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The English term creole derives from the Portuguese antecedent crioulo, which was adopted by the Spanish as criollo (“person native to a locality”) and the French as créole. The Portuguese word crioulo is a diminutive of cria, meaning a person raised in the house, usually a servant. The derivation is from the verb criar, “to bring up or raise as children,” from the Latin crere, “to beget.” Thus, from very early on the term has indicated novel creation, usually of a lower-status person, and has implied that this novelty is “irregular,” or out of place. The term gained currency during the initial growth of European colonial power in the sixteenth century. As European powers established colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, new populations were created out of unions between the colonizers, local inhabitants, and immigrants (initially slaves or laborers) transported by Europeans. Initially, the term creole was assigned to people born in the colonies, to distinguish them from the upper-class, European-born immigrants. The application of the term has varied from place to place and era to era in important ways, and has also been used to designate languages that have evolved from historical experiences of cultural contact.
In general, a Creole language is a defined and stable language that arises from long-standing contact between two or more distinct languages. Prior to “creolization,” a rudimentary contact language is known as a pidgin. Typically, with Creole languages there are many distinctive features that do not derive from any of the parent tongues. In cases where a Creole person was simply a European born in the New World, there was usually no distinction between the language spoken by foreign colonials and their local, white, counterparts. However, as the notion of a Creole came to include anyone born in the New World, the term came to encompass hybrid linguistic forms, some of whose antecedents were not European languages.
Generally, Creole populations occupied a low status in the eyes of European colonial administrators, thus Creole languages were regarded as “impoverished dialects” of the colonial languages, and eventually the term was used in opposition to the term language, rather than as a type of language. For example, one might say a French Creole as opposed to a Creole language based on French and Fon (a language of West Africa). However, in contemporary linguistics such distinctions are not made, and Creole languages are treated equally alongside other types of language. Furthermore, the term creole and its cognates in other languages—such as crioulo, criollo, and so on—are now applied to distinct languages and ethnic groups in many countries and from a variety of eras, and the terms all have rather different meanings.
The Portuguese term crioulo can be traced to the fifteenth century, when it gained currency in the trading and military outposts established by Portugal in West Africa and Cape Verde. Initially it simply meant a Portuguese person born and raised in the colony. (The word then came into use, in translation, by other colonial powers.) In the Portuguese colonies the crioulo population eventually came to comprise people of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry; especially as the growing numbers of people of mixed heritage dwarfed the population of local whites. In time, crioulos of mixed Portuguese and African descent produced important ethnic groups in Africa, especially in Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Ziguinchor. These groups have come to think of themselves as culturally distinct from their neighbors. In Brazil, a Portuguese colony from the sixteenth century to 1822, the word came to mean a person with especially dark skin, indicating a strong African heritage. African slaves were imported into Brazil from the seventeenth century until the first half of the nineteenth century. The presence of large numbers of Africans from ethnically diverse origins led to a substantial mixed population as Africans and Europeans began to have children. Mixing was encouraged by many nationalist Brazilian intellectuals as a way of “whitening” the population thereby creating a unique, New World Brazilian identity separate from a Portuguese or European one. As a result, crioulo came to be a purely phenotypic label, with harsh, negative connotations.
As in the Portuguese colonies, the Spanish term criollo initially meant a person of unmixed Spanish ancestry born in the New World. Locally born Europeans were prohibited from holding offices of high rank and were often shunned socially by the ruling peninsulares, or Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsula.
Eventually the exclusion of the criollos by the foreignborn Spanish led to widespread rebellion and the development of a nativist movement. By the 1830s these Creole-based nationalist wars of independence had spread throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America in the form of the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) and the South American Wars of Independence (1810–1825). In other parts of the Spanish Empire the term criollo did not enjoy the same currency. Inhabitants of the Spanish colony of the Philippines, for example, generally referred to the locally born Spanish as Filipinos or insulares (“from the islands”). (Peninsulare was still the common name for those born in the Iberian Peninsula.) Today the term Filipino means quite the opposite, indicating a locally born, often ethnically mixed inhabitant of the Philippines. This transformation came about as a result of the Filipino nationalist movements of the late nineteenth century.
In the United States the word creole has a complex cluster of meanings and is often misunderstood. In general, a Creole is a person of any race or racial mixture descended from the original European settlers of French Louisiana prior to its incorporation into the United States via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It is quite common for Americans in other parts of the country to assume that a Creole is a person of mixed African and European ancestry in Louisiana, but this is not the way the term has historically been used locally. Creoles encompass a wide variety of people of many ethnicities and races who share a French or even Spanish background. Most commonly, a Creole person can lay claim to a francophone heritage from either France or a French-speaking Caribbean island such as Haiti (Saint Domingue prior to 1804), Martinique, or Guadeloupe. White and “colored” migrants from these regions brought their French-speaking, predominantly African slaves with them, thereby establishing a racially heterogeneous Creole population of Louisianans. The Louisiana French, who trace their ancestry to the Acadians of French Canada, usually identify themselves as Cajun. The distinction is sometimes made for local cuisine as well, with a distinction being made between Creole food, which has many African elements, and Cajun cooking, which derives from the culinary practices of mostly white, often rural Cajun-French speakers in Louisiana.
Although in the Americas Creoles were initially Europeans born in the New World, the idea of a mixed population being a “Creole” population has gained wide currency. Indeed, creolization has come to mean the blending of one or more cultural identities into a new, hybrid identity. Toward that end, people of mixed native Alaskan and Russian ancestry are frequently called “Alaskan Creoles.” In the late eighteenth century Russian adventurers, hunters, and traders known as promyshleniki came into contact with and married or formed unions with native Alaskan women, giving rise to a people who assumed a prominent position in the economy of fur trading in the northern Pacific. For example, by 1880, the U.S. census documented fifty-three “Creoles” (people of Russian-Sugpiaq ancestry) living in Ninilchik, a village located on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. There also exist varieties of Russian–native Alaskan languages—either pidgins or Creoles—throughout the region, such as Copper Island Aleut, a mixed AleutRussian language spoken on Mednyy, or Copper Island.
In the English-speaking Caribbean a Creole was originally a European born in the New World, but the term is most commonly used to describe anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, who was born and raised in the region. It is also in the English-speaking, formerly British colonial Caribbean that the term has come to indicate the syncretism or blending of the various cultural forms or institutions: African, French, British, and Spanish, among others. Creolization in this context can mean anything from syncretized religious forms such as Vodou, Santeria, and Orisha, to culinary practices, to musical forms such as calypso, reggae, mambo, zouk, merengue, and many others. Yet the term also may have a variety of local meanings. In Trinidad, for instance, Creole culture generally refers to the practices of local African-Trinidadians as opposed to local whites (often known as French Creoles) and IndoTrinidadians (the descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought to the island from 1845 to 1917).
In Réunion island and Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, Creoles fall generally into two categories: (Malagasy) Creoles and Creole-Mazambe. The former were brought in as slaves to work the plantations of Mauritius (as well as Réunion and Seychelles). These laborers were mostly Malagasy (natives of Madagascar), but other African minorities, from Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, also were enslaved. In present-day Mauritius Creoles of all kinds are outnumbered by the Indo-Mauritians; however, they still form the majority in Réunion and the Seychelles. Although English is the official language of Mauritius, a French-based Creole language is widely used by all ethnic groups.
- Black, Lydia T. 2004. Russians in Alaska, 1732–1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
- Boswell, Rosabelle. 2005. Slavery, Blackness, and Hybridity: Mauritius and the Malaise Creole. London: Kegan Paul.
- Brading, David A. 1993. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1866. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Garraway, Doris. 2005. The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Holm, John. 2000. An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Kein, Sybil, ed. 2000. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Lambert, David. 2005. White Creole Culture, Politics, and Identity During the Age of Abolition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Sansone, Livio. 2003. Blackness without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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