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Review of  Creole Discourse

Reviewer: Elizabeth Grace Winkler
Book Title: Creole Discourse
Book Author: Susanne Mühleisen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 15.724

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Date: Fri, 27 Feb 2004 15:46:59 -0700
From: Elizabeth Grace Winkler
Subject: Creole Discourse: Exploring...across Caribbean English-lexicon Creoles

Mühleisen, Susanne (2002) Creole Discourse: Exploring Prestige Formation
and Change across Caribbean English-lexicon Creoles, John Benjamins,
Creole Language Library 24.

Elizabeth Grace Winkler, University of Arizona

This text is somewhat of a departure for the Benjamin's Creole Language
Library, which, in its more than two dozen publications, has tended to
focus on strict structural analysis of the traditional subfields of
creole linguistics or structural analyses of particular creoles - which
is somewhat amusing because as Mühleisen points out, "studies of
creoles are often automatically categorized as 'sociolinguistics'
regardless of the fact that most research in this field deals with
syntactic, phonological phenomena or with theoretical discussions of
historical linguistics [and] has mostly neglected recent trends in
sociolinguistic theory and linguistic anthropology" (p. 6).

With that said, this book is more of a philosophical challenge to past
approaches to understanding creole community discourse and the complex
notion of language prestige and legitimacy for speakers of these
varieties. This book, according to Mühleisen: "moves away from the
exploration of status, macrofunctions and attitudes within a (national)
community and towards a discursive framework in order to focus on the
representations of Creole in various discourses and on the changing
micro-functions for which it is employed" (p. 3-4).

Mühleisen evaluates the changing status of Caribbean English-lexicon
Creoles (CELCs) in recent times as they have gained prestige in certain
domains and have migrated from the Caribbean, especially to Great
Britain and how subsequent generations there have shifted in their
acceptance and use of Creole. She chooses to group these English
lexifier varieties as a whole rather than as individual languages (like
Jamaican Creole) based on the historical ties and continuous
immigration of many of its speakers from one region to another. This
decision makes sense in light of the evidence she provides of these
historical ties and even more so as she elaborates on CELC communities
in the diaspora.

In the first chapter Mühleisen challenges traditional views of status,
function, and attitude as "too static" (p. 9) and overly descriptive.
She asserts that they lack a comprehensive explanation of the nature of
language use of Creole speakers. She suggests that the study of status
has hardly developed over the last half century, which limits our
ability to understand the complex function of Creole in these
communities, especially the written use of Creole in more formal
domains. She also traces the development of Creolistics from its early
beginnings as a discipline to its dynamic present. Early on, because
Creoles were so often ranked with the speech of very young children,
and those in early stages of second language acquisition, they were
often not accorded serious attention. The stigmatization of these
languages has contributed to how they have been studied by outsiders
and viewed by their speakers. These attitudes were furthered by the
belief that the varieties spoken by Afro-Caribbean Creole speakers were
simply corrupted varieties of white speech. She shares anecdotal data,
which indicates that many of the whites in these places also spoke some
variety of Creole, and that for some of them, it may have even been
their only speech variety no matter the prevailing attitudes towards

Mühleisen details some of the difficulties in truly evaluating the
prestige of a language, including the fact that the terms used are not
well defined and can be applied to many different aspects or features
of a language. For example, in the research and discussions on status,
function, and attitudes, terms often over lap in usage or are even used
"interchangeably". For the purpose of this text, she defines status in
three ways: demographic, legalistic, and linguistic. In addition, she
contrasts various definitions of status with ethnolinguistic vitality,
which not only includes status but demography and institutional support
aspects rarely taken into account when testing status of CELCs.

In Chapter Two, "Forming Language Prestige" Mühleisen looks at
similarities between CELC languages. Here she lays out the
argumentation for looking at them as a group rather than as individual
languages. She claims that "the socio-political and epistemological
conditions for the formation of language prestige in the past, as well
as the modes of interaction in the present are shared by all of these
varieties" (p. 11). She continues with a convincing argument concerning
the historical similarities that contribute to the similarity in native
speaker reactions concerning prestige. She admits that these varieties
do differ in some significant ways but that the essence of them is
shared both linguistically and culturally.

In this chapter, she also provides an interesting discussion of the
history of the word creole and the ramifications for the choice of this
term on both speaker and observer attitudes. She also takes a look at
how the notion of creole as a language type unfolded in these
communities. Due to this history, she suggests a complete abandonment
of the term in community language naming and suggests creole be
replaced with more appropriate local terms like Jamaican (among

In the third chapter: "Negotiating language prestige: Towards a
functional/discursive framework", the author begins by describing the
philosophical bent of previous work on native speaker attitudes of
CELCs and discusses the methodological problems associated with this
research. Mühleisen mostly focuses on challenging the methodologies of
this research that she asserts ignored a number of important factors.
In addition, claims were based on very generic classifications of
people (for example: gender, age, ethnicity), which she asserts do not
really represent the defining characteristics of the speakers in terms
of really representing their discourse communities. It is important to
take into account the relationships of power, social dynamics, and
discourse -- factors which she contends have often been overlooked.
She says that a greater focus must be made on "the connection between
social practices and code choice in discourse, rather than on H/L
(high/low) dichotomies of domain configurations" (p. 126) and that
"discourse communities" are more significant than national identities -
especially in the diaspora where so many interesting developments are

The forth chapter, "From speech community to discourse communities:
Changing Creole representations in the urban diaspora", she focuses on
creole communities in London. She begins by tracing patterns of
migration, followed by well-constructed sections on language shift and
maintenance. She discusses the use of CELCs as identity markers between
speakers from distinct linguistic backgrounds. Additionally, she
provides a wealth of elaborative transcriptions of discourse providing
the reader with a good feel for the varieties of which she is writing.
She also provides a contrast of some of the features of the Caribbean
varieties with their daughters in the diaspora.

In "From badge of authenticity to voice of authority: Changing Creole
representations in writing she links the solidification and rise in
prestige of Creole identity in the diaspora to its purposeful use in
literary expression. The most interesting part of this chapter is the
discussion of the differing views on how to represent creole sounds in
writing (what is a reasonable orthography for representing creoles in
writing). She compares some of the orthographies in use and comments on
the philosophical ideologies that are reflected in the choices being
made. As I have argued in my own work, the use of more International
English orthographic representations of Creole words certainly robs the
reader of a broader feeling for the music of these varieties. However,
this is also true of the representations of thousands of other
varieties whose music is lost in the translation of the spoken word to
the written one.

In the final chapter: "From Invisibility to register variation:
Changing Creole representation in translation" Mühleisen addresses the
complexities and the linguistic and cultural challenges of translating
both into and from CELCs. The translation of Creole texts to other
languages provides additional complications to the already complex set
of difficulties already identified in the translation of entrenched
standardized languages. In the other direction, translation into Creole
languages provides an impetus for these languages to expand in
stylistic register and lexical expansion: other factors that contribute
to an increase in linguistic prestige.

Mühleisen's major contribution with this book is to provide a solid
rationale for understanding the need for a shift in how research into
the complex nature of social prestige for CELCs must be conducted.
Additionally, on a more concrete level, she has found out the
1) that the CELC communities in the diaspora are linked more by choice
of discourse function than national identity,
2) that the use of CELCs for written expression by the community is
significant and complex, even including the choice of orthography by
writers which reflects philosophical differences in the representation
of creole voice from what she terms "badge of authenticity to voice of
authority" (p. 265), and
3) that translations both into and out of Creole reflect a greater
understanding of the sociolinguistic complexities of the form and the
expansion of register and lexicon for these varieties.
Elizabeth Grace Winkler is an adjunct lecturer in linguistics at the
University of Arizona, USA. Her research publications have concentrated
on African substrate influence on the English-lexifier language
Limonese Creole and codeswitching between Spanish and Limonese Creole
in Costa Rica and Spanish and English in Mexico. She has also authored
a dictionary of Kpelle, a Mande language of Liberia.