Creoles in Costa Rica – the 22nd Biennial SCL Conference

by Marina Merryweather (Queen Mary University of London)

With the generous funding of the Philological Society’s Martin Burr fund, I was able to attend the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, hosted jointly with the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics.

The Society for Caribbean Linguistics, as the name suggests, focuses on the many languages studied around the Caribbean, be it the post-colonial languages of the different islands and coastal regions, or the indigenous languages still prevalent in the parts of Latin America that border the sea. Meanwhile, the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics generally covers all areas of study related to pidgins and creoles, regardless of where they are found. There is, of course, a lot of overlap between the aims of the two societies, given the prevalence of creole languages all around the Caribbean basin; nonetheless, both societies have their own areas that they cover, and there is a lot that differs between them. This was evident in the talks on offer at the conference.

costa rica 3The theme of this conference was “Connecting the Caribbean: Languages, Borders and Identities”. This led to a lot of focus in the talks on concepts such as language policy, language endangerment, and minority languages more generally. For example, there were panels devoted to the discussion of Limonese creole, an English-lexifier creole spoken on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which is closely related to Jamaican creole – and was, indeed, imported by Jamaican migrant workers in the early 20th century. The panels included the launch of a book containing a standardised alphabet for the language, as well as a round-table with local speakers on their attitudes towards it, and how they intended to preserve it as they became more assimilated into the predominantly Hispanophone Costa Rican society. There were also a considerable number of talks on indigenous languages in Central America, and especially Costa Rica. This included a plenary from Prof. Juan Diego Quesada (National University of Costa Rica and University of Costa Rica) on the typology of indigenous languages, and the way that certain typological features could be attributed to three general groups in the northern, central, and southern regions of Central America.

In addition to the panels on Limon creole mentioned above, there were some other creole and creole-adjacent languages that caught my interest at the conference. There was, for example, an entire panel devoted to languages in St Lucia, and particularly the development of a vernacular English, as opposed to both the standard English and the French creole that they speak on the island. Debate is still taking place as to whether this English is a creole, or whether something else is happening, such as relexification of the French creole, or the development of a mixed language. There was also a plenary chaired by Joyce Pereira on the huge advances in Papiamento language policy in Aruba; in a short space of time, it went from being a language entirely shunned by the Dutch government, to the centre of a pilot scheme to become the main language of education in the country.

costa rica 1The research that I was presenting at the conference was also on a creole language, specifically on the variety of Antillean French Creole spoken in Martinique. Literature on this creole, particularly written in English, is limited, but what little has been written suggests that a process known as decreolisation—whereby creole languages evolve to more closely resemble their lexifier languages—is currently underway (Lefebvre, 1974; Bernabé & Confiant, 2002; Bernabé, 2006). My MA thesis investigated whether this was still a process that was taking place. Basing my research on a study done by Vaillant (2009), I conducted a form of matched-guise test to see if certain grammatical features were considered acceptable by participants. These features were not usually considered obligatory in Martinican Creole, but are in French; if the sample sentences without these French features were considered incorrect, this would point to the French standard becoming the norm. These features included the use of a relative pronoun as well as the use of a reflexive construction with verbs typically considered reflexive in French. The results of this study, however, pointed neither one way nor another; one of the features was considered grammatical and the other was not. This pointed to a number of different possibilities, from an argument against decreolisation, to a different theory being needed to explain the changes at hand—such as the concept of interlecte (Prudent 1981)—to there being structural effects at play determining which positions the morphosyntactic features are needed in. The study was small and took place in a very restricted setting, but by bringing it to the conference, I hoped to develop a paper which could inspire future creolists to look further into the language.

costa rica 2

This was just a small flavour of some of the enormous variety of talks I listened to over the five days of the conference, which was the first I have ever attended. Between the people, the cultural events, and the luscious surroundings of Costa Rica, I had an immensely enjoyable week, and learnt a lot. I am grateful to the Philological Society for giving me the opportunity to attend, and hope that I will be able to also make their next conference in Trinidad in 2020!


References
Bernabé, J. (2006). Theoretical and Practical Conditions for the Emergence of a Koine among French-Lexified Creole Languages. In J. Clancy Clements, T. Klingler, D. Piston-Hatlen, & K. Rottet (eds), History, Society and Variation: In honor of Albert Valdman. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V, 163-77.
Bernabé, J., & Confiant, R. (2002). Le Capes de créole: stratégies et enjeux. Hermès, La Revue 1, 211-23.
Lefebvre, C. (1974). Discreteness and the Linguistic Continuum in Martinique. Anthropological Linguistics 16(2), 47-78.
Prudent, L. (1981). Diglossie et interlecte. Langages 15(61), 13-38.
Vaillant, P. (2009). Induction of French structures into Creole grammar. Gießen, Germany. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www-limics.smbh.univ-paris13.fr/membres/vaillant/publis/vaillant-cw09-giessen-slides.pdf


The Philological Society offers numerous bursaries, travel and fieldwork grants to its members; for more information, please visit the PhilSoc website.

 

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