Monday, February 2, 2015

"Just Thinking..." #2: what if some isolates are old creoles?

I was just thinking..
What if some isolates are old creoles? 
If there are really old creoles around, would we not first classify them as isolates? Or as "really weird and simplified members" of their main lexifier's genealogical group? How would we know that they are old creoles if we don't have the sociohistorical context?

I was talking to my friend Abbie Hantgan the other day, she's worked on an isolate language called Bangime [bang1363, dba] and we got to thinking. What if Bangime is an old Dogon lexified creole? What if this is true of more isolates?

Very often we know about the existence of contact languages because we know the socio-historical context of their creation. But that type of knowledge doesn't go back that far, and there is no reason to assume that there weren't contact languages before that. So how do we recognise languages that are old creoles? If we didn't know better perhaps we've been classifying them as isolates, i.e. languages with no living relatives. The oldest creoles we know about today are probably the Portuguese lexified creoles of West Africa (for example Angolar and Cape Verde) that are supposedly from 1500-1550 (Daval-Markussen p.c.).

Bakker, Daval-Markussen, Parkvall and Plag (2011) proposed certain features that are more common in creoles languages, and a huge debate ensued (see this for example). Later Michaelis, Haspelmath and Blasi (2013) also showed that there are significant similarities between contact languages.

Soo... what would happen if we compared isolates + contact languages/creoles with the rest of the languages of the world.. are some isolates really similar to contact languages/creoles.. The ones I can think of on the top of my head do not fit the "profile", but then again I don't know about every language that has been called an isolate.

Perhaps it's just silly and stupid.. but I'd just be neat, wouldn't it? And it's not like it's difficult to test.

How many isolates and contact languages are there again? Just as a reference point:

Bakker, Peter, Aymeric Daval-Markussen, Mikael Parkvall & Ingo Plag. 2011. Creoles are typologically distinct from non-creoles. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 26(1). 5–42. (PDF here Campbell, Lyle (unpublished) Language Isolates and Their History, or, What’s Weird, Anyway? (PDF here)
Hammarström, Harald & Forkel, Robert & Haspelmath, Martin & Nordhoff, Sebastian. (2014) Glottolog 2.3. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2015-02-02.)
Hantgan, Abbie (2010) A Grammar of Bangime (Draft) (PDF here)

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2014. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

Michaelis, Susanne Maria & Maurer, Philippe & Haspelmath, Martin & Huber, Magnus (eds.) 2013. Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2015-02-02.)

Michaelis, Susanne & Martin Haspelmath & Damián Blasi (2013) Grammatical simplicity in a cross-linguistic perspective: APiCS meets WALS}. Presentation at the workshop: Creole and pidgin language structure in cross-linguistic perspective

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