world's simplest grammars are creole grammars

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Pidgin and Creole


  • The worlds simplest grammars are creole grammars


    Linguistic Typology 5 (2001), 125166 14300532/2001/005-0125cWalter de Gruyter


    It is often stated that all languages are equal in terms of complexity. This paperintroduces a metric of complexity, determined by degree of overt signalling ofvarious phonetic, morphological, syntactic, and semantic distinctions beyondcommunicative necessity. By this metric, a subset of creole languages displayless overall grammatical complexity than older languages, by virtue of the factthat they were born as pidgins, and thus stripped of almost all features unnec-essary to communication, and since then have not existed as natural languagesfor a long enough time for diachronic drift to create the weight of ornamentthat encrusts older languages. It is demonstrated that this complexity differ-ential remains robust even when creoles are compared with older languageslacking inflection, contra claims by theoretical syntacticians that the typologyof creoles is largely a manifestation of parameter settings resulting from lowinflection. The overall aim is to bolster a general paradigm arguing that creolelanguages are delineable synchronically as well as sociohistorically.

    Keywords: analyticsynthetic, complexity, creole, derivation, diachrony, gen-der, grammaticalization, inflection, Lahu, Maori, markedness,noun class, phoneme inventory, pidgin, Saramaccan, semantictransparency, tone, Tsez

    1. IntroductionIt has long been a truism in creole studies that creoles are formally distin-guishable from other languages only on the basis of their sociohistory, and thatthere is no logically possible synchronic distinction between creole grammarsand older grammars. Elsewhere (McWhorter 1998, 2000) I have argued that alarge subset of creole languages indeed display a particular confluence of traits,all predictable from the history of creoles in pidginization, which are unknown

  • 126 John H. McWhorter

    to occur in combination in any older language grammar and thus constitute asynchronically identifiable Creole Prototype.1

    Subsequently (McWhorter 2001) I presented further results of pidgin ances-try in creole grammars which reinforce my thesis that creoles, although natu-ral languages, are qualitatively distinguishable from older grammars as a pre-dictable result of their youth. This paper demonstrated that creole creators, increating the pidgin that later developed into a creole, strongly tended to eschewtraits from their native languages which were incidental to basic communica-tion, and that such traits were therefore absent in the natural languages thatthe pidgins were transformed into. Examples included, among others, eviden-tial marking, ergativity, inalienable possessive marking, and inherent reflexivemarking. The general conclusion was that in older grammars, millennia ofgrammaticalization and reanalysis have given overt expression to often quitearbitrary slices of semantic space, the result being a great deal of baroque ac-cretion which, while compatible with Universal Grammar, is incidental to it,as well as to even nuanced human expression. In having not existed for longenough a time for drift to encrust them in this manner to any great extent,creoles are unique in reflecting the innate component of the human languagecapacity more closely than older languages do.

    This research program dovetails with Bickertons Language BioprogramHypothesis (1981 and other works), which also proposes that creoles repre-sent an underlying layer of language resulting from their roots in pidgins.Bickertons main focus, however, was on the implications of his hypothesis forgenerative syntactic and acquisition theory, and as such he had little occasion toexamine creoles from a crosslinguistic or typological perspective. My intentionis a sustained investigation of creoles from the perspective of crosslinguisticconfigurational possibilities, beyond the Western European lexifier languagesthat have served as the primary focus of creolists attempts to define the termcreole.

    This paper, a fourth and final installment in my preliminary exploration ofthe Creole Prototype theme, will continue in the vein of McWhorter (2001) ina direct comparison of certain creole grammars with older language grammars,with a view towards making more precise my grounds for the claim that creolegrammars constitute a synchronically identifiable class.

    1. The traits absent in the prototype creole are inflectional affixation, tone distinguishing mono-syllabic lexical items or encoding morphosyntactic distinctions, and opaque lexicalization ofderivationroot combinations.

  • The worlds simplest grammars are creole grammars 127

    2. Are all natural grammars equally complex?Just as it is a truism in creole studies that creole is strictly a sociohistoricalterm, it is a truism in linguistics in general that all languages are equally com-plex (e.g., Edwards 1994: 90, Bickerton 1995: 67, OGrady et al. 1997: 6). Theclaim is generally made in reference to varying conceptions of the meaning ofcomplexity, all broader than the constrained definition to be outlined later inthis paper. However, there is a strong implication underlying such statementsthat anything simple in a given language will be compensated for by acomplex feature, a typical example being Crystals (1987: 6) provisional ob-servation that [a]ll languages have a complex grammar: there may be relativesimplicity in one respect (e.g., no word-endings), but there seems always to berelative complexity in another (e.g., word-position).

    This must be designated a truism because, like the creole studies truism, ithas long been asserted without having been subjected to systematic verifica-tion.

    2.1. Complexity and subsets of grammarOur first indication that the question is a richer one than generally assumedbegins with something all linguists presumably agree upon: that one languagecan be more complex than another in terms of a particular area of grammar. Forexample, Kikongo distinguishes between four kinds of past tense including acompletive (Welmers 1973: 350) while Japanese has only one overt markerof past tense, and has no grammaticalized indicator of completiveness exclu-sively. Thus, a single Japanese expression (2) corresponds to the four Kikongosentences in (1).(1) a. nsuumbiding nkombo.

    I bought a goat (today).b. ysuumbidi nkombo.

    I bought a goat (yesterday)c. yasumba nkombo.

    I bought a goat (earlier).d. nsuumbidi nkombo.

    I have bought a goat.(2) yagi



    I (have) bought a goat.It would certainly be mistaken to characterize the Japanese expression of pasttense as primordial or unnuanced itself. For example, Japanese uses the pastto describe events which have just come into perception where European lan-guages (and probably most other languages) use the present: upon seeing a bus

  • 128 John H. McWhorter

    coming into view, the Japanese person says Basu ga kimashita The bus camerather than Basu ga kimasu The bus is coming. It would also be difficult tooveremphasize that complexity is a difficult notion, and we will shortly outlinea principled characterization of complexity upon which the heart of the papersargument will be founded. Nevertheless, under the assumption that despite itsdifficulties, complexity is not a concept of no epistemological validity what-soever, we can most likely agree that Kikongo, in happening to have evolvedas fine-grained an overt subdivision of pastness as in (1), has a more complexpast-marking system than Japanese.2

    Similarly, with verbs of motion, Russian and most other Slavic languagesdistinguish not only between imperfective and perfective as they do with al-most all verbs, but make a further subdivision within the imperfective of whatgrammarians have called determinate versus indeterminate. The indeter-minate is expressed with a separate verb root. In the case of go, a separatepair of verb roots is used for going somewhere in a vehicle (or on a horse),such that where English uses a single verb go, Russian uses no fewer than four(viz., xodit, ezdit, idti, exat):(3) Indeterminate imperfective

    a. ja xou v kino.I go to the cinema (often).

    b. ja ezu v kino.I go to the cinema (often) (in a car).

    (4) Determinate imperfectivea. ja idu v kino.

    I am going to the cinema (now).b. ja edu v kino.

    I am going to the cinema (now) (in a car).(5) Perfective

    a. pojdm v kino.Lets go to the cinema.

    b. poedem v kino.Lets go to the cinema (in a car).

    2. In light of the argument in McWhorter (2001), and contra arguments that creolization merelyeschews source languages inflection and shaves away exceptional wrinkles in their gram-mars, it also bears mentioning that even in creoles in which Kikongo is claimed to haveplayed a significant substratal role, such as Sranan, Saramaccan, and Ndjuka, there is nosuch fine-grained overt subdivision of pastness. This is particularly significant in the case ofPalenquero Creole Spanish, in which Kikongo was essentially the only significant substratalinfluence (Schwegler 1998).

  • The worlds simplest grammars are creole grammars 129

    Again, it is obvious that in the particular case of subdividing the semantic spaceof movement, Slavic languages are more complex than English and many otherlanguages.

    While I could be accused of belaboring the obvious in showing that lan-guages can differ in terms of complexity in particular areas, it is often assumedthat overall, languages balance out in terms of complexity (cf. Crystal 1987cited above), such that if Slavic has its aspect-determined motion verb pairs,English has a subtle system of articles overtly marking determination and refer-entiality that bedevil Slavic learners, or that where Kikongo has its past mark-ers, Japanese h