CREOLISATION OR NO CREOLISATION?

The idea of a sociocultural space for language contact situations presented in section 4 makes use of the insight that language is only in evidence, at least in its primary oral function, in actual instantiations of social practice between people as they interact. Language in this constructionist approach to interaction is always a part of individual and social performances in which social relationships, forms of identity and, ultimately, social institutions themselves are constructed, reconstructed and transformed. Language is, in other words, always emergent but always cognitively embedded in individuals through their mutual engagement in social practice. It is by no means the only system of signification open to human beings to construct their worlds, but it is arguably the most powerful and the most important system. It is in this sense that I wish to argue that every instantiation of social practice in which language is used is a situation of language contact, and the sociocultural space posited for the enactment of those situations involves varying degrees of intelligibility, varying levels of social status and functions of the interaction, varying frequencies of occurrence, and varying degrees of demographic strength of the groups to which the participants belong.

The linguistic results of language contact will thus be as varied as the parameters which go to make up that space, and not enough research has yet been carried out on the linguistic systems of individuals and, through them, the groups with which they identify to see exactly what goes on when languages change or appear to change. The speakers themselves, the actors in the social performance, are responsible for the changes, not the systems. Obviously some combinations of those parameters may well result in pidginised forms of human language, and pidgin and creole studies have done magnificent work in tracing out developments in repeated instances of language contact situations to show how a pidgin may become highly elaborated and yet not be anyone’s first language. Likewise, the theory that creoles emerge from very specific sociocultural and sociohistorical situations is convincing.

The second way of defining a creole, however, tends to ignore the sociocultural space of language contact and to assume that processes of simplification almost automatically lead to the formation of creoles. What proponents of this theory too often ignore is that creoles evince typical kinds of construction, which are not present in the results of creolisation as defined by Bailey and Maroldt. We have seen how grammatical gender was ultimately lost in Middle English, possibly as a result of language contact situations, but this only applies to the noun system. Personal pronouns still exhibit grammatical gender. We have seen how the various ways of forming the plural were all but lost to the s-suffix, but the important construction in this last sentence is “all but”, since a small number of frequently used nouns still have umlaut plurals (mouse/mice, louse/lice, man/men, foot/feet, tooth/teeth, etc.) or en- plurals (ox/oxen, child/ children, etc.) or no inflection in the plural (sheep/sheep, fish/fish, etc.). If we had looked at the verb system, we would have seen that English, like creoles, has developed aspect systems, but, unlike creoles, it has retained tense. These and other examples are given in most of the articles that argue against the creolisation hypothesis.

In accounting for language change, there is no reason why we should not resort to the principles of pidgin and creole studies, but, if we consider the complexity of the sociocultural space of language contact, it can only be useful in certain well-defined contact types. To avoid the kind of problem that the creolisation hypothesis has created, some researchers have coined the term “creoloid”, but this only shifts the problem away from looking at language contact as a highly complex area of concern in sociolinguistics.

The major point of this whole chapter, however, has been to argue that the creolisation hypothesis has created discursive openings for mythologisation. Linguists and sociolinguists may continue to argue for decades to come about how useful aspects of the theories of pidgin and creole studies are for historical linguistics, but it is when nonlinguists access this discourse that myths may arise. When we read in the Internet discussion described in section 2 that certain interested participants think that a creole has something to do with French, the Middle English-as-a-creole argument put forward by Bailey and Maroldt unwittingly offers a reason for saying that English is a creole language because it came under French influence. Alternatively, when another participant believes that a creole is “a language that forms from extended contact between two languages”, then this would virtually mean that every language involved in situations of colonisation automatically becomes a creole. Or when we read that a creole is not “simply a mishmash of languages”, we must conclude that there are people who believe that that is the case, and this automatically plays into the myth of language purity, which I will deal with in the next chapter. On the other hand, when we hear that English is a “bastard rather than a creole”, we note a moral, evaluative tone suggesting that it is even lower than a creole. One participant suggests that a creole is “a non-standard form of a known standard,” thus implying that the only “valid” languages as such are standard languages. All nonstandard varieties would automatically become creoles. The same participant, however, maintains that “English is not a ‘colorfully messed up’ version of some other more ‘legitimate’ standard”, which of course implies that this is what a creole would be.

The reader may have noted that the incipient creolisation of English myth tends to partake of other forms of language ideology to do with standardisation, language purity, possibly also the need to prevent languages from changing at all. The implication is that there is something “unclean” or at least inferior about a language being a creole, and this is decidedly not the result that Bailey and Maroldt could have wished for. What we can say, however, is that looking at this incipient myth has ultimately led us to consider other, more deeply ingrained myths about English and other languages that have a long history, and this is the topic of chapter 5.

 
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