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The most publicized and by a 1979 federal court decree vested with a veneer of being a cogent and authentic theory, on the origin and historical development of African American speech, is the Pidgin/Creole Hypothesis. The linguists and social scientists who hold this view are commonly called Creolist. In their view, writes William Stewart (1971:351) "The American Negro dialects probably derived from a creolized form of English once spoken on American plantations by Negro slaves and seemingly related to Creolized forms of English, which are still spoken by Negroes in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean..."
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THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT
OF
AFRICAN AMERICAN LANGUAGE:
THE PIDGIN CREOLE HYPOTHESIS
BY
ERNIE A. SMITH PH.D.
The most publicized and by a 1979 federal court decree vested with
a veneer of being a cogent and authentic theory, on the origin and
historical development of African American speech, is the
Pidgin/Creole Hypothesis. The linguists and social scientists who
hold this view are commonly called Creolist. In their view,
writes William Stewart (1971:351)
"The American Negro dialects probably derived from a
creolized form of English once spoken on American
plantations by Negro slaves and seemingly related to
Creolized forms of English, which are still spoken by
Negroes in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean..."
The Pidgin/Creolists contend that, by systematically comparing,
contrasting, and tracing certain similarities in the phonological,
morpho-syntactical, and semanto-lexemic features (sound, word
formation and word meanings) in existing Creole dialects in West
Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, one can observe a
quite evident high degree of commonality in the speech patterns of
these communities. According to the Pidgin/Creolists, the
similarity and commonality in these dialects is evidence of a
"genetic kinship" that exists in their underlying deep structures.
They posit that, although it is obscured by certain surface
modifications, the deep structure of contemporary African American
speech is akin to and can be traced to the English language
continuum. (see Bailey, 1969; Dalby, 1972; DeCamp, 1969; Dillard
1972; Key, 1973; Taylor, 1969.)
The Pidgin/Creolists contend that with the exception of a few
vocabulary items, here and there, there are no African elements in
Black American speech at all. In their view, from the very
inception of the colonial era contacts made between the Niger-

Congo African and the European people the hybrid vernaculars which
emerged, for trading and other transactions between them, were the
unique linguistic inventions and creations of the Europeans.
The Pidgin/Creolists posit that, when European and West African
languages first converged, what developed initially on the West
Coast of Africa was a mixed or hybrid contact vernacular called
"pidgin"(1). In Pidgin/Creole linguistics it is held that, by
1 Pidgin: "refers to a language which has no native speakers. It
thus exists only as a lingua franca. When the pidgin becomes the
only language of a speech community, it then becomes a creole.
(Dillard, 1972:303)
virtue of the fact that all pidgin dialects emerged as contact
vernaculars, expressly to facilitate communication, as primarily a
trading or transactional hybrid vernacular, these mixed African
and European pidgin dialects were essentially lingua francas(2).
As Robert Hall states, (1962:152)
"A pidgin normally owes its origin to relatively casual,
short-term contact between groups which do not have a
language in common...a pidgin can arise on occasion,
even in the space of only a few hours - whenever an
emergency situation calls for communication on a minimal
level of comprehension" (see DeCamp p. 20 in Dell Hymes
1 9 7 7 )
In pidgin/creole linguistic theory, actually any language that
facilitates communication, between two people who cannot speak
each others native language, is a lingua franca. On this basis
the Pidgin/Creolists posit that all "pidgins" are lingua francas.
They caution however that, while all pidgins are lingua francas,
not all lingua francas are pidgins. This is because, as is often
the case, a third completely autonomous language that is shared or
spoken in common can be utilized for such purposes. All
Pidgin/Creolists view the worlds pidgin and creole dialects as
being European
2 Lingua Franca: "..a language used for purposes of wider
communication, especially in a group when the native language of
no member of the group will suffice. If a Puerto Rican, a German,

Israeli, and an Icelander speak to each other in English, then
English is being used as a lingua franca. The Mediterranean
lingua franca known as Sabir was an outstanding example of such a
language. A lingua franca which has no native speakers (like
Sabir, but unlike English) is a PIDGIN (q.v.) (Dillard 1972:302)
inventions. However, on the issue of origins and kinship, i.e.,
the genesis and familial affinity of pidgin and creole dialects,
Pidgin/Creolists are divided into to two camps, those who posit a
"polygenetic" view, and those who posit a "monogenetic" view.
The Pidgin/Creolists who posit the polygenetic view are those who
view the world's pidgin and creole dialects as having been created
by the European colonials who settled in the African, Asian,
Caribbean and Latin American diaspora wherein each pidgin emerged.
Their contention is that, in the beginning, as primarily a lingua
franca, used for trading interactions, in the Portuguese colonies
there emerged a Portuguese Pidgin. In the Spanish colonies there
emerged a Spanish Pidgin, and in the Dutch, French and English
colonies a Dutch, French, and English Pidgin emerged,
respectively.
The polygenesists contend that, as time passed and the slave trade
flourished on the West coast of Africa, in the Caribbean, and in
the colonial North and South American diaspora, many slave
descendants were born on plantations, and in other colonial
European social environments, in which these transactional lingua
francas or plantation pidgin dialects were acquired as their
native languages or mother tongues. The Pidgin/Creolists posit
that, over time, in the new world colonies or diaspora, the pidgin
vernaculars that were initially created on the West coast of
Africa for trading and other transactions, became the principle
vehicle for communication between the captive Africans and their
European slave-masters.
According to the polygenesists, being born in captivity and
exposed only to a plantation pidgin dialect, when African slaves
acquired these hybrid contact vernaculars, as their primary
language or mother tongues, the slaves and the hybrid dialects
they acquired were distinguished as being Creoles(3). Thus, in
the Portuguese colonies, Portuguese Pidgin became Portuguese
Creole. In Spanish colonies, Spanish Pidgin became Spanish

Creole. In Dutch, French and English colonies, Dutch Pidgin,
French Pidgin and English Pidgin became Dutch Creole, French
Creole and English Creole, respectively. As stated above, not all
Pidgin/Creolists subscribe
3 Creole: The term creole (from the Portuguese crioulo, via
Spanish and French) originally meant a white man of European
descent born and raised in a tropical or semi-tropical colony.
Only later was the meaning extended to include indigenous natives
and others of non-European origin, e.g. African slaves...Most
creoles, like most pidgins, are European based, i.e., each has
derived most of its vocabulary from one or more European languages
(DeCamp, 1977:15) "In linguistic usage, refers to a language
which was a PIDGIN (q.v.) at an earlier historical stage, but
which became the only (or principal) language of a speech
community. The best known creoles are Haitian (French) Creole and
Sranan Tongo of Surinam. There are related creole languages in
West Africa and in the Pacific. (Dillard, 1972:300)
to the theory that each of the new world "pidgin", "creole"
dialects were the language specific creations of each colonial
European speech community wherein they emerged. Emphasizing the
tremendous similarities that exists among the Caribbean creoles
and the parallel features that exists in the creoles of the South
Pacific and the Far East, many Pidgin/Creolists reject the
"polygenetic" theory given above. They contend that European and
non-Indo-European linguistic convergence and hybridization did not
begin in the colonial era. The hisorical fact is there were Indo-
European contacts with non Indo-European people at a much earlier
period. In light of this historical fact these Pidgin/Creolists
contend that linguistic hybridization had to have occured when the
earlier or first sustained contact was made between European and
non-European people. Therefore, instead of a "poly-genesis" they
posit a "monogenesis" or single language origin of all pidgin and
creole dialects.
Basically the proponents of the monogenetic view contend that all
pidgin/creoles have a common ancestor from which all pidgin and
creole dialects have been formed. But then, not all proponents of
the monogenetic view agree on the issue of which Indo-European

language the proto-pidgin dialect was based. According to David
DeCamp (1977:22)
"During the 1950's several scholars became increasingly
dissatisfied with the polygenetic theories. In 1951
Navarro Tomas argued that Papiamento was not an
indigenous Caribbean blend of Portuguese and/or Spanish
with African elements, but rather had its origin in the
Portuguese used as a trade jargon in West Africa during
the slave trade. He was by no means the first to point
to the key importance of Portuguese in the history of
pidgin-creole. Schuchardt had stressed the role of
Portuguese, and Hesselings had seen it as the origin of
Afrikaans and Negerhollands".
As shown here, some of the supporters of the monogenetic view
posit a Portuguese based pidgin as being the "proto" or first
colonial trade lingua franca. They argue that the historical
record verifies that, before the colonial era, the Portuguese were
the first to engage in international trade along the West and East
coasts of Africa and on into India and China. On this basis they
contend that, the European language upon which all pidgins are
based is Portuguese. Still others, Whinnom for example,
(1965:553-7) posited Sabir, a much earlier developed lingua franca
of the Mediterranean, as being the proto-pidgin upon which all new
world or colonial pidgin/creoles are based.
The Pidgin/Creolists who are proponents of the view that Sabir is
the proto-pidgin from which all new world European pidgin/creoles
are derived base their contention on the fact that, as a lingua
franca, Sabir can be traced as far back as the Crusades. They
contend that, contrary to the widely held belief that Sabir was a
dead language, or dying out, by the time of the later European
colonization of Africa, India and Asia, in fact, as recent as 1909
Hugo Schuchardt found Sabir to be still very much alive (See "Die
Lingua franca" Zeitschrift fur romanische Philologie 33:441-61).
In the pidgin/creolist literature one of the first things that one
will discern is that, unlike the comparative linguists who study
Indo-European languages and use continuity in the deep structure
or rules of grammar (phonology, morphology and morpho-syntax) as
their criteria for positing genetic kinship, most Pidgin/Creolists

seem to be completely oblivious to or have an aversion to this
criteria when classifying the languages with which they deal. As
opposed to continuity in the rules of phonology, morphology and
morpho-syntax, (grammar) most Pidgin/Creolists use as their
criteria or basis for positing genetic kinship, the etymology of
the dominant lexicon.
Although not a majority there are however, some Pidgin/Creolists
who very strictly adhere to the criteria of continuity in the deep
structure or underlying rules of grammar as their basis for
positing genetic kinship. In the case of African American speech,
these "structuralists" Pidgin/Creolists contend that, there is no
provable African content in the underlying deep structure or
grammar of African American speech. The structuralists contend
that English is not only the parent of the dominant lexicon in
African American speech, the grammar rules that underlie the deep
phonology, morphology and syntax of Black American speech are
likewise English based. The structuralists Pidgin/Creolists
contend that the grammar of Black English is a survival of archaic
Indo-European linguistic forms, i.e., old English, Middle English
and Early Modern English grammar. They contend that if there are
any African elements in the speech of African Americans, they are
not linguistic retentions made by any Africans. They are
"borrowings" made by Europeans from the African tongues, and
introduced into the pidgin dialects the Europeans invented and
taught to the African slaves.
In contrast to the structuralists who deny the existence of a non
Indo-European phonology, morphology and syntax in the substratum
of pidgin/creole dialects throughout the world, there are those
Pidgin/Creolists who do not use grammar as their criteria (see
Romaine 1994). These Pidgin/Creolists are basically
"etymologist". Their focus being the origin and root meanings of
words, it is the etymologists who are honest enough to admit to
the existence of a non Indo-European phonology, morphology and
syntax in the substratum of the worlds pidgin and creole dialects.
The essential difference is that, in the case of African American
speech, the etymologists Pidgin/Creolists use as their criteria
for positng familial kinship, the base or etymology of the
dominant lexicon. The etymologist contend that the empirical

evidence is irrefutable. Etymologically, the dominant lexicon in
African American speech is English and based on this criteria, the
language family to which African American speech belongs and is a
dialect of - is English.
This use of continuity in the rules of grammar when classifying
Indo-European languages (even those known to be hybrids) but the
etymology of the dominant lexicon, when classifying languages that
are European and African hybrids, is clearly not consistent. If
Indo-European languages are classified genetically according to
their rules of grammar, but when classifying Indo-European and
African language, pidgins and creoles the criteria for positing
genetic kinship changes to the family or etymology of the dominant
lexifier, this prompts the question, why is the same criteria not
used? For, it is one thing to deny that there is any provable
African content in the deep structure or grammar rules of African
American speech, it is another to use a totally different criteria
as a basis for positing genetic kinship and then making such an
allegation.
When we critically examine the pidgin/creolists literature the
answer to the question of why a different criteria is used for
positing genetic kinship in pidgin/creole languages, as opposed to
Indo-European languages, is made very clear. The short answer is,
to reify the myth of "white supremacy". That is, all
Pidgin/Creolists essentially believe that, globally, whenever and
wherever there has been contact between European and non-European
people, in the linguistic blending or assimilation of European and
non-European languages, the entire hybridization or pidginization
process was solely a function of the European's linguistic acumen.
This being the case, all of the worlds pidgin and creole dialects
are European language based. The inference is that, being
innately superior to the Africans and all people of color, the
Europeans and their languages were, in all respects, dominant.
In the pidgin/creolists literature we find that, because of their
essentially white supremacists bent, there are no Pidgin/Creolists
who posit African American speech as being the linguistic
continuity of Africa in Black America. Instead, what we find is a
uniform depiction of the antebellum contacts between Europeans and

African people as being contacts in which, Africans were primitive
and docile savages who, not having the capacity for fully human
thoughts, had not developed a fully human language or
communication system of their own. The impression is given that
Africans had only the rudiments of a language to start with.
Therefore, the "scant baggage" of feral grunts that the Africans
possessed most certainly could not have been the grammatical or
the lexical base upon which the pidgin dialects were developed.
When Pidgin/Creolists are asked to describe the process by which
the pidgin English dialect was invented and the method by which it
was taught to the African slaves, the most popular description put
forth is the "baby talk" theory. The essence of this theory is
that, initially, the African slaves had no competence in the
European languages to which they were exposed, what so ever. This
being the case, in order to communicate with their African vassals
it was incumbent upon the European slave-masters to devise a
communication system. The Pidgin/Creolists contend that this was
done by Europeans having "mutilated" or greatly "simplified" their
speech. This, mutilated speech is depicted as being a form of
speech comparable to that used by adults when they talk to
"babies". It is this, "baby talk", a simplified, corrupt or
mutilated form of English, that was taught to the African slaves,
who then adopted it and made it their native tongue. This is the
view that was held and explicitly put forth by Professor George
Phillip Krapp of Columbia University. Even though he conceded
that, there was no evidence to support his "baby talk" hypothesis
Krapp was one of the first to posit the condition of dominance and
subordination as being very significant in the creation of the
English based plantation pidgin/creole dialects. Inferring that
Africans were docile tabula rasa or "blank slates" upon which the
Europeans imprinted their infantile like linguistic creations, in
his work "The English of the Negro" (1924) Krapp describes the
assimilation process as follows:
The assimilation of the language of the Negroes to the
whites did not take place all at once. Though the
historical evidence is not as full as might be wished,
the stages can be followed with some certainty. When
the Negroes were first brought to America they could
have known no English. Their usefulness as servants

however, required that some kind of communication
between master and slave be developed. There is little
likelihood that any of the masters exerted themselves to
understand the native language of the Negroes in order
to communicate with them. On the contrary, from the
beginning the white overlords addressed themselves in
English to their Black vassals. It is not difficult to
imagine what kind of English this would be. It would be
a very much simplified English - the kind of English
some people employ when they talk to babies".
Although, the postulation that the pidginization process occurred
as a function of "master to slave 'baby-talk'" is a theory that
has widespread acceptance, the view that the European based
pidgin/creoles were the result of "baby-talk" is not accepted as
valid by all pidgin/creolists. For example, David DeCamp writes;
(1977:19)
"The baby-talk theory is easily refuted. First, all the
early accounts (dating from the eighteenth century in
Jamaica, for example) report that the white planters and
their families were learning the creole from the slaves,
not vice versa (Cassidy 1961:21-3). Furthermore, if
each European had indeed improvised his own variety of
baby-talk to communicate with his servants and slaves,
how could one explain the fact that all dialects of
creole French, including those in the Indian Ocean, are
mutually intelligible?"
As shown here the "baby-talk" thesis is refuted on two grounds.
First, by the fact that contrary to the claim that it was the
Europeans who invented and taught their pidgin dialects to the
slaves, the historical record reveals that it was actually the
slaves who taught their plantation hybrid dialects to the
Europeans. Second, and what is even more incongruent in the "baby
talk" thesis, is the unanswered to this day question. How is it
that, in the mutilation of their autochthonous or superstrate
European languages to invent a pidgin, all antebellum planters
improvised by making the very same mutilations or deviations?
While the description of the hybridization or pidginization

process via "baby talk", given above, is at least crudely
rational, the depiction provided by others are not nearly as
ambitious. In the minds of all white supremacists, Africa is a
land of wild beasts and untamed savages. Therefore, in the main,
the view held and put forth by most Pidgin/Creolists is that,
during the era of colonialism and antebellum slavery, Niger-Congo
Africans had not yet evolved linguistically beyond a primative
signaling system of primal grunts, to convey messages associated
with the environment, such as danger, feeding, nesting, and
flocking, etc. and a few more complex babblings to stake out
territory and attract mates".
This view is typified by the writings of Ambrose E. Gonzales.
While he did not explicitly characterize Africans as being savages
or feral beasts, clearly a Latino of the white supremacists ilk,
in his work "Black Border" Gonzales belittles Africans as being
biophysically unequipped to speak European languages. He states;
(1922:10)
"Slovenly and careless of speech, these Gullahs seized
upon the peasant English used by some of the early
settlers and by the white servants of the wealthier
colonists, wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well
as they could, and, enriched with certain expressive
African words, it issued through their flat noses and
thick lips as so workable a form of speech that it was
gradually adopted by the other slaves and became in time
the accepted Negro speech of the lower districts of
South Carolina and Georgia. The words are of course not
African, for the African brought over or retained only a
few words of his jungle tongue, and even these few are
by no means authenticated as part of the original scant
baggage of the Negro slaves".
Actually Gonzales's view that the physiogamy or oropharyngeal
anatomy of African people is not suited for speaking European
languages merely apes a similar slur made earlier by another white
supremacists Latino, the French writer, Rene Payen-Bellisle. In
his work Sons et Formes du Creoles dans les Antilles Payen-
Bellisle writes; (1894:22)
"In order to understand the absence in French Creole

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