"The formation of creoles is still the biggest mystery concerning them." How did French-lexifier creoles arise?

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries saw the beginnings of French colonisation. It is among the slaves who were brought from Africa to work on the French-owned plantations that the creoles we see today have their origin. They were forbidden from speaking their own languages, and so in communication both between themselves and with their masters, the creoles evolved. As there is little hard evidence about the beginnings of the creoles, there is much debate on their origins.

In an attempt to avoid mutiny, the French slave-owners were sure to separate any slaves who were from the same tribe or linguistic group from as early as the first crossings from Africa to the plantation islands. They also insisted that any conversation be conducted in French. In depriving their people of a linguistic identity, the owners were forcing the slaves to learn French if they wanted to communicate at all.

It is important to note that, as most of the colonisers came not from Paris but predominantly from the North and West regions of France, the language they spoke was not standard. As those who settled in Canada also came from the same areas, we can see some similarities between French Canadian and creole vocabulary. In addition, we must remember that the French upon which creoles are based is that of the Seventeenth-Century. Clues to the Seventeenth-Century origins of creole languages can be found in the following examples. Words often retain the forms of the time, such as bwEt instead of the modern boîte, and zetwEl for the present-day étoile. Similarly, the verb espere means to wait as well as to hope. We can also trace the origins within France of the early colonisers, through the creole usage of terms from regional dialects. We find for example kani, meaning mouldy, which is a term from Normandy, and krEp which was a North-Western term for the modern crête (de coq).

Many of the seemingly unfamiliar words in creole can be traced back when we bear in mind that the French upon which the language is based was not standard. For example, zote, meaning roughly "they", seems at first a very strange word, but makes more sense when we remember the colloquial pronunciation of aux autres as aux aut'. Similarly, the past tense marker ti may look unfamiliar, but has its root in the non-standard construction of étais when used in the form j'étais à entrer. Similarly, a stray a before a verb is generally used to mark the future tense, and this can be attributed to the use of avoir in the construction il va manger. Key features of the colloquial language of the uneducated early settlers were an expressiveness, the regularisation of unusual forms, and the production of invariable forms for verbs. All of these tendencies are shown in the extreme in creole languages. For example, we see that most creole verbs are modelled on first conjugation forms, eg. the infinitive baté which is used in place of battre.

The language which the slaves spoke began life as an approximation of French. A degree of simplification took place, and it is likely that the result was similar to what we might call tourist speak. We should also bear in mind at this point that it is probable that the French settlers consciously simplified the language they spoke, in order to help the slaves understand them, and to encourage their efforts in learning French. Over time, the language began to develop from a purely functional means of conversing in certain situations into a full language. The contact between the slaves and their masters was prolonged, and the fact that the slaves themselves required a language to converse in meant that the pidgin was expanding. The people upon whom French was forced took action by simplifying the language. Vocabulary was reduced, and complexities of syntax were ignored. In addition, there was interference from the native languages of the pidgin speakers, particularly in terms of pronunciation, but there were also lexical and syntactical influences. In addition to these influences, terms appear to have been borrowed from other colonial islands, in particular those words used when talking of local beliefs and customs. In the Indian Ocean, this meant mainly influence from Malagasy; in the Caribbean there was influence from American Indian languages and Spanish, while the creole in both areas was influenced by African languages and English.

This process of change is likely to have continued for many years, until the point where the pidgin became the habitual language of some speakers. A pidgin can be said to have become a creole once the expansion described above has taken place; once the language is the mother tongue of a group of people; and once it has acquired all the functions and characteristics of a traditional language. Naturally, the transition from pidgin to creole was not entirely linear, and it is likely that in a single generation some would have considered themselves to be speaking a pidgin, while there would be others for whom the language was their mother tongue. In order to become fully established, a language needs a period of around fifty years of economic and social stability. This period was provided by the slave trade, and spanned the final decades of the Seventeenth- and the first of the Eighteenth-Centuries. During this crucial time in the emergence of the creoles, a new pronunciation appeared, new grammatical structures took shape, and new vocabulary was added. Also in this period, children born to slaves or mixed-race parents would generally be taught the creole, either alongside or instead of the languages of their parents. As there was little or no formal schooling in the colonies, the language spoken there underwent a very organic, natural evolution. There were no real authorities to enforce doctrines of syntax or vocabulary. This also led to parents being unable to correct any ‘mistakes' which their children may make, as there was no authoritative point of reference for them to turn to.

Linguists hold differing views about the formation of creoles, and in particular how great or how small the influence of the slaves' native languages was in the languages' development. The fact that the first speakers of the original pidgin did not share a mother tongue makes this a near-impossible question to find a definitive answer to. The fact that there is no written record of the first pidgin language, due to its purely functional nature, also hinders our knowledge of it. There is also very little written evidence of the early years of the creole, as it was spoken predominantly by slaves, who did not have the opportunity to write down their language.

The information we can glean about how the creole languages were born is, however, reliable. It is interesting to trace the origins of creole words back to the particular and non-standard forms of French which the slaves' first masters would have spoken. The development seems to have been a natural progression from a functional pidgin to a more widely-used, and therefore broader in itself, creole, with a base in French, but also with influences from African languages, and languages local to the colonised region.

I'm noding my homework. This essay was written for Richard Ashdowne of New College, Oxford.