University of Hong Kong > School of Humanities

Linguistics and social justice: De-colonizing Creole studies
- Prof Michel DeGraff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Wed 24 May 2017, 4:30 pm
Seminar Room 745, 7/F, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Linguistics and social justice: De-colonizing Creole studies

Joint seminar by School of English & Department of Linguistics, School of Humanities

In this talk, I will strive to bridge some blatant gaps between the core universalist-egalitarian assumptions in linguistics and the power-knowledge hierarchies at the root and, still, at the core of the use and mis-use of Creole languages in academia.


My hope is to inspire a new sort of linguistics whereby our research can help bring about the sort of linguistic equality that is a precondition for socio-economic and political equity.  Indeed my agenda couples theoretical linguistics with on-the-ground projects that engage technology, pedagogy and local languages in order to improve research and education for sustainable development and equal opportunity for all.


On the theoretical front, I will critique one of the most enduring socially constructed hierarchies in linguistics, namely “Creole Exceptionalism”—an umbrella term for various hypotheses that turn Creole languages into some sort of “freakish” (i.e., exceptional) languages on either developmental or typological grounds or both.  In anti-Exceptionalist mode, I will consider Creole formation as one starting point to investigate larger issues in language acquisition and language change-—and in cognitive science more generally.  In this vein I will present a “Null Theory of Creole Formation”  (Aboh & DeGraff 2017) which includes, at its core, insights about the interaction between second- and first-language acquisition in contact situations.  In this perspective, Atlantic Creoles are all genealogically related to their Germanic or Romance ancestors, once the Comparative Method of Historical Linguistics is duly applied.  In other words, Creole formation is nothing but a (relatively) banal instance of language change, on a par with the formation of new varieties in the history of non-Creole languages.  I will, thus, argue that Creole languages such as my native Haitian Creole are on a par with European and other non-Creole languages in terms of development, structures and expressive capacity.


On the larger “linguistics for social justice” front, I will relate my Uniformitarian theoretical approach to Creole studies to on-the-ground real-world issues involving language and education, especially the strategic use of educational technology in local languages, in order to improve access to quality education for all, especially among populations that have traditionally been excluded—by and large, through language—from equal opportunity for socio-economic advancement.


I hope that this lecture will usher insightful discussions about the ways in which linguistics can help make the world better by undoing colonial and neo-colonial language-related “phantasms” (that is, “phantasms” in the sense of Fox Harrell). These phantasms (e.g., Francophilia in Haiti or Anglophilia in Jamaica) can also be analyzed as linguistic “bluest eye”—in the sense of Toni Morrison. These phantasms have, for far too long, help sustain the hegemony that has kept speakers of so called “local” languages, such as Creole languages, at the bottom of various socio-economic and (geo-)political hierarchies.


We linguists and other scholars and educators interested in language can do better, much better.


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Michel DeGraff is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a project for the development, evaluation and dissemination of active-learning resources in Kreyòl to help improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education plus leadership and management in Haiti, and Founding Member of Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen. For more details on his biography and research, see , and

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