Creole includes a number of languages, and a great variety of Creole languages can be found throughout the world, from Africa to the Caribbean. The factor that ties all Creole languages together is that they developed from a necessity for communication between non-mutually intelligible linguistic groups.
Most Creole languages are based on a European language like French or English and date back to the 16th and 17th centuries – a time when European colonials were establishing economies along the coasts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans and coming into contact with the native inhabitants of these areas. Although most Creole languages have a history of development intertwined with colonialism, it is important to recognize that Creole languages are distinct full-fledged languages – not just pidgin forms of old European languages, as they were once seen.
History of the Term “Creole”
The term “Creole” was coined in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese colonials and originally used to refer to individuals born in colonies who were of Portuguese, Spanish or African descent. The word was later adopted by the French, who used the word to refer to people of African or European descent who had been born in the French colonies of America or the Indian Ocean.
Today, the term Creole is most commonly used to refer to two primary groups. The first consists of those people of European descent born in the West Indies or Spanish-speaking America. A second group is comprised of the people of the southern United States – especially Louisiana – who trace their roots back to the original French settlers.
In the late 17th century, the term Creole was first used to refer to a specific linguistic group. In a 1685 book documenting his voyages along the coast of Africa, the French explorer Michel Jajolet used the term Creole to refer to a Portuguese-based language he heard spoken in Senegal.
Defining the Creole Language
The Creole language was initially defined as a language which developed on European plantation settlements throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, combining elements of European and local languages. The majority of these languages developed on coasts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
In more recent years, some linguists have expanded the definition of “Creole” to include languages that emerged due to contact between two non-European languages, rather than one European and one non-European tongue. Examples include Kinubi, a language based on Arabic that is spoken in Uganda and the Sudan, and Lingala, a language based on the African Bobangi language, which is spoken in the Congo.
The key defining factor of all the various types of Creole is that they each developed as a means of communication between two mutually-unintelligible linguistic groups. For example, Standard French and native languages of Haiti were eventually fused together to form Haitian Creole. Creole languages tend to develop in isolated areas, especially on islands like Haiti.
Development of Creole Languages
Creole can be found in a variety of areas, most notably on the island of Haiti and in the southern United States, especially in Louisiana. While the Haitian and Louisiana forms of Creole are both French-based and generally recognized as the most prominent Creole languages, other types of Creole do exist. The English-based Gullah language of the Caribbean is technically considered a Creole language, as is the English-based Jamaican Creole. Some Creole tongues are even influenced by multiple European languages, such as the English-based Saramacca Creole of Suriname which is greatly influenced by the Portuguese language.
Historical factors have greatly contributed to the development of the Creole languages, which primarily emerged in areas where colonial governments established economies utilizing immigrant or slave labor. The need for communication between colonial powers and local laborers often resulted in the development of a Creole language which combined elements of the colonial language and the laborers’ local tongue.
Common Characteristics of Creole Languages
Although the Creole language of one place is likely to vary significantly from that of another place – such as Haitian versus Louisiana Creole for example – there are some common characteristics considered unique to the Creole language in general. For example, most Creole languages make use of repeated adjectives or adverbs, used to indicate an increased degree of intensity.
Another trait common to Creole languages is the use solely of intonation to indicate that a question is being asked. Many Creole languages also follow similar patterns of verb conjugation, even though they may be based on different primary languages. For example, the English-based Creole of Sierra Leone and French-based Creole of Guiana exhibit very similar patterns of verb conjugation, both adding verb particles to indicate tense.
The Process of Decreolization
Many Creole languages are threatened as native Creole speakers assimilate to the dominant society in which they are located. This is less of an issue in isolated areas like islands, where Creole speakers may be fairly secluded. The Gullah Creole of the southern United States offers a striking example, however. Developing along the southeastern coast, the Gullah language came under English and African language influences and evolved to include a greater amount of components from these languages. This type of process is known as decreolization.
Creole in the Southern United States
A French-based Creole, often known as Louisiana Creole, can be found in the southern United States. Louisiana Creole finds its roots in the original French settlers who came to America. Over time the French language picked up Native American, West African and Spanish elements thanks to contact with these linguistic groups, resulting in the development of Louisiana Creole.
Many Louisiana Creole speakers identify with their French heritage and therefore consider the language they speak to be French. However, Louisiana Creole varies significantly from Standard French.
Haiti offers a striking example of the differences between the Standard French language and a French-based Creole language, thanks to the fact that the small island country has two official languages: French and Haitian Creole. Haitian Creole is based largely on 18th century French, and includes a mixture of African and Spanish influences. With an estimated 8 million speakers in Haiti alone, Haitian Creole is believed to be the most widely-spoken Creole language in the world.
Creole Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Kreyol, Aiysyen
Language Family: French based
Spoken by Approximately 7,389,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)