Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pidgins and Creoles

I just finished reading a book titled Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton. In it, he explores the origin of pidgin and Creole languages around the world, specifically in Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and Hawai’i. His theory, not unlike what Chomsky postulates, is that children are born with a “bioprogram” that allows them to create Creoles out of pidgin tongues, filling in missing aspects of grammar by similar methods used worldwide regardless of the substrate language or languages influencing the pidgin. He states, for instance, that most Creole languages have subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, like English.

Bickerton unfortunately does not, however, take into consideration Native North American so-called pidgins, such as those that have been traditionally called Mobilian (Trade) Jargon or Choctaw-Chickasaw Trade Jargon (once spoken in the Southeast and Mississippi Valley) and Chinook Jargon (once spoken in the Northwest). Mobilian in fact has an OsV word order (small ‘s’ indicating that the subject is optional and often not employed). Thus:

ete (eno) cãle.
wood (1S) cut
I cut the wood.

While many linguists and others have postulated that, what I now like to refer to as the Mobilian International Language (MIL)1, came about only after European contact, I agree with Drechsel (1997) who postulates that this “pidgin” language shows far more ancient origins. For one thing, the OsV word order is unknown to any of the modern languages of the Southeast, including Choctaw and Chickasaw (SOV), from which MIL is supposed to have arisen, and it certainly does not display the SVO word order that is common to all the European contact languages (Spanish, French, English). This OsV word order is, however, the word order of Proto-Muskogean. There is also the fact that, despite later contact with Spanish, French, and English, few words from these European languages entered MIL's vocabulary. Thus, I believe these facts point to MIL's roots going back long before European contact and probably having been used by various southeastern and Mississippian nations as a common trade language for centuries, along with Native American sign language.

While most pidgins and Creoles have come about through contact of indigenous languages with European colonial languages, I think it’s important to realize that not all of them have. In fact, Bickerton himself talks about Pidgin Hawaiian, not Pidgin English, having been in use in Hawai’i well before Pidgin English came about. This was because Hawai’i was already a long established progressive monarchy when Europeans and others first began arriving, and, well, if these immigrants wanted to communicate with Hawaiians, they needed to learn to communicate in Hawaiian the best they could. (Hawaiians, being in the dominant position at the time, were not about to learn English, Portuguese, Tagalog, or Japanese to communicate with these newcomers.) The result of this, before the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, was Pidgin Hawaiian, which looked something like this:

(Bickerton 2008: 211)
Wau no ku’ai kela kapiki. (Pidgin Hawaiian)
I NEG buy that cabbage.
A’ole au e ku’ai aku i kela kapiki. (Bickerton)2
’A’ole au e kū’ai aku i kēlā kāpiki. (Hawaiian)
NEG 1S sell that cabbage.
I won’t sell the cabbage.

Note that the positive sentence pattern in Hawaiian would be: Kū’ai aku au i kēlā kāpiki, "sell 1S that cabbage," which is VSO. (Negative sentence structure in Hawaiian mandates changing its usual VSO word order.) But note that the Pidgin form is SVO, in line with Bickerton’s contention.


1. I find this a far better name than Mobilian (Trade) Jargon, for it expresses what Mobilian actually was, an "international" language used among many southeastern Nations, including the Biloxis, as a mode of communication for trade, joint ceremonial rituals, and politics in the context of intertribal regional alliances. It is important to note that, while most pidgins have negative connotations and are not highly regarded, the opposite was true of MIL. Southeastern nations had no negative attitude about using the pidgin, and, in fact, it is believed they often used the language among themselves in order to confuse or hinder communication with encroaching Europeans, who often thought MIL was actually Choctaw, Chickasaw, or some other language.

2. Why Bickerton or his editors did not employ the crucial macrons of Hawaiian orthography is a mystery to me, especially since he has lived and taught in Hawai'i and is writing about Hawaiian pidgin languages. Thus, I have included the macrons as they should appear underneath the macronless transcription appearing in his book.


Bickerton, Derek. 2008. Bastard tongues: a trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world's lowliest languages. New York: Hill and Wang.

Drechsel, Emanuel. 1997. Mobilian Jargon: linguistic and sociohistorical aspects of a Native American pidgin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


David Marjanović said...

Fantastic. An object-first international auxlang. That is so cool...

Dave said...

Yeah. Mobilian is cool. I'm not sure what word order Chinook Jargon is. I should find out.

bulbul said...

Judging by the textual sample in Holm's "Pidgins and Creoles", Chinook might have been OsV, though to be fair, that sample is too short.
Ugh, Bickerton and his bioprogram... Does he mention any non-SAE-based pidgins and creoles, like Hiri Motu, at all?

David Marjanović said...

Chinook might have been OsV

"Might have been"? It creolized in Grand Ronde, Oregon, and a few native speakers are left. There's even a test Wikipedia in it... and an immersion preschool.

Unfortunately, none of these pages tells what the word order is. Also, it might have changed over time under increasing SAE and perhaps Chinese influence.

Anonymous said...

As long as critiquing proper orthography is allowed, as you've done yourself, your rendition of the sentence isn't correct either according to modern Hawaiian writing. "A’ole au e kū’ai aku i kelā kāpiki" is missing a glottal stop in front of the A in 'a'ole, and the E in kēlā should have a macron over it.