Topics in Linguistics: Creole Languages and Caribbean Identities >> Content Detail



Course Content and Goals

The Creole languages spoken in the caribbean are linguistic by-products of the historical events triggered by colonization and the slave trade in Africa and the 'New World'. In a nutshell, these languages are the results of language acquisition in the specific social settings defined by the history of contact between African and European peoples in 17th-/18th- century Caribbean colonies. One of the best known Creole languages, and the one with the largest community of speakers, is Haitian Creole. Its lexicon and various aspects of its grammar are primarily derived from varieties of French as spoken in 17th-/18th-century colonial Haiti. Other aspects of its grammar seem to have emerged under the influence of African languages, mostly from West and Central Africa. And yet other properties seem to have no analogues in any of the source languages.

Through a sample of linguistic case studies focusing on Haitian Creole morphosyntax, we will explore Creolization from a cognitive, historical and comparative perspective. With Haitian Creole and some of its Caribbean congeners as test cases, we will ask questions such as these:

  1. Are Caribbean Creoles to be considered 'dialects' of European languages? For example, is Haitian Creole a 'dialect' of French?
  2. Or, rather, is the European contribution to Caribbean Creoles limited to their lexicon, a lexicon that is coupled with a grammar of the West-African 'type'? For example, can Haitian Creole be considered a West-African language with a French-derived lexicon?
  3. And what about the popular claim that Creoles emerged ab ovo - from the linguistic 'scratch' of structure-less pidgins - and as such do not fit into any language family? In this view, Creoles are developmentally and structurally exceptional languages.

With such theoretical questions as a backdrop and with representative datasets as benchmarks, we will evaluate various hypotheses about the development of Creole languages and about the role of first- and second-language acquisition in such development.

We will also explore the concept of creolization in its non-linguistic senses. In this vein, we will examine the historical context (the so-called 'external circumstances') and the socio-cultural ramifications of ethnic contact in the Caribbean, alongside the innovative and syncretic aspects of creolization's products. The latter are expressed, not only through language, but also through religion, music, literature, etc. Then we will address questions of "Caribbean identities" by examining a sample of Creole speakers' attitudes toward the Creole language and the corresponding European language and toward the African and European components of their ethnic make-up. Interestingly, many of these attitudes, including the belief that Creoles are abnormal and deficient languages, find analogues in (quasi-) scholarly texts from the past three centuries. Comparisons will be made with relevant facets of African-American language and culture.

Material for analysis will include linguistic data, texts, audio and video recordings, and films.


I'll be assuming that all the students in the class have already taken 24.900 Introduction to Linguistics and 24.902 Introduction to Linguistics II: Syntax. Otherwise please see me for permission to enroll.

Please do not hesitate to ask me for help if any time you feel you need some background filled in. Also (and this is extremely important!) do not hesitate to ask questions in class, even if the question is "Could you explain that again?".

Course Requirement

  • Punctual and regular attendance (mandatory).
  • In-class participation (hopefully lots of it!).
  • Readings (of course), lots of it, and most of it should be lots of fun.
  • Occasional homework.
  • 'Midterm': Draft of prospectus for term paper (due one day before Session 6).
  • '3\4 term': Revised prospectus for term paper (due one day before Session 9). This is a conference-style 500-word abstract with one extra page for data and references.
  • In-class presentation(s) - to be scheduled as the semester progress. Ideally these discussions will be incorporated in the term project.
  • This is a research paper. Maximum length: 15 pages, with double-space interline and 12pt font size.

Reading and Participation Guidelines

This class is reading-intensive. Readings are to be done before the corresponding class. We'll try to follow the socratic method: in class, students will be asked to share their perspectives and engage in discussion on prior readings. (The quality of one's discussion will count toward one's 'participation points'.)

Creolization is an extremely complex phenomenon the understanding of which requires familiarity with issues in a number of disciplines, including (Socio-)Linguistics (e.g., Morphology, Syntax, Language-contact and Language-change studies, Meta-linguistic Attitudes), History (e.g., Colonization, Slavery, The Haitian Revolution), Demography (e.g., Population Displacements, Plantation Society), Anthropology (e.g., Culture, Religion, etc.). Due to, among other things, the inter-disciplinary nature of Creole studies, certain reading assignments will contain passages that may seem quite difficult. In principle, this should not prevent you from getting at the essential points of the paper. Do not expect to understand everything you read. When you get stuck, try skipping over the trouble spot to get what you can out of the readings. Discussing papers with your fellow students outside of class may also help. And always feel free to make an appointment with me to discuss the material.

You should attend all the classes, no matter what. Nothing you could read will replace what goes on in class.

Assignments and Attendance Policy

These are just a few guidelines toward turning the study of Creole Languages and Caribbean Identities into a fun, constructive, intellectually simulating and mutually enriching cooperative effort. Some of these tips may well be superfluous.

  • All writing assignments must be typed.
  • Assignments are to be turned in class and before class discussion starts. No late assignments!
  • Punctuality, attendance and active class participation will all contribute to your overall evaluation, in addition to formal assignments.


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