Over the last 15 years, some creolists have debated the question of creole distinctiveness (or “exceptionalism”). Some creolists such as McWhorter (2005) and Parkvall (2008) have argued that creoles are typologically special, while others (such as Chaudenson, DeGraff, Mufwene and Ansaldo) have emphasized the continuity between creoles and other languages.
Bakker et al. 2011 is only the second paper that tried to address this issue from a quantitative perspective (after Parkvall 2008, the first one to my knowledge), and the first one to appear in a journal of creole studies. The authors examine data from 18 creole languages assembled in Holm & Patrick (2007) (Comparative Creole Syntax, CCS) and conclude that creoles are indeed “a special class of languages with specific typological properties”. But what is the empirical question here?
It would be a great advance in our understanding of language change if we could (fully or largely) predict the outcomes of language contact from the kind of social contact situation that has given rise to the contact-induced change. So suppose that we can predict that a situation of large-scale labour migration of a multilingual workforce leads to adoption of the elite’s language as lexifier and to a particular type of restructuring of this language, notably with reduction of grammatical irregularities and elimination of grammatical markers (“inflection”). That would certainly be an important insight. So let’s call the above social contact situation “social creolization”. The prediction would then be that all languages that recently underwent social creolization must lack irregularities and grammatical markers. We could thus look at existing creoles, assume that they all underwent social creolization recently enough (i.e. there wasn’t enough time for new complexity to arise during subsequent changes), and examine their structural properties.
This is what Bakker et al. 2011 attempt to do, but I see a serious problem with the results based on the CCS data (Holm & Patrick 2007): The editors of the CCS volume specifically selected the features examined there on the basis of their interest for creole studies. Thus, the 97 features can in no way be seen as a representative sample of the structures of these languages – on the contrary, they represent a highly biased sample of features. Thus, it is not the least bit surprising that we and up with a SplitsTree network as in their Figure 9:
Moreover, Bakker et al. do not say explicitly how they define “creole”. Maybe their 12 “non-creoles” (or many other languages that they did not look at) are creoles as well – unless we have a definition of “creole”, we cannot tell. Confusingly, Bakker at al. refuse to give a definition:
“Creoles are sometimes characterized on the basis of socio-historical circumstances…, or on the basis of structural features, i.e. a language which, after having undergone restructuring from a pre-existing language, now has e.g. SVO word order, preverbal TMA marking and little or no morphology.”
In practice, the authors accept a language as a creole if it is part of the usual canon of creole studies, but arguably this canon is to a large extent defined by the structural features. This means that the argumentation becomes circular. But even if we admitted only those creoles that we know from historical records underwent social creolization (as defined above), we could still not be sure that we have a representative sample of languages. There may well be languages that underwent social creolization but have little signs of structural simplification. For example, Spanish on Cuba arguably has a similar history as African American English, but there is no restructured Spanish spoken on Cuba (see, e.g, McWhorter 2000 for discussion). But by a social definition, Cuban Spanish would probably count as a creole, and thus be a counterexample to the generalizations that Bakker et al. are trying to make. How many other counterexamples might there be out there?
Traditionally, linguists have classified languages typologically by their structural features – but one might classify them by their social features, or their social history as well. This has hardly been done. There is no “world atlas of sociolinguistic features”, and there is no good typology of social contact types underlying contact-induced change. But these are the kinds of data we know to answer the really interesting questions about the connections between social situations and the outcomes of language contact and change.
Instead, creolists seem to be stuck with the question of (synchronic) creole distinctiveness. But this is not really an interesting question, because there is no theory that could explain it, and anyone would go to diachrony for explanations anyway. Moreover, creole distinctiveness has given rise to acrimonious ideological debates, as well as to misunderstandings. For example, should one go as far as to say that a language that shares the typical structural features of the classical creoles is a creole, even if we know nothing about its history (cf. McWhorter 2005)? But how can one then avoid circularity? And if creoles are non-distinctive, does this automatically imply that they are not separate languages, but daughters (or even dialects) of their lexifiers? Bakker at al., citing Chaudenson and Mufwene, mention this as a relevant issue, but it seems that it is totally separate from the question of typological distinctiveness.
Thus, I would think that we should not be debating synchronic creole distinctiveness, but ways of predicting the outcomes of language change on the basis of social situations (along the lines of Trudgill 2011).
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.
Holm, John, & Peter Patrick (eds.). 2007. Comparative creole syntax. Parallel outlines of 18 creole grammars. (Westminster Creolistics Series 7). London: Battlebridge.
McWhorter, John H. 2000. The missing Spanish creoles : recovering the birth of plantation contact languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McWhorter, John H. 2005. Defining creole. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parkvall, Mikael. 2008. The simplicity of creoles in a cross-linguistic perspective. In Matti Miestamo, Kaius Sinnemäki, & Fred Karlsson (eds.), Language complexity: typology, contact, change, 265–285. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic typology: social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.