Relabeling in Language Genesis, written by Claire Lefebvre

In: Journal of Language Contact

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2014, 328 pages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Relabeling in Language Genesis offers an overview of Claire Lefebvre’s research on relabeling over the last 15 years. Relabeling is a process that assigns a lexical entry of a language a new label derived from a phonetic string drawn from another language. Lefebvre and her associates have shown that this process plays a role in the formation of mixed languages, pidgins, creoles, and postcolonial varieties of English. Lefebvre defines relabeling as a major cognitive process in language contact and claims it to be the only plausible alternative to Bickerton’s bioprogram hypothesis of language genesis (1984). In this book, Lefebvre also responds to the critique that has been directed at her theory in previous works dealing with creole genesis (Lefebvre, 1998). This review has two parts. I will first present the contents of the book, and second, an evaluation of the relabeling theory from the perspective of creole studies.

Lefebvre’s book is organized in nine chapters that can be grouped into three main topics, excluding the introduction and conclusion: a presentation of the relabeling theory and its importance to theories of creolization, the relationship between theories of the lexicon and the relabeling model, and the application of the theory to explain optionality, superstrate influence, and variation in creoles and creolization. The book was written based on two intensive courses taught by Lefebvre as a guest lecturer (University of Hong Kong in 2011 and University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras in 2013), and many of the chapters are based on previous presentations at creole conferences. The fourth and fifth chapters, dealing with theories of the lexicon and word order, are co-authored with Renée Lambert-Brétière. In addition, the book includes a preface, a list of abbreviations, references, and indexes of the subjects, authors, and languages.

Chapter 1 gives a formal definition of the relabeling process and introduces the book. In Chapter 2, Lefebvre further presents relabeling as a major process that covers several others, such as transfer, reinterpretation/restructuring, and reanalysis, among others. The chapter also highlights the importance of relabeling in different language contact situations and its scope across lexicons. As relabeling might affect different portions of the lexicon, it can result in language varieties that have different surface characteristics, as can be seen in the differences between creoles, mixed languages, and new varieties of global languages. Chapter 3 contains the core of the book; it introduces the relabeling-based account of creole genesis, showing that relabeling plays a fundamental role in the formation of creole languages. In relabeling, substrate lexical entries with semantic content, free or bound, are relabeled based on salient free forms in the superstrate. If this is not the case, a null form appears through relabeling. The relative exposure to the superstrate constrains the formation of a particular creole, leading to differences between more lexifier-like creoles, such as Louisiana Creole, and more radical creoles, such as Haitian. Other processes identified as relevant for language change, such as grammaticalization and leveling, apply to the outcome of the relabeling process. This chapter also answers some of the criticisms presented of the theory with examples from a number of creoles.

Using data from three Caribbean creoles, namely Haitian, Saramaccan, and Papiamentu, and their source languages, Chapter 4 evaluates two different frameworks (Principles and Parameters and Radical Construction Grammar) in light of a relabeling-based account of creole genesis. The results of the comparison show the advantages of the Radical Construction Grammar (rc×g) framework with respect to relabeling, as it allows for an account of the retention of subsystems of grammar, such as the tma system, and of the fact that a single lexical item in a creole may correspond to a complex construction in the substrate language.

In a similar vein, Chapter 5 deals with word order in a relabeling-based account of creole genesis from an rc×g perspective. It explains how creoles sometimes come to have word orders that differ from their contributing languages. Although substrate constructions are available to the creators of the creole, the phonological representations of lexical items are relabeled on the basis of superstrate forms. In context-free relabeling, as in the case of denotational nouns and verbs, the relabeled lexical item may associate with the relevant position in the substrate construction. On the other hand, the position of the relabeled word is determined by that of the superstrate label in the minimal construction in which it appears in context-bound relabeling, as in the case of modifiers and determiners.

Chapter 6 contains an account of the differences among creoles that share the same substrate. A comparison of Haitian and Saramaccan, which share a common Gbe substrate but have different surface constructions, is used to argue that speakers have options in creole genesis and can decide whether or not to relabel certain items. The differences in postpositions and reduplication between these languages are thus accounted for by the relabeling choices made by the creators of creoles.

Chapter 7 explores the role of the superstrate languages in creole genesis by identifying the domains in which they contribute to creole formation. These domains are the labels and the surface order of various kinds of constituents. Lefebvre shows how the superstrate’s contribution determines the “form” in creoles. Lefebvre analyzes affix order, basic word order in tensed clauses, and word order in nominal and nominalized structures. Another example of how superstrate influence is manifested in Caribbean creoles is the creation of a large class of intransitive verbs. Superstrate languages, constrains on relabeling are analyzed using examples from the – SELF anaphor in Atlantic creoles, and verbs of CUTTING and deverbal resultatitive adjectives in Haitian. The superstrate languages also contribute the morphological material which spell out grammatical features of the substrate languages, illustrated by the example of the forms of resumptive pronouns extracted out of subject position in Haitian and Papiamentu. The final part of this chapter discusses the lexifier filter hypothesis and shows it not to be applicable to most cases of creole genesis, the clearest exception being word-order related phenomena.

Chapter 8 discusses the problem of the typological classification of creoles, based on Lefebvre (ed.) (2011). Presenting evidence from diverse creoles around the world, Lefebvre concludes that creoles “cannot be claimed to be ‘alike’ in any sense of the word or to constitute a typological class as such” (pp. 257). They cannot be classified with their lexifier languages either, as the influence of substrate languages on the semantic and syntactic properties of creole is evident in the data. However, Lefebvre leaves unanswered the question of to which extent the creoles reproduce the typological features of their substrate languages in the phonological component of the grammar.

Chapter 9 concludes the book by discussing the major themes presented in it and presents relabeling theory as a strong alternative to the bioprogram hypothesis. Lefebvre explains that within her theory, creole languages are considered natural languages and the processes at work in language creation and language change in general also account for the properties, emergence, and development of creoles, as seen throughout the book. Relabeling theory actually links a number of separate contact phenomena and situations. Its very nature and application to several situations speak against an exceptionalist approach to creole languages (as criticized in DeGraff, 2002, 2005). A second theme is the principled contribution of substrate and superstrate languages to creoles. Throughout the book (especially in chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8) it is shown that the process of relabeling produces lexical entries that have the semantic and syntactic properties of the substrate languages, and labels from phonetic strings drawn from the superstrate in a principled way. Substrate languages thus contribute the meaning and function, while the superstrate contributes the form, leading to a typological (functional) profile that is closer to the substrate languages. Lefebvre also offers a summary of relabeling within the theories of the lexicon focusing on the rc×g model, types of morphemes, and variation in creoles, with a discussion of the process at work in individuals’ creation processes. The final part of the conclusion focuses on relabeling in relation to other approaches to creole genesis, and the debate on language origins.

Evaluation

Due to its careful and thorough discussion of theoretical issues of language contact and change, which is based on rich data, Lefebvre’s book is an excellent introduction to a substrate-oriented approach to creole studies. It provides a solid explanation of why creole languages crystallized the way they did, and the substrate and superstrate properties that they present.

Lefebvre explains clearly how relabeling works in creole genesis and how it applies across language contact situations. According to the author, relabeling theory accounts for the initial creation of a new lexicon in creole genesis, making it a central and fundamental process in the formation of these languages. Lefebvre acknowledges the importance of other processes in language change, such as grammaticalization, reanalysis, leveling, and innovations, but maintains that these apply to the output of the relabeling process. Relabeling is thus the process at work in creole genesis, and other processes are relevant only after the creole speakers change their target from the superstrate to the relabeled lexicon.

As a central process in second language acquisition and new language formation, relabeling should be better understood and documented. The book at hand makes an important contribution to this aim. In addition, Lefebvre convincingly shows that Radical Construction Grammar accounts better for how word order, tma subsystems, and complex constructions develop in creoles. Furthermore, the book presents updated data from a large body of languages, and addresses critique and questions posed to the theory over the years.

Let us now turn to a few more critical remarks that have been raised in previous critiques to Lefebvre’s approach, but remain largely unanswered. Although the presentation of the relabeling process is well defined and spelled out clearly throughout the book, the cognitive process at work actually remains somewhat unclear. One could argue that if the process is so central in second language acquisition, we should be able to test it experimentally (for a similar earlier observation, see DeGraff 2002). Lefebvre’s explanation thus remains at the theoretical level with a focus on the creation of a new lexicon.

Although Lefebvre is in principle open to other theories of language change and creation, two areas remain at the margins of the discussion with regard to creolization: the children and speakers of languages other than the substrates. In Lefebvre’s definition of the properties that any theory of creole genesis must be able to account for (pp. 33–34), these points concern the multilingual context in which creoles emerge when there is a need for a lingua franca. Lefebvre’s account of relabeling as the main process in creolization postulates that the creators of creole languages are adults who used the superstrate as their lingua franca. The “unattested” role of children in the formation of the creole is summarized as “the role of children in language change in general” (pp. 101–102). According to Lefebvre, children may continue the changes initiated by their non-native parents; children are the agents of reanalysis, and they play an important role in regularizing variation. However, she argues that they do not participate in the initial process that leads to creole genesis. It is known that the demographic ratios of different age groups were uneven in plantation societies, where the child mortality rates were high and birth rates were low. However, this argument does not necessarily apply to other types of societies where creoles formed, such as many Asian fort creoles. Another lacuna is the role of the superstrate speakers. The agents of the creolization process in Lefebvre’s theory are the original substrate-speaking population. The role of the European colonizers or other creole speakers is not discussed, and can be induced to remain outside the initial relabeling process in which the target language is the superstrate. After the initial creolization process, other groups can naturally have influenced the creole’s development in any way that is typical of language change.

From the formal point of view, the book is clearly written and well organized. It offers a description of the theory at hand, its relationship to different frameworks of theories of the lexicon, and its application and main results in the principal area of research, namely creole studies. The examples that are analyzed and presented come from a variety of sources, both from her database and literature, although with a clear dominance of the Atlantic area, especially Haitian, Saramaccan, and Papiamentu. There are continuous cross-references between chapters that help the reader to connect the issues at hand, but the chapters can also be read as individual contributions. It is understandable that as an overview the book is occasionally somewhat repetitive, as the seemingly simple process of relabeling and its outcome (with superstrate influence in the lexicon, and substrate influence in the meaning and function) is explained on several occasions.

Among other theories of creolization, Lefebvre’s theory and model are appealing in the apparent simplicity and clarity in which they are laid out. With its solid argumentation and a rich body of evidence, Lefebvre’s book has convinced me of the importance of relabeling in the creolization process. It has also solidified its status as a plausible alternative to the innate theories of creolization. One can only hope for more studies testing the central hypothesis of the book, based on an ever-growing body of linguistic evidence from creole languages.

References

  • BickertonDerek. 1984. The language bioprogram hypothesis. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 7: 173–221. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00044149.

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  • DeGraffMichel. 2002. Relexification: A reevaluation. Anthropological Linguistics 44: 321–414.

  • DeGraffMichel. 2005. Linguists’ most dangerous myth: The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism. Language in Society 34: 533–591. doi:10.1017/S0047404505050207.

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  • LefebvreClaire. 1998. Creole genesis and the acquisition of grammar: The case of Haitian Creole [Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 88]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • LefebvreClaire. 2011. Creoles, their substrates, and language typology [Typological Studies in Language 95]. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • BickertonDerek. 1984. The language bioprogram hypothesis. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 7: 173–221. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00044149.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DeGraffMichel. 2002. Relexification: A reevaluation. Anthropological Linguistics 44: 321–414.

  • DeGraffMichel. 2005. Linguists’ most dangerous myth: The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism. Language in Society 34: 533–591. doi:10.1017/S0047404505050207.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LefebvreClaire. 1998. Creole genesis and the acquisition of grammar: The case of Haitian Creole [Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 88]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LefebvreClaire. 2011. Creoles, their substrates, and language typology [Typological Studies in Language 95]. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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