The ancient Greek historian Herodotus records the story
of Psamtik I, pharaoh of Egypt in the seventh century B.C., who set out to
discover the original language of humanity. On royal decree two infants were
taken away from their parents and put in the care of a mute shepherd, who
was instructed to raise the children in isolation from other people. The shepherd
was to take note of the first word uttered by the children; "uncorrupted"
by the language of their forefathers, Psamtik reasoned they would begin to
speak in the pure tongue from which all other languages were derived. The
first intelligible sound the children made was "bekos," which meant bread
in the ancient language Phrygian. Therefore, Psamtik maintained, the original
language of humanity is Phrygian.
The story has amused generations of linguistics students. Most linguists,
who have taken it for granted that no such experiment should ever be carried
out, have dismissed the Psamtik experiment as being defective in design and
unlikely to yield any useful result. Indeed, the assumption that an “original”
vocabulary can be recovered is overoptimistic, and linguistic isolation of
the individual, which has been documented in a few cases of severe child abuse,
usually results in the absence of language. Nevertheless, a modified form
of the experiment has been repeated many times over the past 500 years among
the children of slaves and laborers who were pressed into service by the
European colonial powers.
These laborers, who were shipped from many parts of the world to tend and
harvest crops in Africa, the Indian Ocean region, the Orient, the Caribbean
and Hawaii, were obliged to communicate within their polyglot community by
means of the rudimentary speech system called pidgin. Pidgin speech is extremely
impoverished in syntax and vocabulary, but for the children born into the
colonial community it was the only common language available. From these modest
beginnings new native languages evolved among the children, which are generically
called creole languages. It can be shown that they exhibit the complexity,
nuance and expressive power universally found in the more established languages
of the world.
Taken at face value, the development of many different creole languages
suggests that the search for a single, original language is misguided. For
many years, however, scholars have noted a remarkable similarity of structure
among all the creole languages. It can now be demonstrated, by considering
the origin of creole language in Hawaii, that similarities among creoles
cannot be accounted for by contact with other languages, either indigenous
or imported. The finding suggests that what is common to creole languages
may indeed form the basis of the acquisition of language by children everywhere.
There is now an impressive body of evidence to support this hypothesis: between
the ages of two and four the child born into a community of linguistically
competent adults speaks a variety of language whose structure bears a deep
resemblance to the structure of creole languages. Hence, by an ironic stroke
of justice, the surviving linguistic remnants of colonialism may offer indispensable
keys to the study of our own linguistic heritage.
The historical conditions that favored the development of creole languages
are well known. Between 1500 and 1900 England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal
Spain established numerous labor-intensive, agricultural economies on isolated
littorals and underpopulated tropical islands throughout the world (see Figure
5.1). The colonies were engaged primarily in monoculture, usually sugar, and
their economic viability depended on an abundance of cheap labor imported
from distant regions under conditions of chattel slavery. Workers were drawn
first from West Africa and later from East Africa, India and the Orient, and
they spoke a variety of mutually incomprehensible languages.
Under more salutary conditions of immigration the workers
or their children would eventually have learned the language of the local
colonial power, but two factors combined to keep them from doing so. First,
the number of speakers of the colonial languages rarely exceeded 20 percent
of the total population, and it was often less than 10 percent. In other words,
there were relatively few people from whom the dominant language could have
been learned. Second, the colonial societies were small, autocratic and frigidly
stratified. There were few chances for prolonged linguistic contact between
field laborers and speakers of the dominant language.
Except in Hawaii, there is little reliable documentary evidence concerning
the early linguistic history of the colonial societies. It has generally been
assumed that pidgin developed as a contact language solely to allow communication
between masters and workers and among workers from various immigrant groups.
Creole languages then arose among the children of the workers through the
"expansion" of pidgin; there was little occasion for the children to use
the ancestral languages of their parents, and they still lacked access to
the language of the dominant culture. What is meant by the term "expansion"
has remained obscure until my colleagues and I began our studies in Hawaii.
The unique advantage for the study of creole language in Hawaii is that
the details of its formation can be reconstructed at least in part from the
speech of people, still living. Although Hawaiian contact with Europeans
goes back to 1778, it was not until 1876 that a revision in the U.S. tariff
laws, allowing the free importation of Hawaiian sugar, enabled Hawaiian sugar
plantations to increase their output by several hundred percent. A polygot
force of indentured laborers, made up of Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans,
Portuguese, Puerto Ricans and Others, began to be assembled, and by 1900
it out- numbered the other groups in Hawaii, both native and European, by
a ratio of two to one. (see Figure 5.2)
A pidgin based on the Polynesian languages Hawaiian initially
served as a means of communication between immigrants and the locally born,
but the annexation of Hawaii by the U.S. in 1898 eventually led to the replacement
of Hawaiian by English. After 1900 the Hawaiian language declined, and pidgin
Hawaiian was replaced as a lingua franca by a pidgin based on English. By
the time we began our intensive study of language variation in Hawaii in
the early 1970's there were still many survivors, both immigrants and locally
born, from the years 1900 until 1920.
Our recordings of locally born people make it clear that the process of
creolization was under way by 1900 and was certainly complete by 1920. Most
of the linguistic features that characterize Hawaiian Creole English are
present in the speech of working-class people born in Hawaii since 1905;
before that date the proportion of Creole speakers to the rest of the population
falls off rapidly. On the other hand, the speech of immigrants is always
some form of pidgin, although just what form it takes depends on the date
of the immigrant's arrival in Hawaii as well as the immigrant's language
background. The pidgin spoken by the earliest immigrants among our subjects
is much more rudimentary than that spoken by the later ones, probably because
the latter were exposed to Creole as well as pidgin. Nevertheless, the distinction
between pidgin and Creole remains fundamental: anyone familiar with Hawaii
can quickly identify the ethnic origins of any immigrant on the basis of
speech patterns alone. Without a conversational topic or a person’s
physical appearance as a guide, however, no one can reliably identify the
ethnic origins of any locally born speaker solely on the basis of the speaker’s
pronunciation or the grammatical structure of the utterances.
One of the main characteristics of pidgin, therefore, is its variability
from speaker to speaker. Each immigrant seems to have gone about the task
of inventing a makeshift language in some individual way. For example, pidgin
speakers of Japanese ancestry generally place the verb at the end of a sentence,
as in "The poor people all potato eat" ("All that the poor people ate were
potatoes"). Filipino pidgin, however, places the verb before the subject:
“Work hard these people" ("These people work hard"). More often word order
follows no fixed principle except the pragmatic one that old, shared information
is stated near the beginning of a sentence and new information near the end.
It is probably the case that anything expressible in Creole, or in English
for that matter, can also be expressed in pidgin. Nevertheless, the pidgin
speaker is at a great disadvantage, because pidgin lacks many of the building
blocks possessed by all native languages. Such everyday necessities of language
as articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs are either absent or appear
sporadically in a quite unpredictable fashion. Pidgin sentences have no subordinate
clauses, and single-clause utterances frequently lack verbs (see Figure 5.3).
|HAWAIIAN CREOLE ENGLISH
|Building - high place - wall part - time - now-time
-and then - now temperature every
time give you.
|Get one [There is an] electric sign high up
on da wall of da building show you what time an temperature get [it is]
|Now days, ah, inside, washi clothes machine get,
no? Before time, ah, no more, see? And then pipe no more, water pipe no more.
|Those days bin get [there were] no more washing machine,
no more pipe water like get [there is] inside house nowadays, ah?
|No, the men, ah-pau [finished] work - they go, make
garden. Plant this, ah, cabbage, like that. Plant potato, like that. And
then-all that one-all right, sit down. Make lilly bit story.
|When work pau [is finished] da guys they stay go
make [are going to make] garden for plant potato an cabbage an after little
while they go sit down talk story ["shoot the breeze"].
|Good, this one, Kaukau [food] any kind this one.
Pilipin island no good. No more money.
|Hawaii more better than Philipines, over here get
[there is] plenty kaukau [food], over there no can, bra [brother], you no
more money for buy kaukau [food], 'a'swhy [that's why].
Figure 5.3 PIDGIN AND CREOLE versions of identical sentences
illustrate the structural differences between pidgin and Creole in Hawaii.
Pidgin, which is spoken only by immigrants, varies widely from speaker to
speaker and its structure is extremely rudimentary. Pidgin sentences are
little more than strings of nouns, verbs and adjectives, often arranged to
place old, shared information first and new information later in the sentence.
Creole arose in Hawaii only among the children of immigrants, and it is much
richer in grammatical structure than pidgin. More- over, the rules of Creole
grammar are uniform from speaker to speaker, and they resemble the structural
rules of other creoles. English versions of words and phrases are given in
The first of the following examples was recorded from a pidgin-speaking
Korean; omitted words are bracketed in the translation: "And a too much children,
small children, house money pay" ("And [I had] too many children, small children,
[I had] to pay the rent"). The second example was recorded from a Japanese
speaker: "Before mill no more Filipino no nothing" ("Before the mill [was
built, there were] no Filipinos here at all"). The third example, recorded
from the speech of a retired bus driver, illustrates the heroic measures needed
to say anything out of the ordinary in pidgin: "Sometimes good road get,
sometime, all same bend get, enguru [angle] get, no? Any kind same. All same
human life, all same" ("Sometimes there's a good road, sometimes there's,
like, bends, comers, right? Everything's like that. Human life's just like
The language-learning task confronted by the child born into a community
of such speakers is far different from the task imposed on the child who is
surrounded by linguistically competent adults. The children of English or
Chinese parents, for example, are presented with accurate models to follow.
Although their mistakes are seldom overtly corrected, they can almost constantly
check their own utterances against those of older speakers and adapt them
where necessary. When they have mastered the simpler structures of their language,
more complex structures are readily available.
For the Hawaiian-born child of immigrant parents, however, there was no
consistent linguistic model for the basic word order of simple sentences
and often no model at all for the more complicated structures of language.
Many such children were born of interethnic or interracial marriages, and
so even at home there was little occasion to speak the native language of
either parent. Moreover, even among the children not born of linguistically
mixed parents there was considerable incentive to abandon the parents' native
language and adopt some version of pidgin in the company of peers and neighboring
adults. Like first-generation immigrant children elsewhere, the children
of Hawaiian immigrants often became bilingual or even trilingual, and they
adopted the common language of their peers as a native language in spite
of considerable efforts by their parents to maintain the ancestral tongue.
The historical evidence is consistent with the view that the structure of
Creole arose without significant borrowing from other languages. Bilingual
or trilingual children of school age need not (and usually do not) mix up
the structural features of the languages they speak, and there is no reason
to support such crossovers were common in Hawaii. The most compelling argument
for the autonomous emergence of Creole, however, is its observed uniformity.
How, within a single generation, did such a consistent and uniform language
develop out of the linguistic free-for-all that was pidgin in Hawaii? Even
if all the children of various immigrant groups had begun by learning the
languages of their parents, and even if the differences among the various
pidgins had been smoothed by interaction and contact among the children, the
homogeneity of the language that developed remains in need of explanation.
Fifty years of contact among pidgin-speaking adults were not enough to erase
the differences among the national language groups; the homogeneity must have
resulted from the differences between children and adults.
One might still suppose the structural uniformity of Creole is derived from
certain structures of one of the ancestral languages or perhaps from certain
structures of English, the language of the plantation owners. There are numerous
differences, however, between the structure of Creole and the structure of
any of the languages with which Creole speakers might have been in contact
(see Figure 5.4). In English, for example, it is possible to refer to an object
or a group of objects in a nonspecific way, but English grammar forces the
speaker to state in advance whether the number of unspecified objects is
one or many, singular or plural. One must say either "I am going to the store
to buy a shirt" or "I am going to the store to buy shirts," even though one
may not want to commit oneself in advance to buying any particular number
In Creole a grammatically neutral marker for number can be employed on the
noun "shirt" in order to avoid specifying number: "I stay go da store for
buy shirt" ("I am going to the store to buy shirt"). Moreover, in Creole the
addition of a definite or an indefinite article to "shirt" changes the meaning
of the sentence. In saying "I stay go da store for buy one shirt" the Creole
speaker asserts the shirt is a specific one; in the sentence "I stay go da
store for buy da shirt" the speaker further presupposes that the listener
is already familiar with the shirt the speaker is going to buy.
There are many other features of Creole that distinguish it from English.
Whereas in English there is a past tense, which is usually marked with the
suffix “-ed,” in Creole there is a tense called the anterior tense, which
is marked with "bin" for older speakers and with "wen" for younger speakers.
The anterior tense is somewhat like the English past perfect: "had walked"
in English is "bin walk" in Creole, and "walked" in English is simply "walk"
in Creole. In order to distinguish irreal, or possible, actions or processes
from actual ones, English employs the conditional or the future tense. In
Creole all such irreal circumstances are expressed by the particle "go," which
is placed before the main verb and marks what linguists call modality. For
example, the sentence "If I had a car, I would drive home" is rendered in
Creole as "If I bin get car, I go drive home."
There is also a Creole auxiliary verb that marks what linguists call aspect;
it too is placed before the main verb and indicates that the action expressed
by the verb is nonpunctual, or in other words repeated, habitual, continuing
or incomplete. In order to say "I run in Kapiolani Park every evening" in
Creole one must say "I stay run in Kapiolani Park every evening." If the particle
"stay" is omitted by the Creole speaker, the action is understood to be completed
|Hawaaian Creole English
|The two of us had a hard time raising dogs.
|Us two bin get hard time raising dog.
|John and his friends are stealing the food.
|John-them stay cockroach the kaukau.
|He doesn't want to play because he's lazy.
|He lazy, 'a'swhy he no like play.
|It would have been better if I'd gone to Honolulu
to buy it.
|More better I bin go Honolulu for buy om.
|The one falls first is the loser.
|Who go down first is loser.
|The man who was going to lay the vinyl had quoted
me a price.
|The guy gon' lay the vinyl bin quote me price
|There was a woman who had three daughters.
|Bin get one wahine she get three daughter.
|She can't go because she hasn't any money.
|She no can go, she no more money, 'a'sway.
Figure 5.4 STRUCTURAL DIFFERENCES between sentences
in Hawaiian Creole and their English equivalents show that the grammar of
Creole did not originate as a grammar borrowed from English. There are also
relatively insignificant lexical differences between the two languages: "cockroach"
is picturesquely employed as a verb, and "kaukau," which may be derived from
the Chinese pidgin term "chowchow," is a common word for "food." equally
striking structural differences are found between Hawaiian Creole and other
languages, such as Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish
or the Philippine languages, with which speakers of Hawaiian Creole might
have been in contact.
In English there is no straightforward way to distinguish purposes that
have been accomplished from those that have not. The sentence "John went
to Honolulu to see Mary" does not specify whether or not John actually saw
Mary. In Creole grammar the ambiguity must be resolved. If John saw Mary
and the Creole speaker knows that John saw Mary, the speaker must say, "John
bin go Honolulu to see Mary." If John did not see Mary or if the speaker
does not know whether or not John saw Mary, the speaker must say, "John bin
go Honolulu for see Mary."
Similar distinctions could be drawn between the grammatical structure of
Creole and the structure of other contact languages, such as Hawaiian, Iiocano
(the language spoken in the north of the Philippine island of Luzon) and Japanese.
There are also resemblances, but most of them are confined to idiomatic expressions.
For example, the Creole expression “O the pretty," which means "How pretty
he [she/it] is," is a literal translation of the Hawaiian- language idiom
"I ka nani." In the main, however, our investigations strongly suggest that
the basic structures of Creole differ from those of other languages. Although
it might seem that some children of immigrants could transfer the structures
of their parents’ native language onto the evolving Creole language, they
did not do so. The structural linguistic input that was available to the
children was apparently not used in the development of Creole.
Even if it could be demonstrated that all the grammatical structures of
Creole were borrowed, cafeteria-style, from one contact language or another,
the uniformity of Creole would present a difficult question: How did the
speakers who invented Creole come to agree on which structure to borrow from
which language? Without such agreement Creole could not be as uniform as
it is. Yet it seems highly implausible that the agreement could have been
reached so quickly. If there had been massive borrowing from ancestral languages,
differences in the version of Creole spoken by various groups would have persisted
at least one generation beyond the first generation of speakers.
There is another dimension to the problem of the uniformity of Hawaiian
Creole. It turns out that creole languages throughout the world exhibit the
same uniformity and even the same grammatical structures that are observed
in Hawaii. The finding is all the more remarkable when it is compared with
the rather poor correspondence in structure I have noted between Hawaiian
Creole and other contact languages in Hawaii. For example, the distinction
made in Hawaiian Creole between singular, plural, and neutral number is also
made in all other creole languages. Similarly, in all other creole languages
there are three invariant particles that act as auxiliary verbs and play
the roles that "bin," "go" and "stay" play in Hawaiian Creole (see Figure
("He walked:; He loves")
("He had walked"; "He loved")
("He will/would walk"; "He will/would love")
("He is/was walking")
|Anterior + Irreal
("He would have walked"; He would have loved")
|Anterior + Nonpunctual
("He was/had been walking')
|Irreal + Nonpunctual
("He will/would be walking")
|Anterior + Irreal + Nonpunctual
("He would have been walking")
Figure 5.5 CONJUGATION OF THE VERB is similar in all
creole languages, in spite of superficial lexical differences. Stative verbs
are verbs such as "like," "want" and "love," which cannot form the nonpunctual
aspect; in English, for example, one cannot add "-ing" to a finite stative
In Haitian Creole, for example, the word "te" marks the anterior tense of
the verb, the word "av(a)" marks irreal modahty and the word "ap" marks the
aspect of the verb as nonpunctual. Thus in Haitian Creole the phrase "I have
been walking" is rendered "m [I] t'ap [te + ap] mache." Similarly, in Sranan,
an English-based creole found in Surinam (formerly Netherlands Guiana), the
anterior tense marker is "ben," the irreal modality marker is "sa" and the
nonpunctual aspect marker is "e." The phrase "He would have been walking"
is rendered "A [he] ben sa e waka." Most important, there is strict order
that must be followed in all creole languages when more than one of these
markers is present in a sentence. The particle for tenses precedes the particle
for modality, and the particle for modality precedes the particle for aspect.
Finally, consider the grammatical distinction I have noted between purposes
accomplished and unaccomphshed. The same distinction, absent in English, is
found in all creoles. In Mauritian Creole, a creole based on the French vocabulary
that is used on the island of Mauritius, a sentence such as "He decided to
eat meat" can be expressed in two ways. If the subject of the sentence carried
out his decision, the sentence is rendered "Li ti desid al maz lavian," which
literally means "he decided go eat meat." If the decision was not carried
out, the sentence is rendered as "Li ti desid pu maz lavian," or literally
"He decided for eat meat." In Jamaican Creole the sentence "He went to wash"
must be rendered either as "Im gaan fi bied" ("He went with the intention
of washing") or as "Im gaan go bied" ("He went to wash and completed the
These examples only suggest the extent of the structural similarities among
creole languages. The similarities seem unaffected by the wide geographic
dispersion of the creoles and the variation among the languages such as Dutch,
English and French from which they draw the greatest part of their vocabulary.
Scholars such as Hugo Schuchardt began to point out the resemblance in the
19th century, and in the 1960's many examples were explored in detail by Douglas
Taylor, by Robert Wallace Thompson of the University of the West Indies and
by Keith Whinnom of the University of Exeter. Thus even before the development
of Hawaiian Creole was reasonably well understood the grammatical similarities
among the creole languages of the world were recognized as an important finding
that required explanation.
The linguist's first reaction to such a finding is to look for a common
ancestor of the similar languages. For example, it has been conjectured that
the linguistic ancestor was a contact language that grew out of Portuguese
and certain West African languages in the course of the first Portuguese
explorations of Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. According to the hypothesis,
this contact language was subsequently spread around the world by Portuguese
sailors, changing its vocabulary but not its syntax or semantics as it entered
the sphere of influence of another colonial power. Superficially such an
explanation might seem to be consistent with the development of Creole in
Hawaii, because Portuguese laborers were brought to the islands in large
numbers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There are several serious flaws in the account. First, Hawaiian Creole bears
scant resemblance to any of the contact languages, including Portuguese. Second,
the claims of linguistic similarity between creoles and Portuguese or between
creoles and West African languages are grossly exaggerated.
|HE BIN WALK
|LI TE MACHE
|A BEN WAKA
|HE BIN LOVE
|LI TE REME
|A BEN LOBI
|HE GO WALK
|A SA WAKA
|HE GO LOVE
|A SA LOBI
|HE STAY WALK
|A E WAKA
|HE BIN GO WALK
|LI T'AV(A) MACHE
|A BEN SA WAKA
|HE BIN GO LOVE
|LI T'AV(A) REME
|A BEN SA LOBI
|HE BIN STAY WAL
|LI T'AP MACHE
|A BEN E WAKA
|HE GO STAY WALK
|L'AV AP MACHE
|A SA E WAKS
|HE BIN GO STAY WALK
|LI T'AV AP MACHE
|A BEN SA WAKA
base form of the verb refers to the present for stative
verbs and to the past for nonstative verbs. The anterior tense is roughly
equivalent to the English past tense for stative verbs and to the English
past perfect tense for noninvasive verbs. The irreal mode includes the English
future, conditional and subjunctive. In all the creole languages the anterior
particle precedes the irreal particle, and the irreal particle precedes the
nonpunctual particle. In Hawaiian, Creole, however, "He bin go walk" has
come to mean "He walked" instead of "He would have walked."
Most important, our study of hundreds of Hawaiian speakers has made it clear
that Hawaiian Creole almost certainly originated in Hawaii. We found no surviving
immigrant who speaks anything approximating a creole language; instead every
immigrant we surveyed speaks some variety of pidgin. If Hawaiian Creole was
primarily an important language, it would have been carried by immigrants,
and presumably it would have been learned by others among the immigrant population.
One must therefore conclude that Hawaiian Creole arose among the children
of immigrants, where it is now found. Moreover, if a creole language, could
develop in Hawaii without ancestry, it can arise anywhere else in a similar
The implications of these findings are far-reaching. Because the grammatical
structures of creole languages are more similar to one another than they are
to the structure of any other language, it is reasonable to suppose most if
not all creoles were invented by the children of pidgin-speaking immigrants.
Moreover, since creoles must have been invented in isolation, it is likely
that some general ability, common to all people, is responsible for the linguistic
similarities (see Figure 5.6).
|Where I can put it?
|Where I can put om? (Hawaii)
|Daddy throw the nother rock.
|Daddy t'row one neda rock'tone. (Jamaica)
|I go full Angela bucket.
|I go full Angela bucket. (Guyana)
|Lookit a boy play ball.
|Luku one boy a play ball. (Jamaica)
|Nobody don't like me.
|Nobody no like me. (Guyana)
|I no like do that.
|I no like do that. (Hawaii)
|Johnny big more than me.
|Johnny big more than me. (Jamaica)
|Let Daddy get pen write it.
|Make Daddy get pen write am. (Guyana)
|I more better than Johnny.
|I more better than Johnny. (Hawaii)
Figure 5.6 SENTENCES SPOKEN BY CHILDREN
between two and four years old, all born of English-speaking parents, are
strikingly similar to sentences in English-based creole languages. The similarities
among creole languages and the likelihood that the language arose independently
of one another suggest that creoles develop among children whenever there
is no adequate native language to serve as a model. The author conjectures
that if children were removed from their native English-language community
at the age of about two, they would grow up speaking a language whose vocabulary
would be primarily English but whose grammar would be creole.
The suggestion that people are biologically predisposed to use language
is not a new one: for more than two decades Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology has argued that there is an innate universal grammar
underlying all human languages. The universal grammar is postulated largely
on the grounds that only by its means could children acquire a system as enormously
complex as a human language in the short time they do. Studies by the late
Eric H. Lenneberg tend to confirm Chomsky's hypothesis. The acquisition of
language resembles the acquisition of other complex and flexible aspects of
the child's behavior, such as walking, which are undoubtedly controlled to
some degree by neurophysiological development. The universal grammar conjectured
by Chomsky is a computing device, somehow realized neurologically, that it
makes a wide range of grammatical models available to the child. According
to Chomsky, the child must then "select" which of the available grammatical
models matches the grammar of the language into which the child is born.
The evidence from creole languages suggests that first-language acquisition
is mediated by an innate device of a rather different kind. Instead of making
a range of grammatical models available, the device provides the child with
a single and fairly specific grammatical model. It was only in pidgin-speaking
communities, where there was no grammatical model that could compete with
the child's innate grammar, that the innate grammatical model was not eventually
suppressed. The innate grammar was then clothed in whatever vocabulary was
locally available and gave rise to the creole languages heard today.
The implications of this hypothesis call into question an idea that most
linguists, including Chomsky, have tacitly accepted for many years, namely
that no one of the world's languages is easier or harder for the child to
acquire than any other. If there is a creole grammar somehow imprinted in
the mind, creole languages should be easier to ac- quire than other languages.
How is it, then, that not all children grow up speaking a creole language?
The answer is they do their best to do just that. People around them, however,
persist in speaking English or French or some other language, and so the child
must modify the grammar of the native creole until it conforms to that of
the local language.
Two kinds of linguistic evidence are relevant for testing the hypothesis.
First, if some grammatical structure of creole is at variance with the corresponding
grammatical structure of the local language, one should find that children
make systematic errors with respect to the structure of the local language.
On the other hand, if the two grammatical structures tend to agree, one should
find extremely early, rapid and errorless acquisition of the local-language
Consider the systematic error observed by David McNeill of the University
of Michigan in the speech of a four-year-old boy. In one of McNeill's observing
sessions the boy complained, "Nobody don't like me," and the boy's mother
responded by correcting the sentence: "Nobody likes me." The boy then repeated
his sentence and the mother repeated her correction no fewer than eight times.
Finally, the child altered his sentence and shouted in exasperation, "Nobody
don't likes me."
The error is found in many English-speaking children between three and a
half and four years old, including children who are not exposed to dialects
of English that employ double negatives. There are many languages, such as
French and Spanish, that also employ double negatives, but the only languages
that allow negative subjects with negative verbs are creoles. For example,
in Papia Kristag & the Portuguese-based creole language of the Malay Peninsula,
one can say, "Angkosa nte mersimentu, or literally, "Nothing not-have value."
In Guyaneg Creole, which is based on English and found in Guyana (formerly
British Guiana), one can say, "Non dag na bait non kyat," or literally, “No
dog did not bite no cat."
A second instance of systematic error is the formation of children's questions.
Children learning English of ten indicate questions only by their intonation;
the subject and the auxiliary verb are almost never reversed. For example,
children repeatedly say things such as "You can fix this?” even though they
have heard countless questions such as "Can you fix this?" Similarly, no creole
language distinguishes questions and statements on the basis of word order;
the difference is marked by intonation alone.
Consider the sentence “A gon full Angela bucket.” Although such a sentence
is unacceptable in English, it is perfectly acceptable in Hawaiian Creole,
Guyanese Creole or any of several other creoles related to English. It is
synonymous with the sentence "I'm going to fill Angela's bucket," but it differs
from the structure of the English sentence in the following ways. First,
the first-person pronoun "I" is reduced to "A"; second, the auxiliary verb
"am" is omitted; third, the forms "go," or "gon" are used to mark the future
tense; fourth, the word "to" in the infinite is omitted; fifth, the adjective
"full" is employed as if it were a transitive verb, and sixth, the possessive
marker "-'s" is omitted. All these features are characteristics of creoles,
but this sentence was not uttered by a creole speaker. It was spoken by the
three-year-old daughter of an English-speaking linguist.
When a feature of the local language matches the structure of creole, children
avoid making errors that would otherwise seem quite natural. For example,
children learning English acquire the suffix "-ing," which expresses duration,
at a very early age. Even before the age of two many children say things such
as "I sitting high chair," where the verb expresses a continuing action. One
would expect that as soon as the suffix was acquired it would be applied to
every possible verb, just as the suffix "-s" that marks the English plural
is frequently overgeneralized to nouns such as "foot" and "sheep."
One would therefore expect children to utter ungrammatical sentences such
as "I liking Mommy" and "I wanting candy." Remarkably, such errors are almost
never heard. Children seem to know implicitly that English verbs such as "like"
and "want," which are called stative verbs, cannot be marked by the suffix
"-ing" to indicate duration. The distinction between stative and nonstative
verbs is fundamental to creole languages, however, and no marker of continuing
action can be employed with a stative verb in creoles either.
The distinction between specific and nonspecific reference, which I had
already discussed, is an important feature of creole languages. In English
the distinction can be subtle, but young children nonetheless acquire it
with ease. Michael P. Maratsos of the University of Minnesota constructed
a series of sentences for children to complete, for which the completions
depended on the distinction between specific and nonspecific reference. For
example, the sentence "John has never read a book," which makes nonspecific
reference to the noun "book," can be completed by the phrase "and he never
will read a book"; it cannot be completed by the phrase "and he never will
read the book." Similarly, the sentence "John read a book yesterday," in
which a specific book is presupposed, can be completed by the phrase "and
he enjoyed the book"; it cannot be completed by the phrase "and he enjoyed
a book." Children as young as three years were able to make such distinctions
correctly about 90 percent of the time.
Many more studies of language acquisition will have to be carried out before
the structure of creole languages can be firmly accepted as the basis of first-language
acquisition. Daniel Isaac Slobin of the University of California at Berkeley
has suggested that there is a set of processes children apply to any language
they hear, which he calls basic child grammar. Slobin's most recent work,
which is not yet published, cites evidence from several languages for the
hypothesis, and it now appears that basic child grammar and creole languages
may have much in common.
If creole languages represent the manifestation of a neurologically determined
program of child development, then Psamtik was by no means the fool he has
been taken for. It may be possible to discover, at least in general outline,
the structure of human language in the early stages of its development. Moreover,
in attempting to reconstruct such a language linguists may be able to answer
questions the pharaoh did not even ask: How did the human language originate?
What are the minimum prerequisites for such a thing as language to arise in
a species? If such questions can be answered or even formulated in a precise
and coherent way, we shall be much closer to understanding what makes the
human species different from others.