Rethinking decreolization: Language contact and change in Louisiana Creole

Change log

All languages change. Creoles are no exception. However, do creoles change in the same ways as other languages? Research on language change in creoles has hinged on the notion of decreolization: apparently a ‘special case’ of contact-induced change whereby the creole adverges to the lexifier (Bickerton 1980). Decreolization has been characterized as ‘an insecure notion: insufficiently distinguished from ordinary change processes, possibly conceptually incoherent, and certainly not adequately supported by diachronic investigations to date’ (Patrick 1999:19, see also Aceto 1999, Russell 2015, Siegel 2010). This study tests whether decreolization can truly be distinguished from ‘ordinary’ change processes in non-creole languages and, crucially, brings diachronic corpus data to bear on this major gap in our understanding of language contact, change and creoles.

These data are drawn from Louisiana Creole, a critically endangered and under-researched French-lexifier creole. Louisiana Creole is particularly well-suited to a study of decreolization: over the course of its life, it has been in contact with its lexifier (French) and a more distantly related language (English). This allows a comparative study of the outcomes of contact between the creole and its lexifier (i.e. Louisiana Creole-French contact) and a dominant language which is not its lexifier (i.e. Louisiana Creole-English contact). Further, different varieties of Louisiana Creole have had differing levels of contact over their history: the variety spoken along the Bayou Teche is typically described as heavily decreolized as a result of contact with French as well as being heavily influenced by English (Neumann 1985a); the variety spoken along the Mississippi river, from which the former variety developed, has had relatively less contact with French (Klingler 2003a). Additionally, this thesis demonstrates that Louisiana’s long history of racial segregation has significantly impacted the sociolinguistic dynamics in the region, with LC undergoing differing levels of contact with French on either side of the Jim Crow divide.

Data on the morphosyntactic, phonological and lexical consequences of language contact are drawn from a purpose-built diachronic corpus containing 19th-century folklore texts, 20th-century language documentation materials as well as a transcribed subsample of some 50 hours of sociolinguistic interviews conducted in early 2017. In addition, a corpus of Facebook data is used analyze the language of the burgeoning online language revitalization community.

Ultimately, this thesis finds that contact-induced change in Louisiana Creole does not proceed in a creole-specific fashion. It is therefore argued that language contact and change in creole languages is better characterized through existing theoretical frameworks and not through the creole-specific notion of decreolization. The intention of this thesis is not to dismiss decades of work on decreolization; rather, this thesis demonstrates that work on decreolization can be integrated into a non-creole-specific account of language contact, variation and change and so contribute to our understanding of the universal factors which modulate these phenomena.

Jones, Mari
language contact, language change, creole languages, decreolization, Louisiana Creole, sociolinguistics, endangered languages, language revitalization, linguistic ecology, Louisiana, historical sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Research funded by a AHRC DTP doctoral studentship.