Keynote Speech from  "Ways With Words" Language Conference, Sheffield 1995


Mark Sebba

Department of Linguistics and English Language

Lancaster University

Lancaster LA1 4YT, England



I'll start by saying something about my own background. I am not Caribbean, and not a native speaker of creole. I am a lecturer in Linguistics, and I came to studying creole languages from a purely theoretical linguistic perspective. Most of my early research was on an English-lexicon creole called Sranan, spoken in Surinam. From this I became interested in more practical issues and in creoles spoken in this country. I was involved for three years in the early 1980s in a project investigating the linguistic behaviour of British-born Caribbeans in London. More of this later.


I'll start now explaining what I mean by "creole". In linguistics, creole is a technical term meaning a language which comes into being through contact between two or more languages. What is important in defining a creole is that a new language comes about which was not there before, with some of the characteristics of the original languages, and some new characteristics  of its own. Creoles do not come about through the sort of slow evolutionary processes which have given English, for example, its mixture of vocabulary from Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin and Greek in the course of 1000 years or so. Creoles come into being as new languages almost overnight, and always through some sort of human upheaval which makes it impossible for people to use their own ancestral languages to communicate. We could use a geological analogy here. There are many lakes on the earth's surface. Most of these have come to have their present character through a very slow process of evolution, changing over millions of years. Most languages are like this. But occasionally, a meteorite strikes the earth, leaving a crater which immediately fills up and becomes a new lake. Creole languages are the crater lakes of linguistics. They come into being suddenly, through an upheaval which has social and linguistic consequences.


At this conference, use of the term "Creole" has been questioned. Speakers of individual creole languages have a right to use the individual name of their language (for example, "Patois" or "Patwa" is the popular name for what linguists would call Jamaican Creole). Linguists, as I have said, use "creole" as a generic term. Although some people may find this use of the term "creole" objectionable, and it may perhaps give way to some other term, I would like to point out that historically, the use of the term "creole" represents an acknowledgement of the very existence of the class of creole languages, which was not there before. What is now, as a result of the efforts of linguists, called "Jamaican Creole" would not so long ago have been called just "bad English" or "broken English".


Let me go on to discuss one of the issues I have been asked to raise: Creole, language or dialect? I have just said that a creole is, from a historical point of view, a language of a special type. However, nearly always, most of the words of a creole language derive from just one language (called the "lexifier" because it provides the lexicon, i.e. the vocabulary). The rest of the vocabulary is made up of words from several other languages. The explanation for this is that usually creoles come about through a situation of partial language learning. In the case of the "English-lexicon" creoles, for example, the African slaves were forced into a situation where English - at least, a very much reduced form of English - was the only common means of communication. This accounts for the fact that most of the vocabulary is English in origin. However, many words were also adopted from African languages - especially words for people, things (like plants or animals) and activities (especially religious ones) for which no English word could be found.


The fact that creole languages are "lexically related" to another, older language - English in this case - makes for a problematic relationship between the two. It is easy to claim that the creole language is actually a variety, a dialect, of the lexifier. That is why I want to say that the question "creole: language or dialect" is a political and not a linguistic one. All linguists know the saying: "a language is a dialect with an army". What this means is that there is no systematic linguistic difference between a language and a dialect. Both are linguistic systems with grammar and vocabulary and are or can be learnt natively by their speakers.  But if we go to the dictionary, where we might expect to find the meaning of the word as it is in general use, we find there is a clear notion of a difference between "language" and "dialect": "language" always has connotations of statehood or  nationhood. "Dialect" on the other hand is a "subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or idioms." (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1982), or "a form of a language that is considered inferior." (Collins Concise English Dictionary 1985) or "a peculiar manner of speaking." (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary 1972).


The association of language with a "country" or "nation" and of "dialect" with an inferior or non- (i.e. sub-) standard variety of speech is very strong. This is what is meant by "a language is a dialect with an army." "Language" is associated with nationhood, with centralised power, with statehood - just like national anthems and armies. Historically, dialects were just languages which lay far from the centres of power. If the King and Queen had held court in Sheffield, we could talk condescendingly about Home Counties Dialect. You can see that this is a political or social rather than a linguistic point. It is easy to call French a language because it is associated with France, a powerful European country. But French also was just once a regional "dialect" of a late form of Latin.


Now if we call a creole language a dialect we should be aware of reinforcing the negative associations of inferiority and lack of nationhood. On the other hand, if we call it a language, which from a linguistic point is entirely reasonable, we are attributing to it a status which in most people's eyes it does not have. Similar arguments can be made around other languages spoken in Britain: Bengali and its "dialect" Sylheti, Hindi and its "dialect" Bhojpuri. The English-lexicon Creoles, by which I mean those Creoles which are sometimes considered to be dialects of English, have a special problem, because of the overwhelming power of English as a national and international language. So even though there are several countries in the Caribbean where Creole speakers are a majority, these countries themselves have ambiguous attitudes towards Creole. Even where Creole is recognised as having a role to play in national life, as it was for a short time in Grenada, the effect of this is often to leave Creole where it always was - playing second fiddle in education and politics to Standard English. Hubert Devonish, in his book Language and Liberation, argues that Grenada's "bilingual" policy only reproduced the supremacy of Standard English, by giving it all the important functions, and leaving the "folksy", informal functions to Creole. We have to be sure that calling Creole speakers in Britain "bilingual" does not have the same effect.


I have been using "creole" as a generic term, as if it referred to a single thing. However, we have to remember that there are actually many different creole languages, all over the world. A creole is a language which originates through a particular kind of traumatic language contact, and by this definition, there are creoles on every continent. Although there are a number of English-lexicon creoles which are quite similar to each other, there are still differences, for example between the creole languages of Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad. One which is definitely not similar to these, but still recognisably draws its lexicon from English, is Sranan, spoken in Surinam. A Sranan saying is: Bakrakondre n' abi tifi, ma a beti! "The European's country doesn't have teeth, but it bites!" Only a few words  (like tifi and beti) are recognisable as having their origins in English. My  point is again that "creole" is actually a language type rather than a language.


Let me talk now about the history of creole languages in Britain - just the English-lexicon ones. People who came here from say, Jamaica, St Vincent, Trinidad, Guyana or Grenada spoke, and still do speak in many cases, the creole of their home country with its distinctive grammar and accent. For many of these people, it would be accurate to say that this creole language is their first language, with Standard English, if they speak it, being something they learnt later on, outside the home, usually at school. They may well have been told at the time that what they spoke natively was a broken or "bad" form of Standard English. Nevertheless their distinctive varieties of creole remain a symbol of their origins and a source of solidarity and often pride for them.


The Caribbeans-by-heritage who are now in British schools are mostly the children or grandchildren of the generation I have just talked about. What do they speak? One theoretical possibility would be, that they speak a creole language which is a kind of mixture of all the creole languages spoken by the first generation. If this had happened, it would be an example of a well-documented process which has happened in places of internal migration like Milton Keynes, where a new local variety has emerged through a kind of "levelling" of features from all the different varieties spoken by incomers, producing a genuine "mixture". This might have happened but it did not. What seems to have happened throughout Britain is that British-born Caribbeans, irrespective of where their parents came from, have adopted Jamaican Creole - in a kind of  British-grown variety - as a symbolic language. Note that this means a significant language shift for many speakers - Dominicans, say, whose "mother tongue" would be a French-lexicon Creole. We can also see from this that the creole is not learnt from the parents - at least not from first-generation parents (we don't really know anything about the British-born children of British-born Caribbeans). It is learnt from the peer group and older children, and only really comes into its own in the teenage years, when its symbolic value as a sign of solidarity and (sometimes) rejection of authority is at a maximum.


What this also means is that whereas for the first generation of migrants from the Caribbean, their native Creole language was their symbol of identity, for the generations born in Britain it is the use of both Creole - meaning Jamaican Creole, in its British version - and the local variety of English, which characterises them linguistically and identifies them as "Black British". If we look at this generation, we find they have a wide range of competence in Creole, varying from fluent to very restricted; yet even those who use it very little, do use it, and use it symbolically. Here is an example of a conversation between two girls, recorded in London in 1982,  where you can see that one uses much more Creole than the other.


Underlining = Creole pronunciation or grammar or both

Not underlined = London English

% = /?/ (glottal stop) replacing /t/: typical of London English but not of Jamaican Creole, e.g. par%y [pha:?i] "party"



1          J           did you go to Jackie's par%y?


            C         who Jackie Lomax

            J           yeah

            C         no one never invi%e me

5          J           I heard that she had a really nice par%y an'

                        Cheryl said there was a lo% of boys

                        there (0.6) you know and they (were) playin'

                        pass the parcel an' that

            C         is it?


10        C         she invite you?

            J           no

            C         she never invite me neither an Leonie 'ave one

                        as well never invite never tell me not'in'

                        (0.4) me no business too!

            J           Leonie have party?!

15        C         man (1.0) Leonie have party (0.4) when? (1.2)

                        don' remember when it was but she did tell all o' dem no fi- t say

                        not'in' (0.6) cau' she no

                        wan' too much Cyatford gyal de dere (1.0) an'

                        Jackie 'ave one too (0.4) never say not'in'

20        J           yeah Jackie's one was only meant to - meant to

                        - meant to be for abou% (.) ten gels (0.6) you

                        know, get-togevver part%y sor% of fing (0.2)

                        but I heard that the G-Fours Possee did go 'n'

                        quite a lo% of uvver people did go

25        C         me no business (1.0)



(Adapted from Sebba (1993), pp. 19-20.)


What we see here is one speaker, C, who is using Creole quite fluently and most of the time in this extract, while her conversational partner, J, only starts using it in line 14 and uses it for the second time in line 23. I would say that there is a process of negotiation going on here; J is using enough Creole to show that this is a "Creole" conversation, accommodating to C's choice of language; but J is actually maintaining her own preferred language, London English at the same time.


If we want to call Creole speakers like this "bilingual", we need to be clear that some bilinguals are like J, and use Creole fluently and in long bursts, while others, like C, use it in quite limited ways. Note that I am talking about their active language use and language choice in conversation. We can't really tell from this how well J understands Creole. All we can say is that speakers differ in the extent to which they use Creole, and that this seems to be linked to their fluency in the language. Notice that this is a separate issue from whether Creole is a language or a dialect. If we substitute "bidialectal" for "bilingual" we still have the same situation.


I will say a brief word about my recent research, which is on writing. What interests me is the fact that there are no "official" norms or conventions for writing Creole: it is not standardised. As an example, there are at least four ways of spelling the Creole version of "can't" /kyaan/ in print: cyan, cyaan, kaan, kean, and four variant spellings of /ina/, "in": inna, ina, eena, een.


As more and more Creole is being written and published in Britain, individual writers are having to decide for themselves how to write and spell Creole. This is the situation English was in about 500 years ago, when printing became available. I am trying to document the process currently going on in Creole writing of all kinds - from the most trivial to the most serious - to see if, over time, conventions emerge for written Creole in Britain.


One consequence of writing Creole in the sort of modified English spelling that most writers use, is that Creole thus appears to be a dialect of English. This could be seen as either a negative or a positive thing. Certainly some linguists are strongly in favour of Creole having its own spelling system completely separate from that of English. Such a system does exist and is used in Cassidy and Le Page's Dictionary of Jamaican English and a few other academic works, but so far, nowhere else.


I would like to suggest that a realistic educational approach to Creole must start by raising the level of awareness of what creole languages are, how they came into being, who speaks them and what their relationship is to other languages - for example, English and the languages of West Africa. I don't feel there is a need to use the word "dialect" in such a discussion at all. I would, in fact, concentrate on the differences between Creole languages and English more than on the similarities, because it is in these differences that we can see the divergent histories of English and Creole. If some students have difficulties identifying which is which - which I think may be a problem in some cases, but I'm not sure how common it is - this will help them to decide. I am strongly in favour of education about Creole, and certainly not just for Creole speakers. Education in Creole is another issue and one where the situation in Britain is very different from that in the West Indies. I don't want to discuss that issue now. What I feel would be most helpful for Creole speakers in Britain is to acknowledge their language and show it respect by treating as a language - systematic, describable, with its own dictionaries and grammars already in existence, and its own literature. This, I feel, is a realistic goal which would be good for non-Creole speakers - because they will become more aware of the linguistic environment; for fluent Creole speakers, because it values their language and helps them understand their history; and for non-fluent Creole speakers, because it may help them to maintain their Creole if that is what they want to do.




Cassidy, F.G. and Le Page, R.B. (1967/1980) Dictionary of Jamaican English. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Devonish, H. (1986a) Language and Liberation: Creole language politics in the Caribbean. London, Karia Press.


Sebba, M. (1993) London Jamaican: language systems in interaction. London, Longman.



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