Humans learn complex grammatical patterns even in extremely challenging circumstances

A large-scale study of languages shows that the grammar of creoles – which emerged in multilingual situations of extreme social upheaval, like colonial slaveries – are composed from the grammars of other languages that preceded them rather than being innovated from scratch. The study, published today in Nature Human Behavior, analyzed a large number of creole and non-creole languages to reveal the robustness of language transmission processes.

At times over the last several hundred years, large groups of people speaking completely different languages have been forced to communicate. One striking example of this is, for instance, when people from different regions of Western Africa were enslaved and forced to work on sugar cane plantations on Caribbean islands. The individuals brought together in this manner spoke many different languages often completely unintelligible to each other. Yet, over time their descendants came to speak a single language – a creole language.

Creoles emerged in very different parts of the world – from the Caribbean to India and the Pacific islands. Intriguingly, some aspects of their grammars are remarkably similar. For instance, most creoles order words in sentences in a sequence that linguists describe as Subject-Verb-Object (as in English: one cheetah [subject] chases [verb] the gazelle [object]; or, The general [subject] planned [verb] the attack [object]).

Linguists have hypothesized that these common features stem from the fact that creole languages might have started as radically simple communication systems, called pidgins, composed of a very rudimentary grammar based on words and basic phrases from the other languages spoken in the community at the time. Then rapidly (in just one generation or so) the modest pidgin will develop all of the complexity and expressive power of other languages, thus giving rise to a creole.

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