What might migration patterns tell us about how modern languages came about? Vanderbilt University’s Nicole Creanza talks with us about her research into how migration during the colonial era contributed to the development of the creole language, Sranan. Her article “Using features of a Creole language to reconstruct population history and cultural evolution: tracing the English origins of Sranan” was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences on December 27, 2017.

Linguistic Artifacts in Creole - Nicole Creanza
Linguistic Artifacts in Creole - Nicole Creanza
Linguistic Artifacts in Creole - Nicole Creanza Linguistic Artifacts in Creole - Nicole Creanza
@rwatkins says:
Noting that “great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it,” each year the Edge Foundation poses a question to thought leaders in science and philosophy. In 2005, it posed the question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” After receiving over 100 invited responses, the following year they compiled those responses into the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove. At the end of our conversation with Nicole, we asked for her thoughts on this question.
@rwatkins says:
In addition to her investigations into the evolution human languages, Nicole's research focuses on the learned behaviors of birds, and more specifically the role of novelty in bird songs. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask Nicole to tell us more about this research.
@rwatkins says:
Given the value of Nicole’s contributions to the current study, we asked her how such methods, which dominate evolutionary biology and population genetics, might be applied in other studies of linguistics.
@rwatkins says:
In their research, Nicole and her colleagues tested several hypotheses. The first three were derived from traditional theories on the development of creole languages. The fourth was their new explanation, which they dubbed the “pan-dialectical hypothesis,” which suggests that specific local and regional English dialects could each have contributed to the new creole language. Here Nicole discusses their findings.
@rwatkins says:
Mapping the contributions of English-speakers’ dialects to Sranan required another layer of investigation and analysis. So Ryan and I were interested in learning about the methods that Nicole and her team used to make these connections.
@rwatkins says:
Studying the evolution of Sranan in the 17th century requires knowledge of how it, and the English dialects of the time, were spoken. There are however no recordings from the time, and both languages have continued to evolve. Recognizing these challenges, Nicole describes how they examined historical records to trace changes in the languages and dialects.
@rwatkins says:
The intertwining of perspectives and methods among scientists from multiple disciplines can often produce compelling research that’s capable of shifting the directions of inquiries for entire fields. We asked Nicole to talk with us about her contributions, as a biologist, to the team’s study of language.
@rwatkins says:
To define the specific contributions of unique English dialects, the teams had to analyze multiple pronunciations of words in Sranan and define their association with the parallel characteristics among the numerous English dialects spoken at the time of Sranan’s formation. We wondered how Nicole and the team went about this task.
@rwatkins says:
The people coming to Suriname differed in many ways. For the study, Nicole’s team focused on emigrants from England and their contributions to the creole. But even among the English-speaking migrants, diverse dialects were spoken, and these could be traced back to specific locations in Britain. Next, Nicole explains how the team was able to identify the various British dialects spoken, as well as where in England their speakers came from.
@rwatkins says:
When creole languages form and evolve, characteristics of the contributing languages are either assimilated into or discarded from the new language. This made us wonder what linguistic theories exist for how this happens, as well as how those theories shaped the aims of Nicole’s study.
@rwatkins says:
As a creole language, Sranan borrowed from the linguistic characteristics of those living in colonial Suriname at the time of its emergence. Its uniqueness may well have helped facilitate trade and communication among the diverse people who coalesced in the region. Since creole languages are closely related to pidgin languages, Ryan and I asked Nicole what the difference is between the two.
@rwatkins says:
The Republic of Suriname is a small country bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, and which is one of the three countries that make up The Guianas, a region in the north-east of South America. Owing to its history as a 17th-century trading post while under Dutch colonial rule, Suriname is considered to be a culturally Caribbean country with its own Creole language. We were curious how Nicole got involved in research regarding the evolution of this unique language.
@rwatkins says:
Nicole attended Harvard for her undergrad then earned her PhD in Biological Sciences at The Rockefeller University in New York City. After completing postdoctoral work at Stanford University she’s now an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. To begin our conversation, we wanted to learn what got her interested in studying the evolution of learned behavior, including human languages as well as bird songs.
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Websites

 

Press coverage

ArsTechnica, Scientific American, Phys.org (a)Phys.org (b)The Conversation, Anthropology.net, Vanderbilt News, Futura-Sciences (French)

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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Creanza, N.. (2018, May 2). Parsing Science – Linguistic Artifacts in Creole. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.6207635.v3

Music

What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers