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Grammars are robustly transmitted even during the emergence of creole languages

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 1pages723729 (2017) | Download Citation


Most languages of the world are taken to result from a combination of a vertical transmission process from older to younger generations of speakers or signers and (mostly) gradual changes that accumulate over time. In contrast, creole languages emerge within a few generations out of highly multilingual societies in situations where no common first language is available for communication (as, for instance, in plantations related to the Atlantic slave trade). Strikingly, creoles share a number of linguistic features (the ‘creole profile’), which is at odds with the striking linguistic diversity displayed by non-creole languages1,2,3,4. These common features have been explained as reflecting a hardwired default state of the possible grammars that can be learned by humans1, as straightforward solutions to cope with the pressure for efficient and successful communication5 or as the byproduct of an impoverished transmission process6. Despite their differences, these proposals agree that creoles emerge from a very limited and basic communication system (a pidgin) that only later in time develops the characteristics of a natural language, potentially by innovating linguistic structure. Here we analyse 48 creole languages and 111 non-creole languages from all continents and conclude that the similarities (and differences) between creoles can be explained by genealogical and contact processes7,8, as with non-creole languages, with the difference that creoles have more than one language in their ancestry. While a creole profile can be detected statistically, this stems from an over-representation of Western European and West African languages in their context of emergence. Our findings call into question the existence of a pidgin stage in creole development and of creole-specific innovations. In general, given their extreme conditions of emergence, they lend support to the idea that language learning and transmission are remarkably resilient processes.

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We thank J. Good, A. Daval-Markussen and P. Bakker for useful comments and discussions. The support of the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant 670985, Grammatical Universals) is acknowledged. No funders had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Department of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zürich, Plattenstrasse 54, 8032, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Damián E. Blasi
  2. Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Kahlaische Str. 10, 07745, Jena, Germany

    • Damián E. Blasi
    • , Susanne Maria Michaelis
    •  & Martin Haspelmath
  3. Department of English Studies, Leipzig University, Nikolaistrasse 8-10, 04109, Leipzig, Germany

    • Susanne Maria Michaelis
    •  & Martin Haspelmath


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All authors designed the research. D.E.B. designed and conducted the statistical analyses. S.M.M. and M.H. curated the data used for the analyses. D.E.B. and S.M.M. drafted the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the final version of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Damián E. Blasi.

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