One internalist pespective on creoles and genetic classification

Michel DeGraff degraff at MIT.EDU
Wed Mar 10 21:23:10 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------

RE message from bwald at on Tue, 2 Mar 1999 08:44:27 EST:

> ----------------------------Original message----------------------------


> Not so removed from this is the (former) issue of whether Haitian (Creole)
> is a Romance language.  Until relatively recent times when pidgin-creole
> studies started to be taken seriously by historical linguists in general
> (or have they? AMR, to be sure, seems to take them seriously),  lexicon
> alone (i.e, through regular sound correspondences) seems to have been
> criterial of inclusion in "language family" (for the "mainstream").
> Grammar did not count for much, just as it did not count for much in
> synchronic linguistic description.


> [...] such issues as Haitian brought up DEFINITIONAL problems of language
> family.  How to classify when there is historical discontinuity in the
> grammar?

> (NB:  I could say more about "political" motivations for different sides on
> whether or not Haitian should be [have been] included in Romance, but I am
> saying enough that can be misinterpreted without getting into that fruitful
> topic.  Currently there is still disagreement about how to account for
> the grammar of Haitian and various other "creoles", e.g., whether it comes
> from an innate "bioprogram" or is relexified Fon (a Kwa Niger-Congo
> language), etc etc.  There are also issues involving whether many so-called
> creoles actually descend from earlier pidgins, e.g., Berbice Dutch,
> sometimes called Berbice "Creole" Dutch, which seems to be a "mixture" of
> Dutch and Kalabari (the latter a variety of Ijoid, a branch of Niger-Congo
> that has contentious aspects for (sub)classification), or various
> non-European varieties of Portuguese that seem to have been "restructured",
> but not necessarily descended "whole cloth" from pidgins, etc etc.  Does
> "(radical) restructuring" exclude them from their lexical source "family"
> affiliation?  These seem to be matters of DEFINITION of "family", not
> whatever the historical "facts" may be)


Dear all,

Similar and related questions are being raised among creolists and
generativists with interests in language change and language acquisition.
As it turns out, various authors in a forthcoming MIT Press anthology
address these questions from an internalist, generativist perspective.
Such perspective, I do realize, is not shared by all members of this list,
but I find their observations quite relevant to the intringuing questions
raised by Benji Wald...  Back to commercials: The book's title is LANGUAGE
(DeGraff, ed., MIT Press, 1999).  Publication information can be found at:

What I'll do here is just quote one relevant advert ... sorry, excerpt
... from pages 13-14 of my introductory chapter (from the raw,
pre-copyediting files).  This chapter is (rather ambitiously) titled:
"Creolization, Language Change and Language Acquisition: A Prolegomenon".
Here it goes:


Pages 13-14

    [...]  Are  the language-related  cognitive processes responsible
    for creolization    also  involved   in  instances    of ordinary
    acquisition and in (gradual) language change?


    A positive answer  to [that] question would connect  creolization
    phenomena to more general  diachronic phenomena, that is, to  the
    better-understood  instances  of  syntactic change occurring over
    relatively long periods of time, as for example in the history of
    English.   Support  for  such a  positive    answer is given   by
    contributors'     proposals   whose  aim   is    to  account  for
    generalizations obtaining across   cases of  language change  and
    emergence;  see Roberts's and Lightfoot's   chapters for two such
    proposals and  Rizzi's and   DeGraff's commentaries  for  further

    However, connecting creolization to language  change [...] may at
    first  appear  controversial.  At    the  turn of   the  century,
    Schuchardt  (see Gilbert   1980b)  used   evidence  from   creole
    languages,  as many others have  since, in attempts to refute the
    Neogrammarian STAMMBAUMTHEORIE (``family-tree theory'') according
    to which  the parentage  of each  language  goes through a SINGLE
    ancestor;  in this  theory, languages reproduce  asexually, so to
    speak  (see Thomason  and     Kaufman 1988 for a    critique  and
    alternatives).  With massive language contact in their histories,
    creoles  clearly belie  the  Stammbaumtheorie's ``one  parent per
    language'' assumption.

    Some (e.g.,  Hall   1966,   117)  have  tried   to  maintain  the
    Neogrammarian assumption  by  unsuccessfully forcing creoles into
    genetic  affiliation   with  their superstrates.    Others (e.g.,
    Taylor 1956) have recognized   two possible ways out: (a)  either
    creoles lie  altogether  outside Stammbaumtheorie  (Taylor  1956,
    407); cf. Thomason and Kaufman 1988, 9--12, 152, 165-166); or (b)
    our theories must be revised and made more ``family-friendly'' to
    allow    for   ``nongenetic'' relationships.    An   example   of
    possibility (b) is Taylor's (1956, 413) proposal that creoles are
    ``genetically `orphans'   [with] two  `foster-parents': one  that
    provides the  basic morphological and/or syntactical pattern, and
    another from which the fundamental vocabulary is taken''!  In the
    spirit  of both (a)   and (b), Thomason  and  Kaufman distinguish
    between ``genetic''  and ``nongenetic'' paths of development, the
    former  arising  via ``normal transmission''   and the latter via
    ``imperfect transmission'' as with abrupt creoles.

    But   is  transmission    ever ``perfect''?   In   the I-language
    perspective adopted  in  this  introduction, grammars  are  never
    transmitted: they are  always  created  anew from innate   mental
    resources (the  language faculty plus  acquisition and processing
    mechanisms,  say) coupled with the ambient (environment-specific)
    PLD   [Primary  Linguistic Data] available   to  the learner (see
    below).[Endnote 24 --- see below]
    It  is  always  the case   that  the  PLD  is  both limited   and
    heterogeneous (in varying degrees),  as   a result of  which  the
    final state of the  language learner (i.e., the attained internal
    grammar,  which  gives   rise   to  unlimited   productivity)  is
    inevitably   underdetermined  (see  chapters   13--15 for further

    What  Thomason  and    Kaufman (1988)  call   ``genetic''  versus
    ``nongenetic'' has no theoretical   status in this  framework: in
    both  cases   (``genetic''  language  change  AND  ``nongenetic''
    creolization),   the learner's normal  task  is to set parameters
    using  whatever PLD  are available.   In parameter-setting terms,
    what Thomason  and  Kaufman's  distinction  might refer   to with
    respect   to possibility (a)  is    the DEGREE of  heterogeneity,
    stability  and/or complexity of the   PLD in  the genetic  versus
    nongenetic cases.  In turn, the quality of the PLD is affected by
    the many (socially determined)  EXTERNAL factors that are at play
    in all instances of language  acquisition; two such factors, most
    relevant to the creolization case,  are (a) the varying fluencies
    of  the  model speakers (i.e.,  those  providing the  PLD) in the
    evolving  common language, and  (b)   the diversity of the  model
    speakers' native  tongues.  The goal  of this volume is to better
    understand the  structure  of UG   by   studying   the  CONSTANT,
    INTERNAL   constraints on  the  outcomes   of acquisition  across
    various   sets of NONCONSTANT,  EXTERNAL  conditions. In my view,
    such  outcomes   include  those of    both  language change   and
    creolization. [...]


    [p 40 Endnote 24:]

    "In the words of Meillet (1929, 74),

      [C]haque enfant  doit  acqu'erir par  lui-m^eme la  capacit'e  de
      comprendre  le parler des gens  de son groupe.  ...  La langue ne
      lui est pas livre'e en bloc,  tout d'une pie`ce. ...  Pour chaque
      individu, le langage est  ainsi une recre'ation totale faite sous
      l'influence du  milieu qui  l'entoure.   Il  ne  saurait y  avoir
      discontinuite' plus absolue.

      [Each child  must on his own acquire  the  capacity to understand
      the speech of people in his community. ...  Language is not given
      to him en bloc, all in one piece. ...  Thus, for each individual,
      language is a total  re-creation, carried out under the influence
      of the surrounding environment.    There could not exist a   more
      absolute discontinuity.  [my translation]]


Thank you,

MIT Linguistics & Philosophy, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139-4307

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