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  • Against Creole exceptionalism*
  • Michel DeGraff

1. A postcolonial agenda for creolists

1.1. The motivation

Ferdinand de Saussure (1916 [1986:7]) warned us that ‘no other subject [outside of language] has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions and more fantasies . . . [I]t is the primary task of the linguist to denounce them, and to eradicate them as completely as possible’. But, what if ‘prejudices’, ‘illusions’, and ‘fantasies’ underlie some of the foundations of Creole studies?

Many creolists throughout the history of Creole languages have relied on a variety of dualist assumptions whereby Creole languages constitute a special class of languages apart from ‘normal’/‘regular’ languages (see critiques in DeGraff 2001a,b, 2003a). Some of these assumptions were implicitly handed down to us from (neo)colonial history without any ‘break in transmission’, so to speak. In the colonial era, these anti-egalitarian assumptions were part and parcel of the imperialist construction of political, cultural, and racial hegemony and the concomitant discursive elaboration of scientific authority through scholarly(-looking) texts (this tradition can be compared with Edward Said’s (1979) concept orientalism). These ‘power/knowledge’ systems of hegemony would have made it impossible to conceive of any analytical framework whereby Caribbean Creole languages are on a genealogical or structural par with European languages. In this vein, uniformitarian creolistics would have been ‘un-thinkable’, in Foucault’s (1980) sense (see Prudent 1980 and Mühleisen 2002 for related arguments).

1.2. The sociohistorical and epistemological background

As documented below, the terms creole and creolization have long been taken to involve sui generis linguistic-structural and cognitive-developmental properties that have no equivalent in the synchrony and diachrony of so-called normal languages.

In my own recent work, I have adopted a language-external, sociohistorical definition of ‘Creole languages’ (also see Mufwene 2000, 2001). This definition is strictly atheoretical: it does not presuppose any operational structural criteria. For me, ‘Creole’ is an ostensive label that, in the Caribbean case for example, points to certain speech varieties that developed between Europeans and Africans during the colonization of the so-called New World. In a related vein, the term ‘creolization’ refers to the sequence of sociohistorical events that led to the formation of these languages known as Creoles.

In uniformitarian fashion, it can be reasonably assumed that the language-learning and language-creating capacities of our human ancestors have generally remained uniform across the species in the past few millennia, notwithstanding (neo-)Darwinian and often race-based approaches to linguistic phylogenesis as surveyed in, for example, [End Page 391] DeGraff 2001a,b. In effect, the structural viability and cultural vibrancy of Creole languages attest to the robustness of the intrinsically human capacity for language—as hypothesized, for example, from Descartes 1637 to Chomsky 2000—even among the psychosocially most adverse conditions.

Yet, the belief that Creoles are structurally inadequate finds reinforcement on the academic front: hypotheses based on Creole exceptionalism are still at the forefront of Creole studies, and Creole exceptionalism is promoted even by some Creole-speaking intellectuals. At the same time, the under- or misutilization of Creole languages in the schools (e.g. in Haiti; see Y. Dejean 1975, 1993, 1997, 2003) is apparently due to, inter alia, the widespread belief that these languages, unlike their European sources, are expressively inadequate because of intrinsic structural deficiencies.1

In the remainder of this essay, I critique exceptionalist trends in Creole studies, with frequent references to my native Haitian Creole (HC). HC emerged from the contact between French and Africans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in colonial Haiti (Saint-Domingue). Its lexicon, among other linguistic modules, is mostly derived from French.

There are at least four reasons for this focus on HC: First, HC speakers constitute the Creolophone community that I am most familiar with, as both creolist and Creolophone. Second, Haitians constitute by far the largest Creole-speaking community, more than eight million strong. Third, HC is perhaps the most and the best studied of all Creoles. HC may well be ‘the best described of French Creole dialects, if not of all Creole languages’ with ‘Haiti . . . becoming the lighthouse of Creoleness [‘le phare de la créolité’]’ (Valdman 1971:202...


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