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The emergence of hybrid grammars: Contact, Language Change and Creation

Friday, January 14, 2011
12:00 AM
4448 East Hall

Enoch O. Aboh, University of Amsterdam Co-sponsored with the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies Morphosyntactic simplicity is commonly assumed to be typical of creole grammars. These are regarded as young but full-fledged languages that developed from pidgins, that is, simplified linguistic systems with a restricted function (e.g., trade) and lacking native speakers. The supposedly creole simplicity is therefore rooted in the creole ancestor: the pidgin. This characterization makes sense in terms of Bickerton’s (1981, 1988) creolization as a backwards process. The received wisdom assumes that, as the number of the African slaves grew and outnumbered that of European colonists, the new comers (i.e., the bosals) had less access to the target language and had to learn from each other restructured varieties of the target. The acquisition of such restructured varieties resulted in a dilution of the target language (i.e., the loss of a great number of lexical and grammatical items) that eventually led to the pidgin: the ground zero of language degeneration (e.g., Bickerton 1988, 1999, McWhorter 2001). Bickerton (1988: 273) further concluded that “Children with no prior language experience but with their native language capacity to guide them will take that same input and make good any deficit between it and a natural language.” The newly created language, however, is “in some elusive sense simpler than […] older languages (Bickerton’s 1988: 274).” This view is embraced by McWhorter (2001) in his article “The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars” and in related studies, where the label creole stands for a cluster of linguistic traits defining a typological class (of simple languages). But what if simplicity as understood in these studies is irrelevant for understanding the genesis of a new language in general and the structures of creoles in particular? In terms of a biological approach to the evolution of language, I suggest that a new language (e.g., a creole, a contact language) may emerge from the recombination of distinctive syntactic features (by analogy to gene recombination in biology) from different varieties or languages into a coherent system representing the speaker’s Internal-language. This hypothesis adheres to Aboh’s (2006, 2007, 2009) view that the agents of change are individual speakers acting on linguistic features anchored in functional categories, the locus of parameters and language variation. Adopting Mufwene’s (2001, 2008) evolutionary approach to language change, and work on competing grammars (Pintzuk 1996, Kroch 1989, 2000), I assume that new languages emerge from a process of competition and selection allowing a recombination of features expressed by functional items. A functional item is regarded as a triplet involving semantics, morphosyntax and phonology.