What is creole language?

What is creole language?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 10, 2022

All languages have a remarkable capacity to grow, adapt and change. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the study of creole languages.

Creole languages are contact languages born out of ancient trade routes and further developed in the oppressive colonialist systems. Defining what is creole language is an important study of history, sociology and resilience. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

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Creole language definition

What is creole language? 

According to Wikipedia, a creole language is a stable, natural language that starts with a simplified pidgin, then evolves by mixing two different languages into a new one. 

The Columbia Encyclopedia defines creole in a similar way, pointing out that it can be a new mother tongue to replace a former mother tongue.

From these definitions, we get two important characteristics: 

  • Creole is a natural language that develops from natural use. It is not constructed like Esperanto or Klingon
  • Creole language develops from pidgin (read on for a definition)

Linguists study the development of unique creole languages by exploring how each one emerged and evolved over time.

Pidgin origins of creole

In linguistics, the traditional view of creole is that it develops from pidgin. Pidgins were created in contact situations where various peoples without a common language were forced to communicate with each other. 

What resulted was a simplistic initial jargon-based form of communication. Pidgins are often spoken as second or third languages and not the first or native language. 

Over time, this pidgin is used for wider communication and gains complexity, becoming a creole. Though the boundary between creole and pidgin can be fuzzy. Often, creoles came about due to exploitative conditions such as enslavement and forced labor from colonialism. 

In these environments, the native languages of the enslaved peoples were forcibly suppressed and a creole moved in as the native language. 

Most creoles are a mix of colonial languages from Europe such as English, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc.

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Is creole a dialect or language?

The development of most creole languages is linked to colonialism. The question of “is creole a language or a dialect,” is enmeshed in a history of oppression and racism. 

In the hundreds of years between 1500-1900, Europe’s major powers colonized the world. The English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French traveled from their home countries to different parts of the world. 

Along the way, they built powerful trade empires that prompted the local development and use of pidgins to do business. The enslavement and forced labor of peoples in these colonies is the environment where most creoles were developed.

In colonialism, a strict hierarchy was observed. The Spanish term criollo meant a person of European descent that was born in the colonies. This term was part of a strictly enforced caste system that established who was on the top and bottom of colonial society. 

This hierarchy affected all things from skin color to language. People who spoke the “proper” language were the upper-class elites. People from indigenous or displaced populations spoke a creole dialect. The term “creole dialect” still has a negative undertone.

As we explored in African American Vernacular, there is a strong stigma attached to not speaking “correct” English. The same is true for creole speakers. Creoles were traditionally perceived as just “incorrect,” “simplified” or “broken” versions of the original colonial language.

Creole language example

Examples of creole language can be seen around the world. There are many examples of creole languages that resulted from the African diaspora, such as Haitian creole, Jamaican creole, Louisiana creole and more. 

Linguists have studied the lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactic similarities between present-day creoles and their root languages. For example, Caribbean creoles share many similarities with various West African languages.

To see the diversity of creole languages, here’s a chart of just a few examples:

Creole LanguageRoot LanguagesWhere it’s spoken
SrananEnglish, Dutch, West African languagesSurinam
Hawai’i creoleEnglish, HawaiianHawai’i
Berbice creoleDutch, West African languagesGuyana
Sri Lanka Portuguese creolePortuguese, Sinhalese, TamilSri Lanka
PapiamentuSpanish, Portuguese, Dutch, West African languagesCuraçao, Aruba, other Caribbean islands
Haitian creoleWest African Gbe languages, French, TainoHaiti
Juba ArabicArabic, Bari, DinkaSudan
ChavacanoSpanish, various Philippine languagesPhilippines

Understand how languages evolve

What a creole language is cannot be addressed without understanding the historical and social impact of more than 400 years of colonialism. 

Speakers of creole languages are often stigmatized for speaking “incorrect” versions of the colonial language. 

To reverse this stigma and prejudice, we must recognize creole languages as unique and valid, just as modern linguists have confirmed.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.