Re: Is English a creole? (was: Indo-European Studies)

Anthea F Gupta (
24 Jul 1995 01:48:30 GMT

Coby (Jacob) Lubliner (coby@euler.Berkeley.EDU) wrote:
: In article <3upepu$>,
: Anthea F Gupta <> wrote:

: > Some people (e.g. Bickerton) define creole very strictly as language
: >which arose when people started speaking a pidgin (very limited language,
: >informally learnt & used for inter-group contact of a basic sort) to
: >their children. On this definition Modern Standard English is definitely
: >not a creole.
: > Other people (e.g. C-J Bailey) define it very loosely, as any language
: >which has had substantial influence from another language. In this case
: >ModStdE is definitely a creole.

: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said ... , "it means just
: what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."
: The problem with this attitude that sooner or later a word
: may stop having any meaning at all. Hardly any language has not "had
: substantial influence from another language." The Bickerton
: definition is of great sociolinguistic value, which it would be a
: shame to lose. The distinction between the many variants of modern
: (not necessary standard) English and English-based creoles is quite
: important.

In my original posting I did not 'take sides' on the definition because
it was designed for an FAQ. All of the scholars are taking an
ill-defined, informal term & making it into a scientifically determined
term. This is surely what we have to do in linguistics as in all other
disciplines (Is a whale a fish? Is a tomato a fruit? What's salt?).
Mufwene has traced the history of the term 'creole' and none of the
current academic definitions corresponds to the (informal) way it was
first used.

Can we accept that scholars have a right to define terms?

Having said that, I agree that C-J Bailey's definition is too vague &
ends up with virtually all languages being creoles. I also think that
Bickerton's definition is too strict. It excludes many languages which
people generally want to call creoles, and it requires historical
information that may be unavailable or highly speculative. Bickerton has
been attacked by a number of people (Mufwene, Chaudenson, Siegel ....)
for, among other things, getting the history wrong. I feel myself that
the term 'contact variety' makes more general sense & that it is not very
constructive to spend a lot of time arguing about whether language X is
or is not a creole.

I think Thomason & Kaufman make a great deal of sense when they talk
about languages with long histories of normal transmission (being passed
from parent to child) and languages which have undergone a break in
normal transmission (as a result of language shift in a community,
disruption because of plantation slavery etc). English never experienced
such a break in England.

Anthea Fraser GUPTA

English Language & Literature
National University of Singapore
Kent Ridge e-mail:
Singapore 0511 telephone: (65) 772 3933