Plural Marking Strategies in Tok Pisin and Jamaican Creole

A Comparative Analysis

Seminar Paper, 2014

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical, Social and Linguistic Background

3. Analysis

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

Plural marking presents a complex area of grammar which varies in each language. In English, most nouns possess both a singular and plural form to demonstrate the difference between “one and more than one” (Crystal 2003: 200). These nouns are known as variable nouns whereas the rather small group of invariable nouns does not have a number contrast (cf. Crystal 2003: 200). Most variable nouns indicate plural marking through inflectional morphology, usually by adding an - s such as in cats or dogs (cf. Crystal 2003: 200). Besides the regular plural form, there are “a few hundred nouns with an irregular plural form” (Crystal 2003: 200) which have to be learned by purely memorization.

But how does plural marking function in English-based creoles? Do they also use inflectional morphology? According to Holm, “creole nouns are not inflected to indicate number” (2000: 215). By analyzing plural marking strategies in Tok Pisin and in Jamaican Creole, the following paper will have a closer look whether this general statement is entirely true or not.

The paper is structured as follows: section two provides a brief historical, social and linguistic background of both creoles. In section three, the paper compares Tok Pisin to Jamaican Creole in terms of inflectional plural marking, analytic plural marking and bare nouns. To conclude, I will summarize the results and give a short outlook.

2. Historical, Social and Linguistic Background

2.1 Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin, an English-based pidgin spoken in Papua New Guinea, is a variety of Pacific Pidgin English. It is the “product of nineteenth-century colonialism in the Pacific” (Romaine 1992: 1). This variety of Pacific Pidgin English is the most important lingua franca “spoken by more than a million people in a multilingual society” (Romaine 1992: 1). In contrast to other English-based pidgins, the history of Tok Pisin is about 100 years shorter, as Europeans and Pacific Islanders did not interact before the end of the 18th century (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 39).

Since the history of Tok Pisin is coined by numerous socio-economical stages, various types of language contact situations developed “giving rise to different contact varieties with different degrees of structural and functional elaboration” (Bobyleva 2011: 39).

Mühlhäusler (1980: 37) argues that Tok Pisin went through different stages of development: (i) jargon, (ii) stabilized pidgin, (iii) expanded pidgin and (iv) creole. According to him, the expanded pidgin and creole are varieties possessing a complex sentence structure, stylistic devices and “a multiple derivation in word-formation” (Mühlhäusler 1980: 37). From a linguistic perspective, Tok Pisin in its contemporary state can be associated with the two terms (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 39).

More prevalent access to mass media and education is responsible for the development of more ‘anglicized’ varieties of Tok Pisin, which are rather spoken by younger generations. Because of “the high degree of variability” (Bobyleva 2011: 40), we cannot draw conclusions about grammatical features of Tok Pisin as a whole. In terms of plural marking, the paper focuses on the more ‘anglicized’ varieties of Tok Pisin, since they seem to be more interesting as they display a greater variability (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 40).

2.2 Jamaican Creole

Jamaican Creole, an Atlantic English-based creole, is spoken throughout the island of Jamaica (cf. Bailey 1966: 1). For its speakers, the creole is usually known as Patwa, which is the native tongue for about 2.5 million people living in Jamaica and for many thousands living abroad (cf. Patrick 2004: 407). It originated around the last quarter of the 17th century and “is a result of the language contact between the British colonizers and the African slaves from Kwa- , Benue-Congo-, and Bantu-speaking areas” (Bobyleva 2011: 38). Jamaican Creole has always coexisted with its lexifier English which still serves as “a role model of correctness and the language of greater opportunities” (Bobyleva 2011: 38).

The level of speech can be divided into three varieties: (i) the basilect, (ii) the mesolect and (iii) the acrolect. Only a small number of speakers use the basilect whereas the majority of creole speakers, depending on their socioeconomic background, use the mesolect as their everyday language.

Standard Jamaican English, the acrolect, represents only a small minority of speakers who use the acrolect as their home language (cf. Patrick 2004: 408). As the mesolectal variety presents the most important variety of the creole, the paper will focus on linguistic features with regard to the mesolect.

3. Analysis

3.1 Inflectional Plural Marking in Creoles

Historically, it was widely believed that creole languages do not use superstrate- like grammatical features, such as inflectional morphology (cf. Plag 2008: 17). This idea gained importance through the prevalent assumption that creole languages have little or no morphology (cf. Plag 2008: 17). The productive use of inflectional morphology in creole languages, which have a closer contact with their former superstrates, is often not taken into consideration. In the current literature on pidgins and creoles, the use of superstrate-like forms such as inflectional morphology in creole varieties is often explained through language mixing, code-switching, hypercorrection, borrowing or decreolization (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 41).

To check whether these prevalent assumptions are true or not, the following paragraphs will have a closer look concerning the plural suffix -s in Tok Pisin and Jamaican Creole.

3.1.1 Plural Marker -sin Tok Pisin

First of all, Holm’s statement as presented in the introduction can be easily refuted, since Tok Pisin uses many nouns that are inflected by the - s suffix.

(1) Ol dispela lain liklik lain boys na girls.

‘This group of people a small group of boys and girls.’ (Mühlhäusler 1980: 59)

(2) Mi naintin yias.

‘I am nineteen years old.’

(Mühlhäusler et al. 2003: 196 as cited in Bobyleva 2011: 41)

(3) Disla gaden em i planim ol kukambas.

‘This garden he planted with cucumbers.’ (Smith 2002: 72)

The sentences listed above are only a few examples to prove that Tok Pisin makes use of inflectional morphology. The inflectional plural marker -s is found with recent loan words such as girls and boys as well as with old established lexical items, such as yias ‘years’ and seldom with words of non-English origin such as kapuls ‘possums’ or diwais ‘trees’ (cf. Mühlhäusler 1980: 60; Bobyleva 2011: 43).

However, opinions in the literature differ concerning the question whether the plural marker -s is a recent phenomenon, or whether it has become an integral feature of Tok Pisin grammar. According to Mühlhäusler (1980: 39), the occurrence of -s in Tok Pisin is an unsystematic adoption of the English - s suffix that originated through language mixing. His data suggest that “the presence of the -s plural is neither determined by the animacy hierarchy nor by the grammatical environment nor, in the case of written Tok Pisin, by spelling” (Mühlhäusler 1980: 58). Thus, it is regarded as a process of decreolization and “characterized as result of interference between Tok Pisin and its former superstrate English” (Bobyleva 2011: 43).

Romaine’s study (1992: 234-235) contradicts Mühlhäusler’s claim, since she concludes that count nouns take the plural suffix -s more often than mass nouns and that “animacy does have some influence with a larger proportion of humans than animates taking the suffix” (Smith 2004:724).

With regard to the different opinions concerning the status of the plural marking - s, it can be concluded that the plural marker -s is gaining more importance in Tok Pisin grammar, although it is still strongly associated with English (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 44).

3.1.2 Plural Marker -sin Jamaican Creole

Just like in Tok Pisin, Jamaican Creole also has nouns which use the inflectional plural marker -s to indicate number.

(4) Afta a no iivn rimemba di nuots- dem agen.

‘I don’t even remember the [musical] notes anymore.’ (Patrick 2004: 435)

(5) Thirty years me deh out a world.

‘Thirty years I have been traveling around the world.’ (Thelwell 1980: 111)

The historical development of the plural marker -s, however, “challenges the traditional attitudes to superstrate-like features” (Bobyleva 2011: 42), since Patrick (2004: 435) claims that the -s marked forms are already attested in the 17th and 18th century, which refutes the idea of decreolization and code-switching.

Another point which refutes the ‘alien’ status of the inflectional plural marker - s is the horizontal distribution of inflectional plural marking, since the use of -s is not restricted to the Jamaican upper class. In fact, the occurrence of the plural - s is found throughout the Jamaican Creole continuum, and “persists down to the lower mesolect, whose speakers are typically less fluent in English” (Bobyleva 2011: 42). Patrick (2004: 36) concludes that the horizontal use of - s can be considered an inherent part of Jamaican Creole grammar.

3.2 Analytic Plural Marking Strategies

3.2.1 The Analytic Plural Indicator - olin Tok Pisin

Besides the inflectional plural suffix - s, the semantic plural in present-day Tok Pisin is also expressed in an analytic manner. Thus, nouns can also be pluralized by the prenominal plural marker - ol deriving from the English quantifier all (cf. Bobyleva 2011: 41).

According to Mühlhäusler, “three classes of syntactic nouns are relevant to the determination of regularities underlying the use of number markers in Tok Pisin.” (1985: 348). In this context, he differentiates between animate nouns, inanimate count nouns and inanimate mass nouns.

Moreover, he (Mühlhäusler 1985: 348) argues that Tok Pisin usually distinguishes between singular, plural and dual as illustrated in table 1. The following table of the number system for animate nouns is from Mühlhäusler (1985: 348):


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Plural Marking Strategies in Tok Pisin and Jamaican Creole
A Comparative Analysis
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Proseminar Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Diese Seminararbeit habe ich im Rahmen eines linguistischen Seminars verfasst und habe mich somit mit dem Fokus "Plural marking in English-based creoles" beschäftigt.
Tok Pisin, Jamacain Creole, Creole Languages, Plural marking
Quote paper
Kim Frintrop (Author), 2014, Plural Marking Strategies in Tok Pisin and Jamaican Creole, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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