The creole continuum

The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*

A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.

The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:

They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.

What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.

Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.

* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.

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11 Responses to The creole continuum

  1. Joy says:

    I worked in St. Vincent & the Grenadines for a while. When my colleagues spoke to me, it was fine. As soon as they were talking to each other, I couldn’t understand a word! They would insist they were speaking English, they didn’t even realize that they spoke a creole. I got on line to look it up after a while, and found that Vincentian creole is spoken by only around 20,000 people, and is virtually unstudied. It amused me that they didn’t even know it wasn’t standard English or that there was such a thing as a creole!

    There’s a great website on languages – ethnologue.com – it has information on all languages spoken everywhere. What little I know about Vincentian creole – AKA Vincy Twang – comes from there.

  2. Stan says:

    Joy: How interesting. The switch happens so naturally – as it does when we adjust our register or dialect to suit a different audience, I suppose, except that creoles are really separate languages. Thanks for the tip on Ethnologue; I linked to it in the post, and it has a permanent place in my sidebar. Ethnologue’s page on Vincentian Creole English says it had 138,000 speakers in 1989 and is the “de facto language of national identity”, so it seems to be doing OK.

    • Joy says:

      Yeah, after I reread their bit, I meant to correct the number of speakers that I had said, but I forgot. I thought I’d also found another website on language that had like a tree showing which languages had evolved from others, plus additional information about each language – but I couldn’t find it again. I might be remembering wrong, and perhaps ethnologue.com was the only one I found when searching for info on “Vincy Twang.”

      I think VIncentian creole is further from English than Haitian creole is from French. I can’t fully understand Haitian, but I can get a lot more of it than I did when I was in SVG. I always wondered about Louisiana Cajun French, too, how far it is from French, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually speaks it. Just some great music!

  3. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I can recall, in being a far from worldly-wise, fledgling art school student , brand-new to ‘the big city’—Toronto, early ’70s— both being fascinated and totally confounded by our town’s most recently arrived Jamaican and Barbadian new-immigrants’ quirky manner of speech, particularly when spoken amongst their fellow Caribbean Isles brethren.

    Many of these West Indian new arrivals would soon become successful street vendors, local grocers, and small shopkeepers in the older, earliest new-comer neighborhoods that had for many decades become the home and working-class urban domain of immigrant European Jews, Portuguese, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians. (Including several other smaller European ethnic minority groups, as well.)

    (Since it’s founding as an urban center of some import on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto (originally York) had been a virtual bastion of British settlement—-mainly Scots, irish and English, up till the first waves of ‘European continental’ (and additional British) immigration settled in by the late 19th-early 20th century.)

    Interestingly, these aforementioned West indian business folk (and women), when conversing with their regular non-Jamaican/ Barbadian customers would usually speak fairly standard English, yet with that distinctive, choppy Islands’ cadence and charming ‘twang’ imported from home.

    But when communing with their native West Indian customers in the workplace, (or family, or friends on the street), they would invariably fall into their distinctive island-honed creole (or patois), which to the untrained ear sounds like a completely alien hybrid of standard English. (Basically echoing one of McWhorter’s earlier observational, anecdotal points, here.)

    I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that for a time I thought Toronto-based minority Jamaicans, in speaking full creole in public, were trying to separate themselves from ‘the white’ majority population. Almost as if they were talking behind our backs. (My unwarranted mild paranoia kicking in, I suppose.)

    But in time, I realized that it was merely more a case of their being most comfortable talking amongst their brothers and sisters in this less formal, more colloquial, most familiar manner of speech… just adding another positive textural flavor to Toronto’s ever-growing, ever changing linguistic gumbo.

    Lesson learned, mon.

  4. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing, Alex. David Crystal made a good point in a recent post: “There are always two factors underlying language use: intelligibility (to understand each other) and identity (to show who we are).” So there’s an element of the latter in the Jamaicans’ speech, just as there is in any speaker’s or speech group’s. But, as you later realised, it presumably wasn’t a tactic of discretion or anything like that, just their most natural mode of communication.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Stan,

      Just a wee clarification re/ my perhaps puzzling “(and women)” in the 4th paragraph of my last post.

      I’d originally written “businessmen”, but in final review decided to replace “businessmen” with the more all-inclusive “business folk”.

      I clearly forgot to remove my original “(and women)” qualifier, where in conjunction with “businessmen” I was attempting to give the Toronto-based West Indian lady entrepreneurs their just due, along with their male counterparts.

      I figured “folk” would cover all gender bases.

      As the late, great reggae master, Bob Marley penned, “No woman no cry.” (Groan)

  5. Lane says:

    Worth mentioning that McWhorter (who is black, and a friend) reveals here that he grew up with one “lone vanilla variety”, i.e. no African American dialect, himself. Sometimes when I discuss black dialect, people object “But Condoleezza Rice doesn’t talk that way!” or something like that, requiring me to heave a heavy sigh and do some ‘splaining.

    • Stan says:

      Lane: Linguistic ‘splaining is probably common enough to warrant its own blend (lingsplaining?), if it didn’t suggest condescension by analogy with mansplaining and co.! Confusion over AAVE seems fairly common, be it generally or to do with specific usages – such as between zero copula and habitual be, which George Pelecanos worked nicely into one of his novels.

  6. mollymooly says:

    I guess the most “continuous” part of such a continuum ought to be the accent. Things like vowel quality and prosody can be adjusted ever so finely, whereas a vocabulary item or syntax feature must usually be switched in one go (though obviously different ones can get switched at different points on the continuum).

    Of course a creole is not an accent. But adjusting to a very different accent of one’s own language might take longer than an elevator ride to achieve comprehension.

    • Stan says:

      mollymooly: That makes sense. In a conversation I had during the week, with someone I hadn’t met before, I noticed my accent adjusting quite swiftly to include more local markers. But it wasn’t a dramatic shift, and vocabulary/syntax changes were negligible.

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