Nova Scotia, or l’Acadie as it was called by the French settlers who lived there. In 1605, the area fell under British rule and the Acadians were expelled. Many headed south and settled in the area that is now New Orleans. The word Acadian was corrupted into Cajun and the people still speak a version of French that is not a Creole.

Edouard Marquis painted these New Orleans Creole women in 1867.

Edouard Marquis painted these New Orleans Creole women in 1867.

There are about 10,000 people in Louisiana who do speak Creole and having a Creole identity is very complex. So complex and intertwined with Louisiana history that it’s been said that if you are not from there you will never understand it. To oversimplify, Louisiana Creoles have Cajun and Black slave ancestry with some Spanish and Native American woven in as well.

Those ethnic backgrounds inform the Louisiana Creole language with some English thrown in for good measure. Let’s count to ten in Louisiana Creole: un, dé, trò or trwa, kat, cink, sis, sèt, wit, nèf, dis.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the American government made it illegal for people to speak Creole. The tongue became stigmatized because of its association with slavery and those who spoke it faced poor job prospects. However, in recent years, efforts have been made to revive the language.

Gullah

Georgia, South Carolina, and northern Florida is where you will find Gullah people.

African slaves were brought there to toil in the rice paddies and cotton fields. The people spoke many different languages so Gullah developed as a common tongue.

Salikoko S. Mufwene, is a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. He told CNN that Gullah “is English modified under the influence of African languages. Any population that appropriates the language that is not their own, they are going to modify it.”

It’s thought the word Gullah might have evolved from Angola, the homeland of many slaves. Estimates of the number of Gullah speakers range between 250,000 and one million.

Queen Quet is the elected chieftess of the Gullah community. An historian and computer scientist, her given name is Marquetta L. Goodwine although in the Gullah language she is “head pun de boddee.”

The word Kumbaya, which can be translated as Come by Here, very likely has a Gullah origin.

This painting depicts Gullah slaves dancing in South Carolina in about 1790.

This painting depicts Gullah slaves dancing in South Carolina in about 1790.

Non-Colonial Creoles

Not all creoles developed because Europeans descended on indigenous cultures. Probably, many creoles developed before recorded history as tribes bumped into each other, created a means of communicating, and left no record of their language.

Nagamese Creole came about when Naga hill tribes interacted with people living in the plains of Assam in north-eastern India. The Naga tribes spoke as many as 20 different and mutually unintelligible languages. Nagamese Creole is based on Assamese with some influences from English. It is well established with about 300,000 speakers.

The island of Taiwan was colonized by Japan in 1895 until the end of World War II. Contact between the Japanese and the Atayal Indigenous people led to what is called Yilan Creole. It borrows words from Japanese and Atayal but has only a distant resemblance to either of its sources. Indeed, unilingual Atayal and Japanese people cannot understand Yilan Creole. Not much is known about the language, which is dying out.

Creole languages do disappear sometimes in a process called decreolization. This happens when a Creole reverts to one of its source languages, although the process is only theoretical and is not supported by all linguists.

Bonus Factoids

  • Vernacular – The everyday language spoken by people. It includes slang and words specific to a particular region as well as words and phrases used within a profession such as law or medicine.
  • Patois – A non-standard version of a language. In Quebec, joual is a patois that developed among working-class French Canadians. The word joual is a rural pronunciation of cheval (horse). For people who speak Parisian French, joual is difficult to understand.
  • Dialects – These are similar to a patois and often use non-standard pronunciations and words. In America, there are several dialects – Appalachian, Southern, Texan. Someone from Alabama might say “Don’t she look purdy?” instead of “She is pretty.” Unlike a patois, a dialect phrase such as this is easily understood by people who speak the root tongue.
  • Lingua Franca – A language that is common among people who speak other languages. There are 24 languages spoken by member states of the European Union, yet most communication is done in English. A Spaniard and a Lithuanian will converse in English, the lingua franca.

And then, there Are Accents

Sources

  • “Creole Languages.” Mustgo.com, undated.
  • “Cajun or Creole?” Caroline Gerdes, National Geographic, October 4, 2012.
  • “What’s the Difference Between Cajun and Creole?” Megan Romer, Tripsavvy.com, May 28, 2019.
  • “African Slave Traditions Live on in U.S.” Adeline Chen and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN, May 25, 2018.
  • “Gullah Geechee: Distinct US Culture Risks Losing Island Home to Climate Crisis.” Oliver Milman, The Guardian, October 23, 2019.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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