For a long time, linguists have had the impression that creoles are particularly simple, but a precise and readily testable formulation of this insight has been difficult to come by. Important contributions to the recent debate include McWhorter (2001), Parkvall (2008) and Bakker et al. (2011). The latter two cite a lot of cross-linguistic data that will convince many quantitatively minded readers. But Good (2012) advances the debate in a different way, by taking apart the seemingly simple notion of “simplicity”. That complexity (and its converse, simplicity) can be understood in different ways should be clear, because these are simply words of the English language, not well-defined technical terms. One important distinction is between user-complexity and system-complexity (Miestamo’s (2008) “relative complexity” and “absolute complexity”, respectively) – in the typological discussion of creoles, the latter is usually intended. Creoles are intuitively simple in (generally) lacking distinctions such as inflection classes, agreement, and tone. But on the other hand, one observes that creoles are not particularly simple in their phoneme inventories (Klein 2006), which are average rather than small compared to the world’s languages in general.
Jeff Good resolves this apparent contradiction by the novel proposal that in pidginization (and more specifically its early stage, jargonization), it is primarily paradigmatic complexity that does not go through the “bottleneck”. Paradigmatic distinctions such as tone or agreement classes can only be transmitted from the source language(s) if an entire contrasting paradigm becomes part of the jargon that is then the input to the new systematization in pidgin and creole genesis. But in the jargon, by Good’s hypothesis, such contrasts do not exist, because the jargon has no system of oppositions – it is just an unstructured set of linguemes that are understood in the given setting. Thus, paradigmatic complexity has a very hard time surviving the jargon stage. By contrast, both syntactic patterns such as fixed word order and ordinary sound segments have a certain syntagmatic complexity that is not threatened by the absence of structure in the jargon: Phrases such as five pound or catch the mouse or my house can become part of the jargon, and these can later be used to build systematic patterns. Similarly, sounds such as [k] or [l] or [u] are associated with a distinct articulation that can be perceived and remembered independently of direct contrasts (unlike tones), so they can become part of the jargon, too.
The contrast between paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, due to European structuralism, is not widely used in linguistics these days, so it is a bit of a surprise to find it in this context. But Good attempts to find a suitable abstraction that allows him to explain why we should not expect segment inventories to be reduced, while tones are reduced in creoles, and why we should not expect fixed word order to be lost, while inflectional agreement marking is overwhelmingly lost. With respect to segments such as [k] and [u], the term “syntagmatic complexity” is not very intuitive – maybe “inherent complexity” would have been clearer. But there is another respect in which Good’s paper is very Saussurean: It is interested in structural relations at the level of the social norm (langue), not in jargons or creoles as mental entities. I think that this is a perfectly legitimate point of view, but one wonders where the structural relations come from in the later pidgin and creole phases. In contrast to jargons, pidgins and creoles have structural norms, so does this mean that having norms implies having structural relations? How do the structural relations arise? It seems that it is here that the mental perspective must come in, because it is possible to imagine norms without much in the way of structural grammatical relations: A community could form the convention that everything is allowed as long as a set of shared minimal form-meaning pairs (morphs) are used.
Good’s paper presupposes an account of creolization that is very similar to the old life-cycle model (jargon > pidgin > creole), and it assumes that a break in transmission is responsible for the paradigmatic simplification. These assumptions are not universally accepted, but the fact that Good can explain why tones but not segments, and why inflection but not word order is eliminated is perhaps an argument in favour of his story. He recognizes that there may be different ways in which creoles may acquire complexity, and he even says that there are presumably “alternate routes towards creolization” (p. 41). But if this is so, then his claims will be very difficult to falsify – whenever a language is not simplified as expected, one can say that it did not undergo full jargonization, just as whenever a language is unexpectedly simplified, one can say that it must have undergone a break in transmission at some point (cf. McWhorter 2008). Since we do not have enough information about past social situations, a lot of room remains for speculation. This is the downside of the “process view” of creole typology: If one shifts the attention from synchronic typological properties of creoles to typological properties of the changes they underwent, as Good says we should, this means that our claims become less testable. But since he is probably right in “giving process a privileged position over state in explaining cross-linguistic patterns” (p. 38), this may be an outcome we will need to live with.
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.
Good, Jeff. 2012. Typologizing grammatical complexities, or: Why creoles may be paradigmatically simple but syntagmatically average. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 27(1). 1-47.
Klein, Thomas B. 2006. Creole phonology typology: Phoneme inventory size, vowel quality distinctions and stop consonant series. In Parth Bhatt & Ingo Plag (eds.). The structure of creole words: Segmental, syllabic and morphological aspects, 3-21. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
McWhorter, John H. 2001. The worlds simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5(2-3). 125-166.
McWhorter, John H. 2008. Why does a language undress? Strange cases in Indonesia. In Matti Miestamo, Kaius Sinnemäki, & Fred Karlsson (eds.). Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change, 167-190. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Miestamo, Matti. 2008. Grammatical complexity in a cross-linguistic perspective. In Matti Miestamo, Kaius Sinnemäki, & Fred Karlsson (eds.). Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change, 23-42. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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: John Benjamins.