The other day a friend of mine said that he thought that “creole” was “what they spoke in Louisiana,” and I think that most people in the US probably associate that term with anything and everything Cajun. But there are actually quite a few creoles all over the world. You’ve probably heard the words “pidgin” and “patois” when discussing languages, but sometimes all three of those terms get a bit mixed up, so I thought it would be interesting to explore them here.
Pidgin refers to a system of communication between speakers of two or more languages who come into extended contact with one another. These are simplified languages; they’re sort of a makeshift way of people getting by together. Often these can develop in places where there is trading going on over an extended period of time, or for example during the colonial era when slaves or indentured servants from many different communities were brought into contact with each other. In these contexts people do the best they can to get their point across, but don’t develop the more sophisticated components of language (i.e. grammar, syntax), so we say that a pidgin isn’t a fully-fledged language. (If you’ve ever traveled to a place where you didn’t speak the language and they didn’t speak yours, and you managed to make do with some gestures and very basic words, you know what the beginnings of a pidgin might be like.)
A creole is a fully-fledged language. Unlike pidgins, creoles are learned as first languages by children, and are every bit as complex and developed as any other human language. People who study creoles sometimes refer to “substrates” and “superstrates” – superstrates are the languages that supply most of the material, especially vocabulary, to a creole, while substrates are the other languages that are blended in. For example, Haitian Creole has French as its superstrate and several African languages as its substrates. If you speak French, you might pick up many words in this language, but the two languages are distinct in many important ways. (Louisiana Creole is also French-based.)
The term patois is harder to define, and isn’t so much a technical term for any particular category as it is sort of a catch-all adjective to describe nonstandard languages or dialects. In some instances it can come across as kind of an insult; if you don’t speak the prestige dialect of your country or region, or if you speak a sort of “broken English”, someone might say you speak a patois. But, again, the term isn’t strictly defined, and Jamaicans sometimes refer to their own language as Jamaican patois…when it’s actually a creole.
Many scholars think that creoles are languages that develop naturally among children raised by pidgin-speaking adults. Pidgins suffice for these adults in their adult lives, and work okay for second language contexts, but first-language learners have a natural tendency towards structure and comprehensiveness, so it is believed that these children take the raw material from the simplified language and create a full, natural language.
If you’re interested in learning more, Derek Bickerton is probably the preeminent Creolist working these days. He has a lot of scholarly work out there of course, but for an easy (and wildly entertaining) intro I’d like to recommend a book called Bastard Tongues, which is a memoir/scholarly analysis/travelogue of his fieldwork among the creoles of the world.