/we/ relative clauses across creoles - summary

Miriam Meyerhoff mhoff at LING.ED.AC.UK
Fri Mar 3 21:10:43 UTC 2006

I would like the thank the many people who took 
the time to rely to my recent query on /we/ as 
the means for introducing relative clauses in 
English based creoles. I posted variations on the 
same query (with a slightly different spin in 
each case) to three lists (CreoleTalk; 
Austronesian Languages; Association for Social 
Anthropologists in Oceania). My summary of 
responses will draw on the replies I got from all 
three sources, both in the interest of precision 
and comprehensiveness. (And my apologies for the 
cross-postings to some people.)

I received replied from: Gerry Beimers, Terry 
Brown, Ross Clark, Vincent Cooper, Lise Dobrin, 
Joseph Farquharson, Malcolm Finney, Alex 
François, David Frank, Paul Geraghty, Philip 
Gibbs, Ron Kephart, Thomas Klein, Jari Kupiainen, 
Rena Lederman, Eva Lindstrom, Bill McKellin, 
Salikoko Mufwene, Peter Patrick, Elizabeth 
Pearce, Robert Philips, Paula Prescod,  John 
Singler, David Sutcliffe, and Bill Thurston. 
Thanks so much to all of you, especially the 
people who sent so much terrific data based on 
their own experience with different creoles, or 
who took the time to search through corpora for 
spontaneous examples of /we/ relativisers.

Several people referred me to:
Philip Baker and Magnus Huber 2001. Atlantic, 
Pacific, and world-wide features in 
English-lexicon contact languages. English 
World-Wide. 22. 157-208.    
         Based on Baker's extraordinary collection 
of early creole texts, this article gives 
earliest attestations for a /we/ relativiser in 
Gullah (US South, 1891), Jamaican (Caribbean, 
1941), Krio (West Africa, 1882), West African 
Pidgin English (1926), Melanesian Pidgin English 
(Pacific, 1913). On the basis of this, B&H 
classify /we/ as a "world-wide" feature.

In what follows, I've split the responses up into 
two sections (Pacific and Atlantic) so different 
groups of readers can focus on the bits they 
might be more directly interested in.

Pacific creoles

Although the earliest teach-yourself-Tok-Pisin 
book by Dutton does not give /we/ as a general 
relativiser, correspondents pointed out that 
Dutton & Thomas 1985 A New Course in Tok Pisin. 
Canberra: Pacific Linguistics does.

Geoff Smith 2002. Growing Up with Tok Pisin. London: Battlebridge Publications.
	Smith's vast corpus of adolescents' 
spoken Tok Pisin also attests /we/ forms but 
these do not seem to be distributed evenly across 
all regional dialects.
          Some researchers who mainly use Tok 
Pisin in the Highlands (or who learnt it there 
some time ago) indicate that /we/ is not widely 
used there, and suggest that relative clauses are 
marked through intonation rather than 
          People familiar with New Britain report 
noticing it cropping up there in the late 1980s, 
but say that the more usual form for relativising 
is/was the clause bracketing structure discussed 
by Gillian Sankoff (i.e. [N [ia Š ia]]).

Likewise there seems to be dialectal variation in 
the frequency and distribution of <wea> forms in 
Solomons Pijin (some respondents felt that the 
more common strategy might be parataxis or 
clauses joined without an overt co-ordinator like 
'and', or argument doubling. However <wea> is 
attested for Pijin as early as 1978 (Simons & 
Young) and has an entry in Christine Jourdan's 
recent dictionary.

Fiji English also uses <where> to introduce many 
relatives (not only temporal or spatial), and 
Anna Shnukal's work on Broken (Torres Strait) 
provides at least one example of /we/ being used 
as a general relativiser.

For Bislama the substrate parallels for /we/ as a 
relativiser are widespread and very robust.
	Substrate parallels possibly also account 
for some of the regionally "idiosyncractic" uses 
of <we> in Bislama, e.g. to introduce clauses 
giving an intensive reading, e.g. I hot we i hot 
'It's really hot'. Alex François and Liz Pearce 
noted robust parallels with the diverse functions 
of Bislama /we/ in Mwotlap and Unua 
(respectively). It's possible that Bislama has 
innovated what we might call the "stranding" of 
/we/, i.e. I hot we i hot = I hot we. Mwtolap, 
for instance, does not allow the stranding of the 
equivalent complementiser introducing an 
intensifying clause.
	As far as I have been able to find out 
this use of /we/ is unattested in Solomons Pijin 
at present. I don't know whether or not it occurs 
at all in Tok Pisin. My guess would be not.

Atlantic creoles

Malcolm Finney is working on Krio and discussed 
/we/ relatives in a recent paper "Complementation 
in Krio and Lexifier English: Implications for
Syntactic Theory" at the Society for Pidgin and 
Creole Linguistics in Albuquerque in January 2006.

John Singler searched his corpora of West African 
Englishes and reports: "I checked in the three 
Liberian varieties I work on. Liberian Settler 
English, the African-American enclave variety, 
pidginized Vernacular Liberian English, and Kru 
Pidgin English. LSE doesn't have it. It's rare in 
VLE, a feature of the speech of older speakers 
who speak VLE as L2 variety.  Younger speakers 
don't use it.  Older speakers who aren't as 
fluent as these two men also don't seem to use 
it. KPE uses it. "

/Wa/ forms are abundant in the Gullah New 
Testament. David Frank found more than 7000 
tokens and estimates that about half the uses of 
/wa/ are relativisers. David Sutcliffe writes 
that it may not be widely known "older / 
conservative southern AAE (African American 
English) also has where / weh relative".

In the Caribbean, a number of languages introduce 
relative clauses with /we/. Although there is 
some dispute about how long /we/-introduced 
relatives have been used in Jamaican, there is no 
doubt that it is well-established now as a 
general relativiser.

Paula Prescod 2004 (Une description grammaticale du syntagme nominal
dans le créole anglophone de 
St-Vincent-et-les-Grenadines. Paris.) finds /we/ 
used in Vincentian creole to introduce relative 
clauses on persons, things and places. I also 
have noticed a number of examples in Bequian. Ron 
Kephart notes it on Carriacou (Grenada) and 
apparently it occurs in St Kitts-Nevis creole as 

Other references that people provided in which /we/ relativisers are mentioned:
-Gilman & Mufwene  1987. How African is Gullah and why? American Speech
-Bailey, B. L. 1966. Jamaican Creole Syntax: A 
Transformational Approach. Cambridge: University 
-Robert Philips Bidialectal Instructional Theory 
II www.kingcreole5.blogspot.com
-Peter L Patrick (2005), "Jamaican Creole 
morphology and syntax." In A Handbook of 
Varieties of English. Vol 2: Morphology and 
Syntax, ed. B Kortmann, EW Schneider, C Upton, R 
Mesthrie, K Burridge. Berlin: Mouton.
-Mufwene, Salikoko 1986. Restrictive 
relativization in Gullah. Journal of Pidgin and 
Creole Languages. 1. (includes comparison w. 
Jamaican /we/).

Again, tangku tumas we yufala i givhan olsem.

Best, Miriam

Miriam Meyerhoff
Reader, Linguistics & English Language
University of Edinburgh
14 Buccleuch Place
Edinburgh EH8 9LN

ph.: +44 131 650-3961/3628 (main office) or 651-1836 (direct line)
fax: +44 131 650-6883

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