A Null Theory of Creole Formation

Friday, February 15, 2013
Room 304 (Hynes Convention Center)
Michel DeGraff , Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Creole languages have traditionally been excluded from the scope of the Comparative Method in historical linguistics. To date, the most persistent and popular theories of Creole formation claim that Creole languages constitute an exceptional “Creole typology” whose members lie outside well-established language-family trees. Furthermore Creole languages are often claimed as the least complex human languages. Another view takes Creoles as relexified versions of their substrates. Our ongoing work suggests that these claims are all mistaken. We’ve argued that Creoles duly fall in the scope of the Comparative Method as languages genealogically affiliated with their lexifiers. Here we offer the bases of a framework for a null theory of Creole formation, a theory that we believe is empirically more adequate than the popular exceptionalist claims. This null theory does away with any sui generis stipulation that applies to Creole languages only. Instead it is rooted in basic assumptions and findings about Universal Grammar—assumptions and findings that apply to all languages. In this approach, the creation of new languages, whether or not they are labeled “Creole,” sheds lights on the interplay of first- and second-language acquisition as new grammars are built from complex and variable input. The effects of this interplay are similar across familiar cases of Creole formation as in the creation of Haitian Creole and familiar cases of language change as in the history of French or English. Such null theory undermines various traditional claims about “Creole simplicity” and “Creole typology” whereby Creoles are considered exceptional languages of lowest complexity. This approach also makes for a better integration of Creole phenomena to our general understanding of the cognitive bases for language change.