Universalist Theories

  • Universalist Theory is one central factor or mechanism involved in the explanation of the striking structural similarities of pidgin and creole languages.

  • Universalist theories aim to explain structural similarities among the world’s pidgins and creoles on the basis of the assumption that all humans are characterized by an innate ability to simplify language. Hence, structural similarities are the result of universal strategies for language simplification. They are applied in pidginization processes – the active creation of a pidgin by different speakers with different native languages. These strategies are universal because they are shared by all humans worldwide.

  • One particular universalist theory is the foreigner talk theory. Foreigner talk describes a specific style of speech applied by native speakers of a language when addressing foreigners in typical speech situations. For instance, the foreigner asks for directions and the native speaker assumes that the foreigner is not able to understand the native speaker correctly when using his or her usual, prestigious speech variety. In such cases, native speakers might decide to use foreigner talk in order to make themselves understandable: a modified, structurally (highly) simplified variety of a language. The variety is used by native speakers for communication with foreigners.

  • Summing up, universalist theories assume that pidgins are created on the basis of a simplified input, like in foreigner talk. We have established that the grammars of the world’s pidgins are similar. This (shared) structural simplification is the result of the fact that the learners of a pidgin are exposed to a structurally simplified version – a foreigner talk version - of the lexifier language. The lexifier language is regarded as the target language in the language learning process.

  • A universalist approach to creole genesis is Derek Bickerton's Language Bioprogram Hypothesis (LBH) (1981).

The Language Bioprogram Hypothesis

(Information adapted from Sebba, 1997)