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The Lifecycle Of Pidgins And Creoles English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2350 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In reference to Hall, normal languages do not have life cycles, however, defining normal can be quite a complex and challenging task, especially when correctly categorising what language is ‘normal’. Hall attempts to define ‘normal’ language as follows:

‘One handed down from generation to generation through transference to children who learn it as their first language’. (Quoted in Romaine, 1988, p 115)

Pidgins tend to differ from this particular definition as in contrast to normal languages ‘a pidgin usually comes into existence for a specific reason, lasts just as long as the situation that called in into being and then quickly goes out of use’ (Hall, p 115). A pidgin has the potential to gain a longer lifespan by evolving into a native language or becoming creolized and therefore acquiring the status of a ‘normal’ language.

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When studying pidgins and creoles in detail, it rapidly becomes apparent that it is much more testing to study pidgins and creoles as two separate processes, rather than as two aspects of the same linguistic process, just at different stages. It has proven to be quite problematic for many researchers to specify accurately when a pidgin becomes a fully developed creole with a significant community of nativized speakers; however academics have developed a fairly precise continuum which states that a pidgin must traditionally experience four phases of development before winning the status of a creole. Throughout each phase, the language becomes much more complex and sophisticated, indicating features of a ‘normal’ language. The developmental continuum is as follows:

Jargon Stable Pidgin Expanded Pidgin Creole

The first phase of the developmental continuum is the Jargon stage or ‘prepidgin’ stage where vocabulary is extremely limited. The Jargon phase is the very beginning of the life cycle, where the purpose of the makeshift language is to merely form communication between two incomprehensible languages and is used in very limited domains, commonly trade and labour. Robertson (1948, Quoted in Romaine, 1988, p 118) however, suggests the idea that there is a ‘pre-jargon’ stage where ‘makeshift languages are instantly constructed on the spot out of a combination of gestures and speech’. The example given to demonstrate this theory is the arrival of a European trade ship in Tahiti in 1767;

…we made all the friendly signs that we could think of, and showed them several trinkets in order to get some of them on-board…they paddled all round the ship and made signs of friendship to us by holding up Branches of Plantain trees, and making a long speech of near fifteen minutes…but non of us could understand them…we made signs to them, to bring of Hogs, Fowls and fruit and showed them some coarse cloth, Knives sheers Beeds Ribons etc., and made them understand that we was willing to barter with them. (Robertson, 1948 as quoted in Romaine, 1988, p 118)

The jargon phase itself is not a huge progression from the ‘pre-jargon’ stage suggested by Robertson as sentences are only minimal; one or two words in length at maximum. Lexicon is exceptionally small and the sound system is very basic (Romaine, p 117). Labov (1970/1977) defines this phase as ‘an ingenious and original mode of expression which combines knowledge of the native vernacular with an imperfect grasp of the other languages in the new environment’ (Labov, as quoted in Romaine, 1988, p 118-119). There is evidence of considerable variation throughout the jargon phase as it is a newly constructed pidgin with no set linguistic rules, often resulting in confusion and a near incomprehensible language. For example, instances have shown how different syntactical structures can be used to the lexical items employed. The illustration given by Romaine is one of a Japanese woman who travelled to Hawaii, speaking her own form of expression as quite an isolated individual, never acquiring the Hawaii Pidgin English. The language which she chose to adopt under these circumstances consisted of a primarily Japanese syntax with both Japanese and English lexical items.

Furthermore, in the jargon stage, there is what Silverstein (1972) (quoted by Romaine, 1988:120) labelled a ‘double illusion’ – a contact language ‘relatable to both parties native languages.’ The example illustrated by Silverstein is as follows;

…there is a particular jargon between the French and the Indians, which is neither French nor Indian, and nevertheless when the French use it, they think they are speaking Indian, and the Indians in taking it up think they are speaking good French.

(Jeune, 1633)

This jargon is described by Silverstein as one with an ‘unsystematic nature’ and ‘lack[s] independent grammatical norms’, (Silverstein, as quoted by Romaine, 1988:120) though other scholars disagreed with this somewhat negative interpretation and insisted that it was a vital trade component.

The following period of the pidgin-creole lifecycle is the Stable Pidgin phase, where language is used not only for communication but for self-expression also. There is a stronger sense of linguistic complexity at this stage as both simple and complex sentences are applied. The most suitable example of a pidgin that falls under this category is Russenorsk (Russo-Norwegian); ‘a trade pidgin which was used in Northern Norway by Russian merchants and Norwegian fisherman during the Pomor trade’. (Romaine, 1988:124) Russenorsk is unique when compared against other pidgin languages, considering its lifespan. Generally speaking, a pidgin lasts as long as it’s required and then becomes obsolete. The alternative possibility is for the pidgin to become creolized and acquire a community of native speakers. However, Russenorsk is an exceptional instance and unlike ‘normal’ pidgins has existed for such a long period of time without creolizing. ‘The time between the first attested occurrence of the language (in a lawsuit in 1785) until its extinction at the time of the First World War and the Russian revolution is 141 years’ (Romaine, p 125). The most obvious cause for this anomaly is the fact that it was merely used as a seasonal trade language in the summer months; it never became a fully-functioning native language, nor did it fall out of use (until WW1).

A stable pidgins lexicon remains fairly small in size; Russenorsk’s vocabulary consisted of a total of approximately 390 words, however, half of which only occurred once, resulting in a key vocabulary of about 150-200 words. It was a very concise language, showing no signs of any inflections or categories such as gender, number or tense. Also absent is the verb ‘to have’. As a result of this and the fact that terminology remarkably originated from a wide variety of languages such as Dutch, German, French, Swedish and Lappish as well as Russian and Norwegian, there was evidence of many ‘doublets’ or ‘parallel forms’. For example; ‘good/well’ could be spoken as ‘bra’, ‘good’, ‘dobra’, ‘dobro’ or ‘korosjo’ further adding confusion (Fox, 1973, as quoted by Romaine, 1988:126-7).

Fascinatingly, Slobin (1977, as quoted by Romaine, p 129) uses Russenorsk as a prime example of a ‘language extremely close to universal grammar’. Universal grammar is a linguistic concept proposed by Chomsky that suggests the idea that the capability to learn and understand grammar can happen without being taught – that it is a cognitive process that happens naturally. According to Bickerton’s language bioprogram theory (1996), the principle of Universal Grammar is linked to pidgin and creole languages because specific characteristics are common in all different languages, allowing foreign speakers of language to interact and form a new language (pidgin). One of the characteristics, given by example by Bickerton, is the way in which an interrogative sentence can be transformed into a declarative sentence through purely altering intonation.

Like the jargon phase, there is still a degree of variation in the stable pidgin stage, especially in pronunciation, according to Broch and Jahr (1984, quoted by Romaine, p 129) who said that pronunciation varied ‘depending on the language and dialect background of individual speakers’.

The penultimate stage of the pidgin-creole lifecycle is the Expanded Pidgin phase. Here, grammar becomes much more complex and speech tempo is increased. Language and discourse becomes evidently much more cohesive and consistent. It is used not only as a simple means of communication for trade purposes, but in everyday life for self-expression and literature. (Romaine 1988:138)

Sankoff (1977, as quoted by Romaine, p 139) was interested in the comparison between ‘normal’ languages and pidgins when investigating speech tempo. Her data showed that pidgins are vocalized at a slower rate than ‘normal’ languages, largely due to the fact that pidgins are used merely as a second language to users and not as a first. It is only when a speaker becomes fluent in the language, does the tempo increase. Data that explores features of Tok Pisin (perhaps one of the most well-known expanded pidgins) shows that one of the features that separate a child’s speech from adults is phonology. For instance, a child might condense syllables. The example given by Sankoff and Laberge (1973) is the phrase “Mi go long haus” (pronounced using four syllables by adults). However, they noticed that in comparison, a child is more likely to say “Mi go l:aus”, using only three syllable by shifting stress patterns.

The concluding stage of the life-cycle is when the pidgin becomes creolized and takes on the identity of its dominant parent. However, according to Muhlhausler (1980), creolization does not necessarily have to take place at the final stage of the life-cycle, but can ‘occur at any stage in the developmental continuum from jargon to expanded pidgin’ (as quoted by Romaine, p 154). He suggests that there are three possible varieties of creolization:

Type 1: Jargon Creole

Type 2: Jargon Stabilized pidgin Creole

Type 3: Jargon Stabilized pidgin Expanded pidgin Creole

Most known instances fall under Type 3 and are wide-spread creoles that are still fully-functioning and in use today such as Tok Pisin (spoken largely in Papua New Guinea as an official language and the most broadly used in that country) and West African Pidgin English. Some known instances fall under Type 2, however is much less common. Examples of Type 2 creoles include North Australian creoles and Torres Strait creoles (Romaine, p. 155). Cases of Type 1 creoles are currently non-existent.

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In contrast, Bickerton proposes an alternate view and suggests that ‘creolization after stabilization of a pidgin is rare’ and in the majority of circumstances, pidgins have creolized whilst still being highly unstable in the early stages of development. So far, we have discussed the idea that creoles are formed from a pidgin which stabilizes. However, Bickerton goes even further to controversially suggest that there is no such link between pidgin and creole and that the ‘development of a creole has more to do with the innate devices of a first language acquisition than with a gradual evolution from a pidgin’. For example; Tok Pisin – the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea had developed whilst co-existing alongside another language, therefore integrating many of its characteristics. However, what Bickerton labels the ‘classic creole situation’ (‘where creole-speakers have been torn from their native cultures’) differs from Tok Pisin as the majority of speakers could still rely on another language. (Bickerton, 1981, as quoted by Singh, 2000:52-53)

DeCamp (1971) focuses his research on the fate of a creole upon reaching the end of the creole continuum. This particular area is not as thoroughly researched as earlier stages; however, DeCamp makes some attempt at outlining the potential routes a creole may take. These are:

May well continue its status as a creole and remain unaffected, much like the Haitian Creole seems to have done.

It may become obsolete.

It may take on the identity of its dominant parent as a ‘normal’ language.

It may progressively combine with the national language as is happening in Jamaica (decreolization).

(DeCamp, 1971, as quoted by Romaine, p 157).

The post-creole continuum is as follows:

Basilect Mesolect Acrolect

The creole is what is meant by ‘basilect’, the national corresponding language is what is meant by ‘acrolect’ and any transitional varieties in-between is what is referred to as the ‘mesolect’ (Romaine, p 158).

To go back to the question of the entire paper, ‘is there a point at which a creole stops being a creole and takes on the identity of its dominant parent?’ We must look at the work of O’Donnell and Todd (1980, as quoted by Romaine, p158), who points out that ‘at the end of the continuum, we are not dealing with two distinct systems, but an unbroken spectrum between the pidgin or creole on the one hand, and the prestigious standard on the other. There is no point of the continuum where we find a sharp break between the varieties.’

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