Podcast episode 26: Interview with Philipp Krämer on creoles and creole studies

In this interview, we talk to Philipp Krämer about the history of the study of creole languages and present-day efforts to standardise creoles around the world.

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References for Episode 26

Primary sources

Adam, Lucien (1883): Les idiomes négro-aryen et maléo-aryen. Essai d’hybridologie linguistique. Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie.

Baissac, Charles (1880): Etude sur le patois créole mauricien. Nancy: Berger-Levrault et Cie.

Dietrich, Adolphe (1891): Les parlers créoles des Mascareignes. In: Romania, 20: 216-277.

Focard, Volcy (1885): Du patois créole de l’île Bourbon. In: Bulletin de la Société des Sciences et Arts de l’île de la Réunion, année 1884: 179-239.

Magens, Jochum Melchior (1770): Grammatica over del creolske sprog, som bruges paa de trende Danske Eilande, St. Croix, St. Thomas, og St. Jans i Amerika. Copenhagen: Gerhard Giese Salikath.

Oldendorp, Christian Georg Andreas (2000): Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan, insbesondere der dasigen Neger und der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder unter denselben. Erster Teil: Kommertierte Ausgabe des vollständigen Manuskriptes aus dem Archiv der Evangelischen Brüder-Unität Herrnhut (G. Meier, S. Palmié, P. Stein, & H. Ulbricht, Eds.). Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.

Oldendorp, Christian Georg Andreas (2002): Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan, insbesondere der dasigen Neger und der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder unter denselben. Zweiter Teil: Die Missionsgeschichte (3 vols.). (H. Beck, G. Meier, S. Palmié, A. H. van Soest, U. von Horst, & P. Stein, Eds.). Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.

Poyen-Bellisle, René de (1894): Les sons et les formes du créole dans les Antilles. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.

Saint-Quentin, Auguste de (1872): Notice grammaticale et philologique sur le créole de Cayenne. In: Saint-Quentin, Alfred de (ed.): Introduction à l’histoire de Cayenne. Antibes: Marchand. 99-169.

Schuchardt, Hugo (1882-1987) : Kreolische Studien I-X. Online at http://schuchardt.uni-graz.at/werk/schriften/vollstaendige-liste

Turiault, Jean (1874): Etude sur le langage créole de la Martinique. (1ère partie) In: Bulletin de la Société Académique de Brest, deuxième série, tome I (1873-1874): 401-516.

Turiault, Jean (1877): Etude sur le langage créole de la Martinique. (2e partie) In: Bulletin de la Société Académique de Brest, deuxième série, tome III (1875-1876): 1-111.

Secondary sources

DeGraff, Michel (2005): Linguists’ most dangerous myth: The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism. In: Language in Society, 34: 533-591.

Krämer, Philipp (2013): Creole exceptionalism in a historical perspective – from 19th century reflection to a self-conscious discipline. In: Language Sciences 38. 99-109.

Krämer, Philipp (2014): Die französische Kreolistik im 19. Jahrhundert. Rassismus und Determinismus in der kolonialen Philologie. Hamburg: Buske (Kreolische Bibliothek, Band 25).

Krämer, Philipp / Vogl, Ulrike / Kolehmainen, Leena (2022): What is Language Making? In: International Journal of the Sociology of Language 274. 1-27.

Krämer, Philipp / Mijts, Eric / Bartens, Angela (2022): Language Making of Creoles in Multilingual Postcolonial Societies. In: International Journal of the Sociology of Language 274. 51-82.

McWhorter, John (2001): The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. In: Linguistic Typology, 5: 125-166.

McWhorter, John (2005): Defining Creole. Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press.

Selbach, Rachel (2020): On the History of Pidgin and Creole Studies, in: Umberto Ansaldo/Myriam Meyerhoff (edd.), The Routledge Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Languages. Londres/New York, Routledge, 365–383.

Sousa, Silvio Moreira de. (2016) : A influência de Hugo Schuchardt na primeira geração de lusocrioulistas (Dissertation). Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.

Sousa, Silvio Moreira de / Mücke, Johannes / Krämer, Philipp (2019): A History of Creole Studies. In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. (online).

Transcript by Luca Dinu

JMc: Hi, I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:13] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:25] In this episode, we continue our exploration of contact linguistics by talking to Philipp Krämer. [00:33] Philipp is a researcher at the Free University of Berlin and has published widely on the history of the study of creole languages and on the sociolinguistic situation of several present-day creoles. [00:46] So, Philipp, to get us started, could you give us a brief sketch of the history of creole linguistics? [00:53] So when did pidgin and creole languages first attract the interest of scholars, and is there continuity between the earliest scholarly efforts and current creole studies? [01:05]

PK: Well, creole languages had already been around for a while when they first were described. [01:10] We find the first descriptions of creole languages towards, say, the end of the 18th century. [01:16] There were a few mentions before in courtroom proceedings, for example, and traveller reports, but then we have the first grammars, which are quite particularly already grammars of the Dutch-based creole of the Virgin Islands at the end of the 18th century. [01:31] And then there’s sort of a pause where there’s not a lot going on until the end of the 19th century, where we find a lot of new descriptions mainly of French-based creoles, so we find descriptions basically of almost all French-based creoles within the range of 20, 30 years, with the exception of Haitian Creole, which is a very important exception, and Seychelles Creole, but the rest gives us almost a complete picture. [01:54] And those were very interesting persons who actually wrote them, because they were physicians and teachers and colonial administrators, so no trained linguists for the most part. [02:05] And at the same period, we also, of course, have to mention the name of Hugo Schuchardt, who is usually seen as sort of the founding father of creolistics, who published widely on creole languages also towards the end of the 19th and early 20th century, mainly on English-based and Portuguese-based creoles. [02:23] So this sort of completes the picture, and those are very interesting universes, so to speak, those early creolists and Schuchardt as a sort of monolith. [02:32] And then there’s another sort of break towards the beginning of the 20th century until the post-war period when, of course, linguistics picks up as a whole and the whole theory-building of contact linguistics and also pidgin and creole linguistics sort of emerges as a discipline and academic practice. [02:49]

JMc: So when you say creole languages had already been around for a while before they attracted the attention of scholars, does that imply that creoles, as we understand them today, are specifically a phenomenon that has come out of European colonialism of the modern period, or were there creoles or contact languages more broadly earlier in human history? [03:13]

PK: I think it depends on the definition that you have of a creole or pidgin or contact language. [03:18] One definition is often to say that, yes, that’s a phenomenon of colonialism, of colonial expansion – not necessarily only European expansion, but for the most part, of course. But creoles, of course, connect in a lot of ways also structurally in the way they emerge to other contact scenarios also in earlier times or even in antiquity. [03:38] So it’s a matter of definition, probably, and I would say it’s a sort of continuum going from creoles to other contact phenomena, so setting them apart to some extent, I think, theoretically won’t work. [03:51]

JMc: Yeah. [03:51] And what sort of other contact phenomena are you thinking of? [03:55]

PK: Well, one that is often mentioned is, of course, the history of English and also the history of French. [03:59] Some linguists often say that French is a creole that made it, sort of it used to be Latin and then had a heavy history of contact but grew into a national language and a dominant language, of course, but also underwent a lot of restructurations in this whole process of, for example, of unguided language acquisition of Vulgar Latin by the population in what is today France. [04:22] So there are some parallels, but of course the setting, the historical setting, of European expansion and colonialism is still pretty much different from what we can see in the Roman Empire, of course. [04:33]

JMc: So do you think it’s something that is unique, European colonial expansion of the modern period? [04:37]

PK: Well, it’s probably unique at least in the completeness of the project, this way of, ‘We want to conquer the whole world, and we will divide the whole world between the European colonial powers,’ so this whole completeness and absoluteness of the aspiration of European colonialism is probably something that is quite different, yes. [04:58]

JMc: And do you think that it’s also a uniform thing, that European colonialism had the same expression everywhere in the world, or is the experience different in, say, Africa and South America, Australia and North America? [05:13]

PK: Well, it’s different, of course, locally or geographically, for example, depending on whether or not there was a local population already. [05:19] If you look at creole contexts, for example, in the Indian Ocean, Réunion, which wasn’t populated before colonialism, whereas in many other colonial contexts, of course, we have local population with their languages, and this creates a completely different dynamic. [05:33] And also, the different colonial powers had different approaches to their colonial projects and the way they transmitted their European languages, the way they imposed them or didn’t impose them, and the way there were possibilities for the local populations to acquire those languages, which, of course, also explains why there are fewer Spanish-based creole languages and more French-based or English-based languages. [05:59] That’s all part of the colonial histories of the different colonial powers. [06:02]

JMc: OK. [06:03] What is specifically the story, the difference between French and Spanish? [06:07]

PK: It often is said that the Spanish Empire more tried to push through with colonialism through language and sort of also very much connected to the Christian mission, which often had an effect in imposing the language to the local population. [06:25] Also, the way, for example, plantation economy was organized, which in the French context, for example, if we look at the Indian Ocean, provided more contact with the French language in the beginning, and then later with mass slavery and the plantations, this context was more and more reduced, which led to more and more creolization, and those different models of organizing the colonies and the colonial economy, I think, made a huge difference. [06:52]

JMc: OK. [06:52] Yeah, so if I may misquote Nebrija, didn’t he write something along the lines of, ‘Empire always expands with language’? [07:01]

PK: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it does, but probably the empire itself takes a decision on how to expand and how to expand with language. [07:08] For instance, we don’t see a lot of Dutch around in the world anymore except for a few pockets, sort of, even though the Dutch Empire was huge and the Dutch influence during colonial times was immense, but still, the approach to language was a different one. [07:23]

JMc: Yeah. [07:24] And you mentioned also that the early descriptions of creoles were often not by trained linguists. [07:31] What sort of difference does that make to the descriptions? [07:35] Are they better quality or less good quality, or do they just have a completely different approach to describing the languages? [07:42]

PK: I’m not sure if the profession of the author has a huge impact on how those descriptions turned out to be. [07:50] I think it’s very often more the personal approach to the language, the personal relationship to the language, that makes a difference. [07:57] Most of these descriptions are extremely colonial in the way they look at language, but they have different nuances in the way they approach it. [08:04] We’ve got some of those physicians that have a more sort of nature and biology-based perspective, some of them, that try to connect, for example, to evolutionary theory that came about in the 19th century. [08:17] Others, of course, strengthen a bit more the educational aspect of language acquisition, for example. [08:23] That’s more the teachers who do that, but those are broad tendencies. [08:27] I wouldn’t say that this is a sort of very deterministic pattern of organizing the texts. [08:35]

JMc: So do you think that the attitudes that they had were markedly different from the sorts of attitudes that linguists have today when they’re describing creole languages, or do you think that there are prejudices and even tropes about creole languages that continue to influence present-day scholarship? [08:52] So in the last interview with Felicity Meakins, we discussed Michel DeGraff’s polemical notion of creole exceptionalism. [09:00] Do you think that this is a genuine problem in creole scholarship? [09:04]

PK: Well, there is, of course, a difference between then and now in the way that those texts from, say, the 19th century were openly colonialist, of course. [09:11] They very much explicitly followed the racist ideology of colonialism and tried to explain the emergence of creole languages on the basis of these racial hierarchizations, saying that those speakers supposedly had less cognitive abilities, that character was supposed to influence creolization and so on. [09:30] And of course, we don’t find that anymore in creolistics today. [09:33] I think most creolists today would say that they adopt a decolonial attitude to languages or to creole languages but, of course, the way of doing that can be very different from one person to another, and we find some who say that, ‘We document creole languages. We take a purely descriptive approach, and that’s an apolitical approach to creole languages,’ but of course, that means also that you let the whole linguistic inequality thing run its course, because you don’t interfere with it. [10:04] And that’s something that I often observe, especially in this sort of exceptionalist corner of creolistics, and that creates a problem, of course, in the way we as researchers deal with the societies that we interact with. [10:18] We still have sort of epistemological residues, I think, in the way we describe creole languages today, and very often they are described in a sort of dialectic relationship with their European-based languages. [10:31] The research practices are often institutionally dependent on the traditional disciplines, like if I’m researching French-based creoles, that will be in the French department; if I’m researching English-based ones, that will be in the English department, and so on… [10:46]

JMc: But I guess maybe to put that in context, at least in Germany, even if you’re studying Basque, for example, you will usually be attached to the…

PK: Definitely, yes. [10:54]

JMc: …department of Romance linguistics. [10:56]

PK: Exactly. [10:56]

JMc: Or if you’re studying Australian languages, you’ll be attached to a department of, you know, Anglistik

PK: Exactly. [11:02]

JMc: …English linguistics, yeah. [11:03]

PK: So those categories are still very strong and very influential. [11:07] And this also means that the field of creole studies is often divided along those lines of different background languages, if you like. [11:17] And then we also have this very strong notion of trying to construct creole languages as different, as inherently different, and that’s also the basis of the strain of thought of creole exceptionalism, to try and show that they are different, and they form a distinct class, and, of course, that’s something that can very easily feed back into the sort of colonial logic of creating the Other, of exoticizing the object of study that you have. [11:44] It’s not necessarily the intention of these researchers, but it creates a basis, especially outside academia, for those who want to sort of exclude creole languages and say like, ‘We can’t use them in formal domains or in education because, as research has shown, they are simple, they are not complex,’ and so on. [12:01] And I think there’s a huge responsibility there to explain that even if we find that they are less complex or simple (which I don’t think they are, but others would), then, of course, the responsibility is to explain that this doesn’t mean they are unsuitable for human communication in all contexts. [12:19]

JMc: Can you unpack that for us a little bit, what it might mean to say that a creole is ‘simpler’, in inverted commas, than some other kind of language, and why you disagree with that? [12:33]

PK: Well, it’s probably… It depends, of course, on your definition of complexity. It’s often said that, for example, there’s less inflectional morphology in creole languages, or the typical prototype of three different criteria that creoles are supposed to not have, so they are described, again, in these terms of lack of certain features as compared to other languages, which I’m pretty critical of as well, the sort of ex negativo approach to describing them. [13:00] And of course, I think the complexity of a language is difficult to break down into numerical values, and that’s basically those quantitative approaches that a lot of researchers are trying to adopt to show complexity in terms of measurable entities and units, and I think that’s not an approach to language that leads us anywhere. [13:26]

JMc: In your own sociolinguistic research on present-day creoles, you’ve looked at the question of language-making in several Atlantic and Indian Ocean creoles. [13:35] What is language making, and what does your research tell us about how present-day speakers of creole languages conceptualize and take ownership of their languages? [13:46]

PK: Well, language making is an approach that we recently developed in cooperation with colleagues from Belgium and from Finland, and the idea is to describe processes in which we conceptualize languages as entities, which we often do. [14:03] We sort of assign them boundaries. [14:05] We call them names, give them labels, and they are supposed to be units that are clearly delimited and also countable units, sort of, you know, how many languages there are in the world or in a country and so on. [14:18] And our approach is to, even though in linguistics we try to show that this is actually not reality, we are moving towards the sort of fluidity and flexible approach to linguistic practices, but in social contexts, this is still a very strong view of languages, to have them as units. [14:36] So we are trying to show how these processes come about. [14:39] And creoles basically are interesting cases to look at because we have a lot of open debate about them in all those multilingual and postcolonial societies, so this whole language making process of conceptualizing creole languages as entities on their own is very much out in the open. [14:57] It’s always a matter of public debate and a lot of conflict, also, contradictions, and discourse. [15:02] So that’s why it’s interesting sort of to apply this language making approach here. [15:06] And the way speakers claim ownership of their language leads us to something that I would often refer to as a decolonial dilemma, because we have two different ways of looking at the languages. [15:19] Either we construct them as autonomous languages, as entities that are separate from French or English or Portuguese and so on, we do conscious and structured language making in terms of creating standards and spelling and introducing them as school subjects and so on, so we move forward with the emancipation of creoles, but also by imposing a sort of language making approach that we know from Europe, this whole standard language ideology, that is now transferred from French to Creole and so on. [15:49] And on the other side, we have this idea of, it’s fluid practices, we have a continuum between, for example, French and French-based creoles, we have very flexible approaches. [15:59] We might incorporate that into the notion of what a creole is. [16:02] A creole is a system that is open towards the neighbouring languages, as it were, but also, this has the risk of always going on to see creole languages as dependent or as part of the European languages, sort of dialect of French, as they were seen for a long time. [16:19] And this is a sort of dilemma, and emancipation of creole languages from the European languages, that is difficult, and I think the language making approach helps us understand this problem that is there and how to how to move forward with creole languages today. [16:34]

JMc: OK. [16:34] And who’s driving the standardization process of creoles in these various postcolonial places? [16:42] So could you mention perhaps a couple of places where this standardization process is actually taking place? [16:48]

PK: Mm-hmm. One that was interesting to look at was Mauritius. [16:51] In the past 10 years or so, Creole was introduced in school as a school subject and also as a medium of instruction, and to do so, there was a very structured and systematic strategic process of standardizing, of creating spelling, of providing normative dictionaries, normative grammars and so on. [17:11] So there was, first an academy was put into place that was charged with this mission of elaborating all those linguistic norms that were supposed to be applied in school, and that was a very sort of structured and systematic approach to language making that was driven both by politics, so there was a political will, and also done by specialists with an academic background, by linguists, by trained linguists, who knew the structure of the language who had training also in standardization questions. [17:43] And I think that was a relatively successful approach to how a creole language can be standardized. [17:50] Another example is Cape Verde a while back already. [17:54] It’s a bit of a slower and longer process where, for example, a spelling system was devised that was supposed to be used according to a person’s individual dialect, so you could sort of, had a unified, you had a unified spelling approach, but still could write the dialect the way you speak it under a common roof, as it were. [18:15] And that’s a very interesting approach, I think, also in in terms of language making to keep things open a little. [18:21] You don’t put it all in the same box and it’s fixed and there’s no way to the left or the right, so you can sort of incorporate this reality of fluid linguistic practices, even while standardizing to a certain extent the language. [18:36] And that’s, I think, a very interesting way of looking at language making. [18:42]

JMc: OK, and what sort of domains are these newly standardized creoles used in? [18:46] Are they used for television and radio, or for literature, sort of written literature in the form of novels, or for government business? [18:55]

PK: That depends on the context and on the country, and there’s quite some media presence for creole in, for example, Mauritius, also in Seychelles. [19:05] Papiamentu, for example, in the Caribbean is widely used across all formal domains, basically, also in politics, in the media, and so on. [19:13] It’s much less so, for example, in the French overseas departments, where French is extremely dominant for all the formal domains, for instance, so it depends very much on the recognition in a given context, and also the way language policy includes creoles into different domains, to what extent it is accepted, and to what extent it is formally accepted. [19:37] For instance, in Cape Verde, some provisions in language policy were extremely detailed. [19:44] For example, there was a decree saying that Creole was supposed to be used in airplanes, so that’s an extremely fine-grained detail of where to promote a creole language in which context. [19:58]

JMc: Yeah. [19:59] OK. [20:00] And what is the domestic political situation like in these postcolonial places where creoles are being standardized? [20:08] So who is driving the process? [20:11] Is it local elites, or is it more like a grassroots phenomenon? [20:15]

PK: Well, if we look at public discourse about creole languages in some of those societies, it is often said that it is an elite project. [20:25] That’s part of the criticism, particularly by those people who say that ‘We need to hold on to the colonial languages because they provide global opportunities. [20:34] If we teach our children Creole, they will only be able to communicate in the local context.’ [20:40] And one argument that is often put forward is that those local elites allegedly want to teach children Creole to keep them in the local context and then sort of to limit access to the privilege of the global languages. [20:56] But this, of course, doesn’t mean that there are not majority projects. [21:02] Especially in Mauritius, there was quite a widespread support also for the officialization and also introduction of Creole in schools. [21:11] It’s often a matter of social conflict, of course, and of political conflict as well. [21:16] Many of those efforts also in the past, say, 50 years were, of course, driven by decolonial political projects, so more on the left side of the spectrum in terms of using Creole also as a tool of emancipation and of independence from the former colonial powers. [21:35]

JMc: Yeah. [21:35] OK. [21:36] And you say that this idea of fluidity, of the fluidity of boundaries between the creole and the European colonial language that the creole is related to, so I think the traditional terms in creolistics are like ‘basilect’ and ‘acrolect’, so you say that that’s part of the definition of a creole, or at least how you would understand a creole. [21:59] How do you even establish the notion of a creole or a mixed language or a standard colonial language? [22:08] How do you even establish that notion? [22:10] Are there structural criteria you can use, or is it purely a sociological phenomenon? [22:18]

PK: Well, the question for me would be, do we have to establish boundaries, or is it our job to establish boundaries? [22:25] Linguists are language makers as well, and they have a huge tradition of being language makers, of assigning labels, and of sort of, as soon as you put a grammar into a book, ‘This is a language, and I have the authority, supposedly, that as a linguist I can define it.’ [22:39] Of course, all those questions of what is code switching, where does it start and end and so on, those are questions that we have to raise in research practice because they affect our way of analyzing data and of describing what we find. [22:54] But a much more important question for me is, what makes sense to the community? [22:59] How do they make sense of their own linguistic practices, and do they draw boundaries? [23:03] That’s what actually interests me more. [23:06] When they use this continuum or this fluidity of linguistic practices, are they aware of any differences in their practices, and does this make a difference for them in the way they communicate with one person or another? [23:21] Do they call them different names? [23:24] Do they assign different labels? [23:26] Do they see any boundaries in what they do, and how does this sort of connect to their reality, to different social groups, for example, that they feel they are part of? [23:36] And this is also, there’s a sort of grassroots language making that I’m particularly interested in. [23:44]

JMc: OK. [23:44] So you would say, is it a fair representation of your position to say that you believe it’s a social construction, like a creole and a standard language is a social construction, and that it’s a social construction made by the speakers of the language, by the speaker community? [23:59]

PK: It is, yeah. [24:01]

JMc: So then I guess the question is, what expertise does the linguist bring to the table? [21:06] Are they just reporting on what the community says, or does a linguist have any special expertise? [24:10]

PK: Well, the linguist has the expertise of observing what’s happening and also in assisting the local community in making sense of what they do, especially if they want to improve their social context in any way, for example, in education, in politics and so on, particularly in settings where part of, or a huge part of, the speech community is excluded from social resources and from economic resources if they don’t know the dominant language, for example. [24:39] And then our responsibility as linguists is to, first of all, to describe the situation, to diagnose the social problem that arises from this, from the multilingual situation, from the dominance of a certain language or a certain variety, and then to at least provide a base for decision that then the local community can take. [25:02] So it’s more of empowering the decision by the way of information, and by the way of documentation. [25:10]

JMc: OK. [25:12] So the linguist brings in a broader sort of worldwide context of familiarity [25:18] with different situations. [25:18]

PK: Exactly, yes, and also from a comparative perspective to show like, ‘This has worked in a different community. [25:23] Maybe it’s worthwhile looking at this if some parts can be transferred and if not, where are the differences? [25:29] Why doesn’t this work here if it worked there,’ and so on, so… [25:32]

JMc: Yeah. [25:32] OK. [25:33] Great. [25:35] Well, thank you very much for answering those questions. [25:37]

PK: Thanks for having me. [25:38]

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