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Degraff2005fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism

Degraff2005fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism

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Linguistsmost dangerous myth:The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism
M I C H E L D E G R A F F
 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Linguistics & Philosophy77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139degraff@mit.edu
A B S TR AC T
“Creole Exceptionalism” is defined as a set of beliefs, widespread amongboth linguists and nonlinguists, that Creole languages form an exceptionalclass on phylogenetic and
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or typological grounds. It also has nonlinguis-tic (e.g., sociological) implications, such as the claim that Creole lan-guages are a “handicap” for their speakers, which has undermined the rolethat Creoles should play in the education and socioeconomic developmentof monolingual Creolophones. Focusing on Caribbean Creoles, and on Hai-tian Creole in particular, it is argued that Creole Exceptionalism, as a socio-historically rooted “régime of truth” (in Foucault’s sense), obstructsscientific and social progress in and about Creole communities. Varioustypes of Creole Exceptionalist beliefs are deconstructed and historicized,and their empirical, theoretical, and sociological flaws surveyed. Theseflaws have antecedents in early creolists’ theories of Creole genesis, oftenexplicitly couched in Eurocentric and (pre-
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quasi-)Darwinian doctrinesof human evolution. Despite its historical basis in colonialism andslavery and its scientific and sociological flaws, Creole Exceptionalismis still enshrined in the modern linguistics establishment and its classicliterature, a not unexpected state given the social structure of scientificcommunities and the interaction between ideology and “paradigm-making.”The present Foucauldian approach to Creole Exceptionalism is an instan-tiation of a well-defined area of the linguistics
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ideology interface. Theconclusion proposes alternatives more consistent with Creole structuresand their development, and more likely to help linguists address somepractical problems faced by Creole speakers. (Colonialism, Creole lan-guages, Darwinism, Haitian Creole, history of linguistics, ideology, lan-guage evolution)*
 Language in Society
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, 533–591. Printed in the United States of AmericaDOI: 10.1017
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S0047404505050207© 2005 Cambridge University Press 0047-4045
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05 $12.00
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What is the prognosis? ... The prognosis is in the hands of those whoare willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure. (Fanon1952 [1991:11])
C O L O N I A L , N E O - C O L O N I A L A N D P O S T C O L O N I A L C R E O L I S T I C S
Preliminaries: The (neo-)colonial vs. the postcolonial
One of my arguments in this essay is that Creole languages remain, inAlleyne’s(1994:8) phrase, among “the most stigmatized of the world’s languages” for rea-sons that can be traced back to now-defunct race theories of the colonial era. Imake this argument while I narrow my focus to Caribbean Creoles – languagevarieties created primarily by peoples of African descent in the Caribbean. Myprincipal case study is Haiti, my country of birth.In the course of my argument, I will sketch the ways in which various schol-ars – both linguists and nonlinguists, both within and outside the Caribbean –have misapprehended the developmental and structural nature of Caribbean Cre-oles.At present it appears, to some of us at least, that much, though certainly notall, scholarly work on Creoles has for far too long been tainted by certain colo-nial, and then neo-colonial, biases, at the theoretical, methodological, and soci-ological levels. It is these biases that this essay addresses and attempts to redressin some preliminary fashion (also see DeGraff 2001a,b, 2002, 2003, 2004).Let me quickly add that my project here does not include any comprehensiveanalysis of the oeuvres of the authors of whose claims I analyze a subset; nordoes it include a systematic overview of the history of Creole studies (see, e.g.,Holm 1988 for such a survey). My interest here is specifically in the analysis anddemystification of a selected set of arguments by selected authors, thus my nar-row focus on specific claims that seem to instantiate a particular (neo-)colonialtradition in Creole studies. Fortunately, such a tradition, though a popular onewith many prominent scholars as its exponents, is only one among many trendsin contemporary creolistics.
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Borrowing a phrase from Montagu’s (1942) famous title, it seems to me thatthe “most dangerous myth” inherent in the work of many, though not all, creol-ists is that of 
Creole exceptionalism
: the postulation of exceptional and ab-normal characteristics in the diachrony and
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or synchrony of Creole languagesas a class. In this essay, I argue that from the perspective of intellectual history,this exceptionalist position is a rather banal correlate of, and a predictable addi-tion to, a series of epistemological dualisms that have been associated with rac-ism and slavery through much of world history.Some of these slavery-related epistemological dualisms are surveyed andanalyzed in Davis 1966. He argues that, in order for New World racial slaveryto become acceptable when it did, a complex and often contradictory set of religious and philosophical dualisms had to permeate European intellectualthought, from its interpretation of Christianity to its human sciences. The basic
M IC H EL D EG R A F F
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Language in Society
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:4 (2005)
 
dualism can be approached via some straightforward questions: How can theslave be both a full-fledged human being and a chattel? Thus the apparentproblem posed for Europeans by the formation of European-like Creole lan-guages: How can the slave (a lesser human?) speak a language that sounds likethe full-fledged language of his or her (fully human?) European master? C. L. R.James (1938 [1963:362]) cast the problem in these terms: “They enslaved theNegro, they said, because he was not a man, and when he behaved like a manthey called him a monster.” And so the linguistic behavior of the enslavedNegro in the Caribbean came to be viewed as abnormal, a “linguistic monstros-ity,” to borrow a phrase from Foucault (1969 [1972a:223]). As expressed byFanon (1952 [1991:17]), this ideology’s “major artery is fed from the heart of those various theories that have tried to prove that the Negro is a stage in theslow evolution of monkey into man.”
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In sum, the history of Creole Exceptionalism can be interpreted as one discur-sive link in the colonial dialectic chain connecting “the problem of slavery” inthe New World to European scientific racism. In turn, the discourse of CreoleExceptionalism can be textually linked to certain tropes within a (pseudo-)scientific hegemonic narrative that runs throughout the history of the (post-)colonial Caribbean from the earliest descriptions of its Creole languages. Thisnarrative, in some of its central aspects, has suffered no break in transmission(see DeGraff 2003, a synopsis of the present essay).“Postcolonial creolistics,” as I propose in this essay (also see DeGraff 2003:402–4),
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becomes an effort at breaking the exceptionalist dialectic chain inCreole studies. To me, the term suggests certain predispositions toward the sci-entifically and sociologically sound study of Creole languages. These predis-positions are truly universalist, and thus humane (read “egalitarian”), unlikethe inhumane “humanism” of the colonial period’s ethnocentrist race theories,which postulated the existence of human races to be ordered by an evolutionaryhierarchy dominated by White male Christians; thus the “white man’s burden”vis-à-vis the supposedly lesser kinds of (non)humans – Jews, Arabs, Blacks,Amerindians, and so on.Postcolonial creolistics aims at an “organic” alliance with its objects of study,in the sense of Gramsci:
(1) [While] elaborating a form of thought superior to ‘common sense’ and coherent on ascientific plane, [organic scholarship] never forgets to remain in contact with the ‘simple’[i.e., the non-‘intellectualstrata of society] and indeed finds in this contact the source of the problems it sets out to study and to resolve... . If [the philosophy of praxis] affirmsthe need for contact between intellectuals and simple it is not in order to restrict scientificactivity, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can makepolitically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectualgroups. (Gramsci 1971:330, 332f.)
As we will see below, “intellectual progress” of, and about, the “masses” of Cre-ole speakers is not easily defined, and much tension arises from deciding what isin the best interests of Creole speakers and from determining who makes such
LIN G U IS TS M O S T DA N G ERO U S M Y TH
 Language in Society
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:4 (2005)
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