In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Caribbean Creole Languages

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals and Publication Series
  • African Lexis in Creole Languages
  • The Origins of the Suriname Creole Languages
  • African Origins in the Non-English Creole-Speaking Caribbean
  • Affinities among English-Lexifier Creoles of the Caribbean
  • Role of Demographics and Structure of Plantation Society
  • West African Pidgins and Creoles
  • Early English Jamaica
  • Early Negerhollands Texts and the Social Structure of Plantation Society

Atlantic History Caribbean Creole Languages
Silvia Kouwenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0104


The intersection of the fields of Atlantic history and creole studies lies first and foremost in their shared interest in the origins of the African and African-descended populations who created the cultures and languages of the Caribbean. For students of Caribbean creoles who hope to reconstruct the sociohistorical context of the emergence of these languages, it is important that the perspective taken be “historically realistic.” This entails reliance on research carried out by historians, but also, frequently, independent and innovative historical research by linguists. From the point of view of students of Atlantic history, linguistic findings may fill gaps in historical knowledge—gaps with regard to the ethnic origins of the early African enslaved populations of plantation societies and their movements within the region, and especially with regard to the impact that particular ethnolinguistic groups of enslaved Africans had in the formation of creole languages and cultures. Additional interest may be found in the discussions among creolists on the rapidity of stabilization of creole languages—an issue that has ramifications for our views of the rate of emergence of creole cultures more generally—and the relation between stabilization and demographic factors such as sex ratio, the rate of population renewal, and the number of children in the population, as well as factors pertaining to the nature of the plantation crops, plantation size, specialization within the enslaved work force, and so on. Finally, research on the historical text corpora available for some Caribbean creoles has yielded evidence for the existence of social and/or ethnic variation within creole languages, with implications for the way we view the social structure of plantation societies. The entries that follow focus on the historical component in creolist work and/or their ramifications for our understanding of Atlantic history.

Reference Resources

Debates in the field of creole language studies have, from the outset, made links between linguistic facts and the processes of emergence of these languages. More recently, the sociohistorical context of emergence has begun to figure prominently in the discussions. Textbooks such as Arends, et al. 1995 and Holm 1988–1989 contain scattered references to sociohistory in chapters on different views of creole genesis and in chapters on specific creole languages. The more recently published Thomason 2001 and Winford 2003 consider creole language emergence in the larger context of language contact studies, and Kouwenberg and Singler 2008 contains several chapters of (socio)historical interest. Many of the contributions to Schneider 2008 provide sociohistorical background discussions to the overviews contained in the volume. Meijer and Muysken 1977 focuses on the 19th-century early creolists Hugo Schuchardt and D. C. Hesseling, arguing that their work should be interpreted in the historical context of their time.

  • Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken, and Norval Smith, eds. Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction. Creole Language Library 15. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995.

    This edited collection is divided into four parts: “General Aspects,” “Theories of Genesis,” “Sketches of Individual Languages,” and “Grammatical Features.” A chapter on sociohistory is included under “General Aspects.” The chapters on theories of creole genesis also frequently touch on sociohistorical factors. The chapters on individual languages and on grammatical features focus on the structural properties of creoles and related languages.

  • Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988–1989.

    Holm’s volume 1, Theory and Structure, republished in 2000 as Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles with only minor updates, includes a historical overview of the field, and a survey of the linguistic features ascribed to pidgin and creole languages. Volume 2, Reference Survey, provides a good deal of historical background to the pidgins and creoles surveyed there, the main influences in their emergence, brief descriptions of salient features, and short texts.

  • Kouwenberg, Silvia, and John Victor Singler, eds. Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444305982

    This collection includes chapters on the demographic, sociohistorical, and cultural context of creole genesis. Also of interest are the chapter that surveys pidgins and creoles of non-Indo-European lexical stock, and chapters that assess, from different angles, the place of pidgin and creole studies in historical linguistics and contact studies, and discuss issues of the relatedness of pidgins and creoles to their source languages.

  • Meijer, Guus, and Pieter Muysken. “On the Beginnings of Pidgin and Creole Studies: Schuchardt and Hesseling.” In Pidgin and Creole Linguistics. Edited by Albert Valdman, 21–45. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

    Meijer and Muysken consider the historical context of creolist work of the late-19th- and early-20th-century linguists Hugo Schuchardt and D. C. Hesseling and their contemporaries, whose insights on creole languages and views of creole genesis presage the modern debates.

  • Schneider, Edgar W., ed. Varieties of English. Vol. 2, The Americas and the Caribbean. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008.

    The main emphasis in the contributions to this volume is on aspects of the grammars of varieties ranging from African American Vernacular English to Jamaican Creole. Nevertheless, chapters on individual varieties provide some (socio)historical background as well.

  • Thomason, Sarah Grey. Language Contact: An Introduction. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001.

    Both Thomason and Winford 2003 survey a wide variety of historical and modern situations of language contact, relating the linguistic outcomes—from borrowing to structural diffusion to creole language emergence—to the social context of language contact.

  • Winford, Donald. An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    Both Winford and Thomason 2001 survey a wide variety of historical and modern situations of language contact, relating the linguistic outcomes—from borrowing to structural diffusion to creole language emergence—to the social context of language contact.

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