Languages in contact: Pidgins and Creoles

This started as a discussion on Requires Hate’s blog. RequiresHate questioned, among many other things, Mary Robinette Kowal’s usage of “patois” in a recent story in Apex magazine. Since this is something I happen to know a lot about, I chimed in with comments about language generation through contact, be it in colonial contexts or otherwise.

I feel this is worth reposting here, with slight modifications, to hopefully start a discussion about sociolinguistics and languages in SFF settings, and/or help people think about these issues in more nuanced ways.

Note that this is an entry in specifically about pidgins and creoles. There are other models of languagage generation, language suppression, attrition, and death – if this is of interest, let me know, because this could become a series. In the interests of full disclosure, I am 1) an academic working in this area, 2) a multilingual directly affected by processes of language attrition and death.

Caveat: This is a discussion of languages in contact. This not a place to discuss Mary Robinette Kowal’s story, which I have not read. Please do not derail. Thanks.

Also important: real life situations are significantly more complicated than the exposition below, and there is no unanimous agreement among scholars regarding theory, terminology, and/or specific scenarios. For an in-depth treatment of any of these issues, please consult peer-reviewed literature.


If two linguistic groups are in close contact, new languages may arise. A very common scenario is the process of pidginization/creolization.

A pidgin is usually defined as variant which arises when two or more linguistic groups come in contact. A pidgin usually has simplified vocabulary and syntax; it usually has no native speakers. “Usually” is important, because there are exceptions, such as extended pidgin languages, which have complex vocabulary and syntax. Creoles are commonly said to develop from pidgins that have acquired native speakers (there is a fair bit of nuance and debate here, that I cannot get into); a creole as a rule develops extended vocabulary and syntax in opposition to a pidgin, though a creole that has developed from an extended pidgin (which already has complex vocabulary and syntax) may not change that much. Pidgins are not by definition “temporary languages” that always give way to creoles. Some are long-lived; trade pidgins especially may have a long lifespan.

While pidginization/creolization is a common scenario to language birth through contact, there are other scenarios, such as fusion languages, and other language contact scenarios which do not, strictly speaking, lead to the creation of lasting new variants, such as language attrition and death. All of those processes tend to be of great emotional significance to speakers and cultures, as they directly touch upon issues of identity, belonging, displacement, and access to one’s cultural heritage, which is very often encoded through a specific language or languages. These processes are also very often tied to issues of power, prestige, and hegemony.

Languages do not randomly come in such a close contact as to generate new variants. There are a few common scenarios, most centrally trade, multi-ethnic work environments, slavery, and colonialism. Note that there are more than two sides to this equation, which may be balanced or unbalanced in terms of power, so let us consider each of these scenarios separately.

Trade: a pidgin arises between two or more language groups who engage in trade, e.g.the Yimas-Alamblak pidgin (Tanim Tok) in New Guinea. While pidgins are said to often arise from trade, I personally believe that this is no longer the main scenario for pidginization due to the prominence of colonial processes to language generation. Note that there is no obvious power imbalance in the creation of a trade pidgin – multiple sides participate as equals. Yet power can certainly be a factor even here, when one trade group is for some reason stronger than others.

Multi-ethnic work environments: pidgins can develop in multiethnic crews, e.g. Melanesian Pidgin English was first used by multiethnic whaling ship crews in the Pacific; Fanagalo is a language used by miners and is one of the rare example of Pidgins and Creoles based on an indigenous language (in this case, Zulu) rather than on a colonizing language.

Slavery: not that different from multiethnic work environments except the power balance is completely different. Here, multiple linguistic groups are forced together in a context alien to them, say on a plantation. This scenario is so common that some scholars speak of “plantation creoles.” There has been some recent literature that suggests that many of these creoles started forming already in Africa, in interactions between slave traders and the colonized. Both theories show creolization as a process in which the enslaved form or continue to develop a new language using the colonizing power’s language as its base. An example of this process is Haitian Creole, with French at its base; though the exact processes that gave rise to Haitian Creole are not documented, it is a language that arose as a result of colonialism and slavery, even if trade has been a component at its earliest stages. The process is similar for Gullah Creole, which has English at its base. Some scholars claim that AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is a Creole, since it shares certain grammatical features with other Creoles and is likely have arisen through similar processes; others dispute this. Note again the power imbalance: such languages tend to draw heavily on the hegemonic language, but the speakers of hegemonic languages look down upon the speakers of such languages (more on this below).

Colonialism: Please consult this list of English Creoles, most of which arose as a result of colonialisms. An English Creole can compete with indigenous languages and may endanger or marginalize the indigenous languages, in a process not dissimilar to that of World Englishes. Again, the power imbalance is present, since this process is a direct result of colonization.

There are additional scenarios, but those are the common ones.


Native speakers of creoles and of other languages that arose from power-unbalanced contact tend to be denigrated by speakers of hegemonic languages. Such words as “jargon,” “slang,” “patois,” “broken language,” “broken speech,” and such adjectives as “low-brow,” “uneducated,” “substandard,” “bastardized,” “backwards,” and others are used to indicate that the native speakers of creoles and other languages that arose through contact phenomena are somehow lesser than native speakers of hegemonic, often colonizing languages. This is so pervasive that even Wikipedia, which is supposed to be unbiased, says this about Haitian creole: “Yet another theory is that in attempt to learn the informal French of the White colonists and the Free black Creoles, African imports butchered the French patois spoken to and around them.”

WTF, Wikipedia?!

We must, we absolutely must think about what it means to perpetuate these linguistic stereotypes.

Every time you hear things like “they are butchering the language”, or “they cannot even speak English properly” said about a native speaker, the processes of power, prestige (often associated with class and race divides), and/or forces of colonialism and oppression are at play through linguistic judgments.

Creoles and similar languages often struggle with recognition and literacy. E.g. Haitian Creole was recognized as a state language only in 1961. French served as literary language, which is to say the language of prestige and literacy was the language of colonizing power. Since literary languages are gateways to status and power through education and advancement, such situations (by no means unique to Haitian Creole) are often stratified by race and class, where the disempowered have less access to a hegemonic language and thus advance less.

I think this is enough theoretical discussion for now.

I grapple with those issues as both an academic and a writer. In my recently finished novel Bridgers, one of the protagonists is a linguist from a marginalized culture who travels to study another marginalized culture. Ulín is not a sociolinguist (sociolinguistics does not exist yet in Birdverse), but when she, for the first time in her life, interviews a lower-status speaker, she discovers that speech can be significantly stratified by class, and that this realization can affect every aspect of our understanding. While Ulín has this realization and is trying to follow where it leads her, the privileged people around her are trying to convince her that only the hegemonic dialect should be studied as the most “pure” and “representative” of what language is.

The book is about more than just linguistics, but I am curious to see what people will think about it.

Questions and thoughts most welcome.