Creole languages have a long history of being stigmatized. The stigma usually has roots in a place’s colonial past, where creole languages developed in response to two or more mutually incomprehensible languages coming into contact. Europeans brought their languages to people who had spoken a local language long before the European colonists arrived in their midst, and the mixed creole language that emerged became the common language people used to communicate. Later, when Europeans traveling abroad could not understand the creole, they wrongly assumed the local people they’d enslaved long ago had corrupted their language.

LSA linguist Marlyse Baptista not only asserts that creole languages are fully developed languages themselves, governed by the same universal principles seen in other natural languages, she also believes they hold valuable insights about how humans create new languages.

There are probably more than 100 creoles around the world today, and the older ones are products of the transatlantic slave trade.  Among them is Cape Verdean Kriolu, a mixture of African languages and Portuguese, spoken in Cape Verdean islands, a remote 10-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, off the northwest coast of Africa. Cape Verde is home to 450,000 people, many of them descendants of African slaves and Portuguese settlers who began arriving on the archipelago in 1461.

The Cape Verdean language, Kriolu, is one of the world’s oldest creoles, and it has put Baptista in a race against time.

Baptista, whose parents are from Cape Verde, has spent the past two decades building a large corpus of speech data that includes all the different dialects of Kriolu spoken on each of the archipelago’s islands. Each dialect is distinct in its sounds, its vocabularies, and its syntax, and each dialect also reflects the islands’ different settlement histories.  For centuries the dialects were largely unchanged because they were isolated from the outside world. But now it is easy to travel, thanks to daily inter-island flights and reliable ferries, and wifi has connected the islands within the archipelago to the broader world at large. And all of this change, arriving so quickly, will likely change the linguistic landscape. As more people travel between the islands, Baptista says, the distinctive features of each dialect are bound to evolve from contact with the other dialects.  Baptista is racing to capture snapshots of each dialect now before it’s altered by the massive wave of changes.

Join Hands, Join Forces

Baptista herself learned Kriolu in Senegal, where her parents emigrated before her birth. When she was six, the family moved again, to France, and Baptista learned French in school. One day in middle-school, during a discussion of French sounds, Baptista asked about a typical Cape Verdean phoneme. Her teacher explained that the phoneme didn’t exist in French.

Baptista realized as a 12-year old child that what she spoke at home had a different sound system from what she spoke at school. “That was the moment,” she laughs, “that doomed me to become a linguist.”

Besides documenting Kriolu, Baptista has co-organized community workshops to not only promote the use of ALUPEC, a system for writing Kriolu, but to also make it official.  She is also a vocal supporter of making Kriolu an official language in Cape Verde, along with Portuguese. Even though Kriolu is spoken by “100 percent” of Cape Verdeans in Cape Verde, it is not recognized by the country’s constitution, nor is it used in public schools as a language of instruction. Baptista views the use of creole in education as a linguistic and human right and has written on the topic with collaborators Inês Brito and Saídu Bangura who are also Cape Verdean linguists.

Her favorite Kriolu phrase is Djunta Mon, which means “join hands, join forces.” It reflects Cape Verde’s essential sense of community and solidarity, Baptista explains. It could also describe Baptista herself, a  scholar who has joined hands with many in her efforts to teach the world about the importance and richness of creoles, resilient and dignified languages that have a few lessons to teach us about what makes us human.




A Shared Pursuit

The research LSA linguist Marlyse Baptista is doing on her own and with others sheds light not only on linguistics, but on a broad range of human activities and experience, from migration to cognitive processes to health.

With Kenneth Kollman and Alton Worthington of LSA’s Department of Political Science, and Jinho Baik of LSA’s Department of Mathematics, Baptista has turned her attention toward Haiti too. She is using computational models and 18th-century Haitian texts to help show how Haitian creole, a mix of French and African languages, evolved. Haitian creole underwent much variation in the 18th and 19th centuries—especially after the 1804 Haitian revolution, and the subsequent expulsion of the country’s French colonizers—before it stabilized into the creole Haitians speak today. “The kind of sudden demographic change that happened in Haiti is not irrelevant to things that are happening in our modern world,” says Kollman.

In another collaboration, Baptista is working with LSA psychologist (and former dean) Susan Gelman and U-M students Erica Beck, Rawan Bonais, Danielle Labotka, and Emily Sabo to understand the cognitive process of language convergence. Using artificial languages, the researchers are trying to show how new languages are built using linguistic properties common to two or more distinct languages. Language, says Gelman, is “one key to what makes us human, and so to understand how that process takes place, then we know something more about how the human brain works, and what makes human language so distinct from other communication systems in other species.”

With an international team of geneticists, Baptista is seeking to identify the original populations and source languages that contributed to the linguistic and genetic origins of Cape Verdean Kriolu. The team includes Paul Verdu of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris; Ethan Jewett of the University of California, Berkeley; Trevor Pemberton of the University of Manitoba; and Stanford University’s Noah Rosenberg, formerly an LSA and U-M Medical School faculty member. Baptista and her colleagues are finding that people’s distinctive linguistic properties are passed down from parent to offspring in much the same way that genetic traits are passed down. This research, says Rosenberg, can shed light not just on Kriolu but on the history of human migrations, the genetic basis of adaptations, and the genes that contribute to disease.

With linguists Samuel Epstein, of LSA’s Department of Linguistics, and Miki Obata of the Tokyo University of Science, Baptista is using tools from syntactic theory to analyze specific features of creole languages.