Creole Formation and Second Language Acquisition. Table of Contents



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Creole Formation and Second Language Acquisition.
Table of Contents:

1. Introduction: 2

2. Developmental stages in SLA. 4

2.1. Early stages of SLA and creole formation. 4

2.2. Strategies in the early stages of SLA and creole formation. 5

3. Elaborative stages of SLA and creole formation. 10

4. The elaboration of creole grammar. 11

4.1. Restructuring, target language and superstrate input. 12

4.2. Restructuring and substrate input in creole formation. 14

4.3. Restructuring and internal developments. 15

5. TMA and the process of restructuring in creole formation. 16

5.1. The emergence of the Haitian Creole TMA system. 17

5.2. The emergence of TMA in Sranan Tongo. 21

6. Conclusion. 25

References. 28





1. Introduction:

The parallels between creole formation and SLA were noted as early as the nineteenth century by scholars like Hesseling (1897), and later Jespersen (1922). This relationship has been the subject of continuing controversy in the field of creole studies. In particular, there has been disagreement about whether creole formation is the outcome of first or second language acquisition – an issue explored in Andersen (1983) and more recently in DeGraff (1999a). Disagreement over this has wider implications for competing theories of creole formation. Contemporary scholars remain divided over the relative contribution of superstrate and substrate languages as well as the role of language universals in creole formation.

Some still adhere to Bickerton’s LBH or some version of it that ascribes the primary role in creole creation to children who appeal to innate universal principles to compensate for deficient (pidgin) input to the L1 acquisitions process (Bickerton 1999). Most creolists, however, maintain that creole formation was essentially a process of second language acquisition in which adults and, quite probably, bilingual children played a crucial role. Adherents of this view, however, still disagree on the nature of the earliest forms of creoles. Some argue that creoles began as second language varieties of the lexifier or “superstrate” languages and gradually diverged more and more from the latter via a process of “basilectalization” (Mufwene 1996a, b). This is the so-called superstratist position first proposed by Chaudenson (1992, 2001). Others adopt the traditional view that creoles began as pidgins that were subsequently elaborated.

Not surprisingly, scholars in the two camps disagree on the extent of superstrate vs substrate input to this process of elaboration. The superstratists maintain that most of creole grammar can be traced to the lexifier language. Some of these, while acknowledging that some creoles draw heavily on superstrate sources, still allow for significant influence from substrate languages (Mufwene 1990). The “substratists” on the other hand claim that the major influence on the grammar of “radical” creoles in fact came from the substrate languages (Lefebvre & Lumsden 1994; Lefebvre 1996; Lumsden 1999, etc.).

Despite these differences, there is consensus that creole formation involved varying degrees of “input” from both superstrate and substrate sources, and was guided by principles that regulate all cases of language contact (Mufwene 1990; DeGraff 1999b). More specifically, there is now wide agreement that creole formation was akin in many respects to a gradual process of group second language acquisition. The issue then is whether we can maintain this view and still reconcile the conflicting positions outlined above.

The present paper attempts such a reconciliation by examining more closely the similarities in the developmental stages, processes and principles that apply to all instances of creole formation and (other) cases of second language acquisition (SLA). I will argue that there are basic similarities in the paths of development characteristic of both. First, both involve an initial or early stage of learning, in which a highly simplified interlanguage (IL) system is created. This is followed by elaborative stages in which the basic IL system is expanded, drawing on three major sources of input. These include input (intake) from native and non-native varieties of the lexifier language, L1 influence, and internally driven changes that regularize and expand the grammar.

The interaction between L1 knowledge, intake from superstrate sources and creative adaptation operates within the developing IL system itself – or more accurately, within the minds of individual learners creating IL systems or I-languages. This is not to claim, however, that the parallels between the two broad types of SLA are identical. As we shall see, there are significant differences in such aspects as the nature of the input, the extent of L1 influence and the degree of internal innovation involved in each case, which help to explain how creole formation differs from other cases of natural group SLA. Exploring the precise nature of the similarities and differences between these two kinds of SLA promises to enrich our understanding of both.

After presenting a broad outline of the stages and processes involved in SLA (including creole formation), I will turn my attention to the creation of creole TMA systems, focusing particularly on those of Haitian Creole and Sranan Tongo.



2. Developmental stages in SLA.

Studies of second language acquisition have revealed that there are several stages through which learners go in their attempt to approximate the TL. The first stage involves the construction of a relatively simple interlanguage system that is highly reduced by comparison with the TL grammar. For instance, English-speaking children who are learning German begin with two-word utterances before producing multiword sentences. The overall pattern of development in this case is from two-word utterances to copular sentences to sentences containing auxiliaries and finally main verbs (Felix 1977). SLA research has also shown that learners go through various developmental stages in their acquisition of specific areas of TL grammar such as question formation, negation, relativization, etc. For example, Spanish-speaking learners of English first use no as an all-purpose negator in all constructions, and later acquire invariant don’t, aux-neg forms such as isn’t, can’t etc, and finally analyzed do + not (doesn’t, didn’t, etc.) (Schumann 1978:13). In general, in acquiring various aspects of TL grammar, learners first apply a single invariant rule across the board in the first stage, and gradually acquire more specific rules in later stages of acquisition. Similar stages of development apply to the acquisition of TL tense/aspect systems, as we will see.



2.1. Early stages of SLA and creole formation.

Studies of the acquisition of various European languages by immigrants with a variety of L1’s have demonstrated that learners first create a “basic variety” of the TL that is quite uniform in structure regardless of L1 background (Klein & Perdue 1997). This basic variety is characterized by a small but expanding lexicon made up mostly of nouns and verbs, with a small inventory of adjectives and adverbs. It also employed a few function words such as quantifiers, a few prepositions and determiners and a single negative marker. In these and several other respects, the “basic variety’ shares many characteristics with “prototypical” pidgins.

The conventional wisdom has it that creoles are elaborations of pidgins – the so-called “two-stage” view of creole formation. As we saw earlier, this view has been called into question of late, e.g., by Chaudenson and others who argue that second language varieties of French etc, were the starting point of creole formation, at least in the French colonies. We can reconcile these opposing viewpoints by making a distinction between the kinds of input that are available from the putative TL, and the kinds of intake learners incorporate into their developing IL. Whether the input to the first stages of creole formation consisted of close L2 approximations to the superstrate language, or a simplified or pidginized variety of that language, individual IL construction would still begin with a basic variety that has pidgin-like characteristics.

It seems reasonable to assume, then, that in the first stage of both SLA and creole formation, individual learners create a highly reduced, pidgin-like system, which they then expand, depending on their access to further input from the TL and other sources, as well as their motivation to create a more complex system. The I-grammars that individuals create must be the starting point of our analysis of the processes of both SLA and creole formation.



2.2. Strategies in the early stages of SLA and creole formation.

It is well known that, in the earliest stages of SLA, learners attempt to learn and produce TL structures by appealing to various learning and communication strategies. The former may include, for instance, memorizing, guessing, comparing L1 and L2 elements etc. We will not be concerned with these here. Communication strategies include avoidance (avoiding certain structures, elements or topics) and compensatory strategies. The latter include appeal to L1 knowledge, creative adaptation of existing IL resources, and non-linguistic strategies such as gesture and mime (Poulisse 1996). Studies of SLA (e.g., Poulisse 1996:149) have revealed that such communication strategies are more common among early (less proficient) than advanced learners, though of course not restricted only to the former.

Following Meisel (1977, 1983), simplification will be used here to refer to two kinds of process – reduction of TL structures (reductive simplification) and strategies aimed at regularization of the grammar (elaborative simplification). The former is a strategy of avoidance that is particularly common in the earliest stages of IL construction. Its well-known consequences include the elimination of TL morphology and the reduction of TL syntactic strategies, among others.

Elaborative simplification on the other hand is a compensatory strategy that relies on the available resources of the IL. For example, learners may compensate for loss of morphology by employing periphrastic means instead. They may use adverbs to convey temporal or aspectual meanings, or fixed word order to distinguish grammatical functions such as subject and object. Another such strategy is rule generalization to eliminate irregularities, as in the extension of past tense suffix –ed to irregular verbs like steal and tell in L2 English.

Both kinds of simplification seem to be motivated by the need for transparency in the emerging IL grammar. This in turn is related to general cognitive (processing) principles that guide the acquisition process. For instance, Van Patten (1996:14-15) suggests that the following principles (among others) determine which aspects of TL input learners are likely to process earlier:


  • Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form;

  • Learners process content words first;

  • Learners tend to process lexical items before grammatical items for semantic information.

Principles like these help explain why early IL systems include mostly lexical rather than function morphemes and lack bound morphology. They constrain the amount of input that actually makes its way into learner versions of the TL. This modified input, or intake, becomes the primary material for restructuring of IL grammar.

Similar cognitive principles lead early learners to regularize IL grammar via elaborative simplification. Among the principles that have been suggested in this connection are the following:


  • The uniqueness principle (one form expresses one meaning);

  • The principle of canonical word order (Main clause word order constitutes the basic word order. (Jordens 1996:32).

  • The principle of continuity (constituents that belong together are placed together).

Such principles allow learners to maximize ease of perception and production, and help explain many of the characteristics of early IL. Andersen (1984, 1990) suggests that features of early IL such as invariant word order and use of invariant negative markers etc. can be explained in terms of his “One to One Principle”, which condenses the first two principles stated above. The same kinds of principle have been proposed for pidgin and creole formation, which is not surprising, given the strong similarities between these and the earlier stages of SLA.

The well-known characteristics of pidgins include reduced vocabulary, absence of bound morphology, a limited range of syntactic structures etc. These are precisely the characteristics found in early IL systems, for instance the “basic varieties” of a host community TL that immigrants create (Klein & Purdue 1997). In addition, pidgins share strategies of L1 transfer and internal innovations found in early IL. It follows that the creation and expansion of pidgin systems may shed light on the ways in which early IL and particularly early creoles develop. A particularly relevant aspect of this is the creative innovation that is a key characteristic of pidgin grammar. Like L2 learners, pidgin speakers creatively adapt their limited intake from the source language(s) to achieve communication. For instance, they expand the lexicon through compounding, paraphrase and other strategies, and exploit various means (adverbials or other function morphemes) to convey temporal and aspectual meanings.

Innovations in pidgin grammar are often reminiscent of the incipient patterns of grammaticization that are quite common in language change generally, and in SLA in particular. For example, Kotsinas (1996:133) compares uses of stannom ‘stay’ as a locative copula in Russenorsk (RN)and immigrant L2 Swedish (IS). The following examples illustrate:


(1) a. RN kor yu stannom på gammel ras

where you stay on old time

“Where were you last time?”
b. IS den tjugo år stanna Joannina

it twenty year stay Joaninna.

“She lived in Joannina [a town] for twenty years”
This is reminiscent of the use of stay as a copula in Hawaii Creole English. Pidgins also employ a single preposition in a variety of functions, a strategy also found in early SLA and creole formation. For example, both Russenorsk and Immigrant Swedish employ the preposition to mark various spatial meanings such as location, direction and origin (Kotsinas (1996:139). is also used in both contact varieties to mark indirect objects and possession, as in the following examples (Kotsinas (1996:141-42):
(2) a. RN moja paa ju presentom baanbaan

I P you give candy

“I will give you candy”
b. IS Köpa på barn

buy P child

“[I] bought [clothes] for [my] child”
(3) a. RN mangeli klokka på ju?

how-much clock P you

“What time is it?” [Lit. how much is your clock?]
b. IS Stan på din mamma

town P your mother

“Your mother’s village”
In other uses, seems to have the potential to function either as a preverbal marker of some kind of desiderative mood (example 5), or as a complementizer (example 6) in both RN and IS. (Kotsinas 1996:144-45)
(4) a RN Moja på-slagom på tvoja

I P hit P you

“I will hit you”

b. IS den barn sex månar kommer på skriva på kyrka.

it child six month come P write P church

“The child became six months old and we had to register him at church”

(5) a. RN gå på slipom

go P sleep

“Go to sleep”

b. IS och gå vi på simma och åta

and go we P swim and eat

“And we went to swim and eat.”

Though has not been grammaticalized as either an auxiliary or a purpose complementizer in Russenorsk or Immigrant Swedish, its similarity to other all-purpose prepositions such as long (< along(a)) in Tok Pisin and fu (< for) in Atlantic creoles is striking. It is precisely these kinds of potential for restructuring based on the internal resources of the developing IL system that we find in creole formation, and to some extent in natural SLA.

So far I have argued that the starting points of pidgin formation, early IL and creole creation are quite similar, if we view them from the perspective of individual I-language construction. Each has the potential to develop into a more elaborate system, but the nature of that elaboration depends crucially on the nature and availability of continuing input from the TL and other sources. Most pidgins never develop further, because of lack of motivation or lack of access to more input. But some pidgins such as Hawaii Pidgin English and Melanesian Pidgin have developed into elaborate systems, via processes quite similar to those involved in creole formation. The restructuring process in these cases involves far more appeal to L1 knowledge and internally-driven innovation than is found in the more usual cases of SLA. Let us now examine the nature of this restructuring process with particular attention to the origins of creole TMA systems.



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