Creole and Pidgin: The Linguistic Legacy of John Holm, 1943 – 2015

As a new year is an opportunity to look back at what the previous year left behind, I would like to remember a man who left a meaningful legacy to the field of linguistics, the study of languages.

Remembering John Holm’s Linguistic Contributions

Of Midwestern origin, John Holm truly became an accomplished linguist over his lifetime. Although his primary focus was the study of pidgin and creole languages, he also studied German, Spanish and Russian in high school, Italian and French at the Sorbonne during college, and then earned a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language from Columbia University. As he was teaching to black students from poor Detroit neighborhoods, he became interested in their speech and studied African-American English at the State University of New York.

Mr. Holm’s fascinating legacy was the creation of a new subfield of linguistics. In the two volumes of “Pidgins and Creoles”, he traces the socio-historical evolution of those composite languages, explains their structures and describes more than 100 varieties.

Creole: language that developed from a mixture of different languages. Haitian Creole, for example, is based on French, Portuguese, Spanish and West African languages. Haitian Creole has the largest population of speakers with about ten million native speakers.

Semi-creole: language that shares a greater number of traits with their source language than Creole.

Pidgin: reduced language used by groups with no language in common to communicate.

Mr. Holm was a substratist who emphasized the contribution of non-European languages to the creole languages. On the other end of the spectrum are the superstratists, who view creoles as reduced forms of European languages. One of Mr. Holm’s goals was to have pidgins and creoles considered as languages in their own right rather than simplified versions of their source languages: “They are new languages, shaped by many of the same linguistic forces that shaped English and other ‘proper’ languages,” he wrote in “An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles” (2000).

In 1998 he became the chairman of English linguistics at the University of Coimbra in Lisbon, where he created the department of creole linguistics.

At the time of his death on December 28, 2015, he lived near Miranda do Corvo in Portugal and is survived by his husband and one brother.

For additional information on creole and pidgin languages, the Encyclopedia Britannica has a section on creole languages, in which the author concludes that more research is still needed in order to fully understand the development of these languages. This research presents its challenges as there is limited information on the vernaculars that were spoken by the European colonists.

Just for fun, here are a few French Creole words, with French translation too:

Creole                          English                      French

Parlé                                   to speak                           parler

Manjé                                 to eat, food                      manger

Bonjou                               hello                                  bonjours

Wa pli tar                          see you later                    à plus tard

Édé                                     to help                              aider

Konmen lé-zafè?              how are things?             comment vont les affaires?

Swinn-twa                         take care                          soigne-toi

This, along with many more examples, shows that the French influence on the language was significant.

Tell Language Solutions has French Creole linguists and voice over talents available for all of your French Creole translation needs, please contact us for more information.