New Worlds: Dialects, Pidgins, and Creoles

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Last week we talked about languages as if they’re distinct, clear-cut things.

That is very, very far from the truth.

Even in settings where there are multiple languages, though, you rarely get any variation within those languages. At best there’s a passing mention of characters having a regional accents, which rarely if ever pose any significant obstacle to comprehension. Within a given species, ethnic group, or nation, there’s just the one tongue that everybody shares.

And that looks plausible to us in part because of how the modern world works. (Also because in much of the Anglophone world it’s far easier to believe that having only one language in common use is the natural state of a country. Talk to somebody from, say, India, and you’ll get a very different perspective.) Mass media has done a huge amount to homogenize language, sanding down accents and driving minority tongues out of use entirely. Go back in time, and you’ll find a much more complex patchwork.

Or just look more closely at the current state of the world — because there’s more patchwork than you may think. Take France as an example: people in France speak French, right? . . . well, sort of. Even now, there are minority languages indigenous to the lands within their current borders, such as Alsatian, Breton, Corsican, and Basque. Those are all non-Gallic — respectively Germanic, Celtic, Italo-Dalmatian, and a peculiar isolate — but when you dig further into the Gallo-Romance options, things get interesting.

“What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? A language has an army and a navy.” That old saw is a tongue-in-cheek (but not entirely wrong) answer to the linguistic question of where to draw the line between those two categories. “French” as we think of it today is the language originally spoken in the region around Paris, and it is visibly different from (but not unrelated to) some of the competitors it wound up dominating. The Languedoc region of France is literally the place of the langue d’oc — or to phrase it the way the locals would, the lenga d’òc — i.e. the language in which the word for “yes” is òc instead of oui. Or, for that matter, instead of oïl . . . because while standard French technically belongs to the langues d’oïl, the spelling shows you there’s variation even at that level. There are or were over a dozen langues d’oïl in France, slightly fewer langues d’oc, some Franco-Provençal languages, and a few more in other categories.

Languages — or dialects. It’s a bit like trying to decide where species boundaries lie in biology, except the question is how mutually comprehensible they are. The answer can potentially lie anywhere along an unbroken spectrum. There’s even a concept in linguistics called asymmetric intelligibility, which describes a situation where speakers of Language A can more or less understand Language B, but speakers of B have a harder time understanding A. I’m told this applies between Swedish and Danish: Danes can parse Swedish without too much trouble, but Swedes have more difficulty with Danish.

This applies even more when you look at dialects within a language. The “prestige dialect” of any given tongue is sometimes called the acrolect, in contrast with the basilect or lowest-prestige form (sometimes with mesolects in between). Speakers of the basilect usually do better at understanding the acrolect than the other way around — especially under conditions of mass communication, where the acrolect generally dominates. Even without things like newspapers, radio, TV, and the internet, though, you can still get that asymmetric split: the more a society’s upper class forms a closed society of its own, the more they’ll have their own mode of speech, which may become all but unintelligible to the masses (and vice versa). Commoners who regularly interact with elites wind up having to serve as interpreters, because the nobleman can no longer understand the peasant who’s just accosted him on the road.

Assuming, of course, that the nobleman isn’t literally speaking a different language — which he may be, if the elite are foreign outsiders or acculturated to a foreign culture. But interesting things happen when two languages collide like that . . . or rather two interesting things, which are pidgins and creoles.

Pidgins first. These are highly simplified tongues that may borrow from two or more parent languages, producing something stripped of the complicated grammatical features and massive lexicons that make communication difficult. You see them a lot in trade contexts, where you mostly need words for the goods being traded and key activities like buying and selling, and they can partly be visual-manual (sign language), relying on physical cues like pointing or mime to supply context for the limited spoken vocabulary. The key thing about a pidgin is that it isn’t a full language — you can only use it to talk about a narrow range of things — and nobody speaks it as their native language: it’s entirely a skill you pick up so as to communicate with people outside your own speech community.

Creoles, by contrast, are full languages, and people do grow up speaking them natively. They generally seem to arise out of pidgins, and therefore share with them the tendency to simplify things: whereas the parent languages may have irregular verbs, for example, a creole is likely to standardize their conjugation. (English itself can potentially be viewed as a very old creole: it’s lost many of the inflectional complexities common to Germanic languages and acquired a large body of Romance-derived vocabulary, thanks to collisions first with other Germanic speakers, then with the Norman French.)

But we almost never see this kind of thing in novels. While exceptions do exist, authors are mostly content to say that Languages A, B, C, and D are spoken in their setting, with no weird variants of A and B (some of which look more like C), no communities of people speaking an interesting hybrid of B and D. You don’t even really see much code-switching, with characters shifting between languages in a single conversation and even a single sentence — even though that’s incredibly common among multilingual people.

To be honest, that lack isn’t entirely surprising. Fantasy and science fiction are already throwing a lot of unfamiliar concepts and terms at the reader; complicating that further by having them aleshti pu connat in the middle of a sentence is only going to make things harder. The only pervasive code-switching I recall encountering on the page involves novels set in the real world, where the author is using a language the reader might be expected to know.

Still, there’s room to do more with linguistic variation. Nobles who spend most of their time at the capital might genuinely not be able to understand what the peasants on their estates are saying; characters traveling to a different region might encounter a dialect that poses more than cosmetic difficulties for communication, even though theoretically it’s the same language. And even if you don’t represent a pidgin or a creole directly on the page, you can note when someone switches into or out of it, possibly changing the style of their dialogue to reflect the difference.

We’ll get to the mechanics of that in this month’s theory essay. Before we get there, though, I want to take a look at something I mentioned in passing above, which is that “visual-manual” mode of communication. Next week, let’s talk about sign languages!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Dialects, Pidgins, and Creoles — 8 Comments

  1. >except the question is how mutually comprehensible they are.
    yep, thats the species boundary in a nutshell. 🙂

    Sometimes the nobility and the farmworkers share the same dialect, while everyone else has a different dialect – and its because the nobles’ kids only had workers’ kids to play with. {fact found in _Bastard Tongues_ by Dr. Derek Bickerton, a book about dialects, creoles, and pidgins}

    thanks for another great read!

    • Species can vary clinally, where each bordering subpopulation can interpreted, but the distant ones can’t. So too with languages. There may not be a boundary.

      (And then you get “ring species” where the two outermost species can’t interpreted when they come into contact. Like another Artic Circle. )

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Dialects, Pidgins, and Creoles - Swan Tower

  3. I’ve wondered whether a creole was developing in Tsarist Russia with their nobility speaking french -basically as a first language.

  4. And then there’s the problem of official religious languages, and dialects, etc. that occur even in the modern world. (The loss of the Latin Mass makes that a much more — pardon the pun — foreign experience for Americans!)

    Consider: Arabic — and, worse yet, a mixture among local-dialect Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and classical Arabic — is a required second tongue in the Islamic world. Indeed, there are substantial swaths of Iran in which Farsi/Persian is the second (or, in the far northeast, third) language, not the primary one, for this reason. Sliding down south, Arabic as understood/used by Muslims around the Horn of Africa is as closely related to either MSA or Gulf-dialect Arabic as the English of a Glaswegian is to a that of a native Los Angeleno: They can communicate in that language, if at all, only in writing, and only at the most formal levels. And not just due to the vowel shifts — the grammar is different.

  5. When William the Conquerer invaded England in 1066, the English spoke and Anglo-Saxon dialect close to Germon. William and his troops spoke Norman French. There was a strict divide in class as well as language.

    But by 1199 when King John took the throne, that’s 133 years, the two languages had blended to become Anglo-Norman, very close to today’s modern English. That’s a swift transition before modern mass communication and social media.

  6. Politics also comes into play in the language/dialect distinction – consider the cases of Hindi and Urdu compared to Mandarin and Cantonese.

    And of course things get even more complicated when you factor in written vs. spoken forms of language, and then complicated further when you consider variant written forms – like Simplified vs. Classical characters – or the use the same characters to represent different things (Hanzi/Kanji/Hanja. For English speakers, try pronouncing written Polish or Gaelic.)