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Focus on Creolists: Douglas Taylor

by Pauline Christie (UWI, Mona, Jamaica)

The Carrier Pidgin: A newsletter for those interested in pidgin and creole languages
(Vol. 16, Nos. 2, July-October 1988)



Douglas Macrae Taylor (1901–1979) was undoubtedly one of the outstanding pioneers of creole studies. Yet his early life would seem to have marked him out for several far more lucrative careers than the one he actually chose.

Born in Yorkshire, England, Taylor read Modern Languages (French and German) at Cambridge University. His BA and MA degrees from Cambridge were followed with a Diploma in International Law and Conflict of Laws from the Ecole des Arts et Sciences Politiques in Paris, after which he spent a term in Heidelberg attending lectures in philosophy.

The last forty-one years of his life, however, were spent, for the most part, on the remote estate of Magua, situated on the Caribbean island of Dominica. It was there that he produced most of the published work for which he is remembered. When he died in Manchester, England, where he had gone to seek medical attention, a stone's throw from his native Yorkshire, it could indeed have been said with much justification that Taylor's life had come full circle.

His first visit to the island with which he was to become so closely identified, came about by sheer chance. For he was vacationing on the neighbouring island of Martinique in 1931, when a friend suggested that he should visit the Carib Reserve on Dominica. So began a series of visits which led to his making the island his home in 1938. More significantly for the world of scholarship, so began the fascination with Amerindian languages and culture and the engrossing interest in creole languages which were to endure to the end of his life.

The label “linguist-anthropologist” is one which he would probably not have refused. His two major books, written at quite different stages of his career, bear witness to his double interest. The first of these, The Black Caribs of British Honduras , was published in 1951, many years after the research on which it was based. The other, Languages of the West Indies , appeared in 1977, just two years before his death.

Taylor was a scholar of wide and varied experience. His sojourns away from Magua included an attachment as an assistant professor at Yale, a visiting professorship at George Washington University, and research fellowships at Indiana and Northwestern Universities as well as at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, The Hague. When he was well over sixty years old, at a time when most other men had retired from active work, he did extensive field-work in Suriname and was subsequently a member of the team, led by Robert Le Page and Andrée Tabouret-Keller, which undertook a sociolinguistic survey of multilingual Cayo District, Belize in 1970.

Creolists will recall, in particular, Douglas Taylor's detailed and insightful descriptions of Dominican Creole which were published in Word between 1947 and 1955. These highlighted the structural independence of that variety, a fact which is usually taken for granted nowadays but was, at that time, not generally accepted even among scholars. At least equally significantly, Taylor's articles played an important role in the revival of scholarly interest in the creole languages of the Caribbean from the 1950s onwards.

His contribution to creole studies extended beyond analysis of a single variety. From time to time he wrote reviews of work of other creolists whose focus lay elsewhere, for example, Elodie Jourdain (Martinique), Jan Voorhoeve (Sranan Tongo) and Beryl Bailey (Jamaican Creole). Later, he devoted one section of his book on Caribbean languages to discussion of different creole varieties. In addition to lexically French creoles, he directed his attention to Saramaccan, Sranan Tongo and Papiamentu in particular, comparing these with each other and also with Portuguese Guinea Creole.

He consistently denied the status of a language to Jamaican Creole, considering that, along with the varieties spoken in Antigua and Belize, it was “in the process of disintegration” under the influence of English. This was how he referred to the problem of drawing a clear dividing line between creole and English in the ‘anglophone' territories, a problem which has since been much discussed by scholars.

Taylor was also one of the first scholars to stress structural similarities among Caribbean creoles and also between these as a group and creoles spoken in the Far East. He pointed out very early what has now come to be common knowledge, i.e., that many similarities are sometimes shared by creoles with different European lexifiers, whereas structural differences might also be observed between varieties which derive the bulk of their lexicon from a common European source. Like some other scholars in the 1960s, he held the view that the shared features which could not be traced to the European lexifiers derive from an Afro-Portuguese pidgin which had been relexified upon contact with French, English and Dutch at different points on the West African coast.

This particular hypothesis may have relatively few adherents today, but the attention of creolists is more than ever centred around attempts to find feasible explanations for shared features such as those which aroused the interest of Taylor and others.

Taylor strongly rejected the view that creoles were genetically related either to European languages or to each other. Thus, he preferred terms like “French-based” and “English-based” for the varieties which were then referred to as “French” or “English” respectively. Taylor's own terminology is under criticism nowadays, but in adopting it he was definitely ahead of his time. His debate with Robert Hall in Word in 1959 on the subject of genetic relationships is well known.

Douglas Taylor was one member of the small group of scholars who took part in the first ever international conference on creole languages, held in Jamaica in 1959. He was again present in 1968 when a second such conference was convened at the same venue. The significance of these conferences and the role of the participants in the development of creole studies cannot be over-estimated.

Taylor's work did not go unrecognised in academic circles in his adopted region. In 1978, he was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics and in the following year he was given the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws (D. Litt.) from the University of the West Indies. Yet, despite the honours which he received in the wider area, few Dominicans at home realised the prestige accorded to the man who had spent so many years among them, or even his significant contribution to the documentation of their own language and culture. This failure can be attributed to a great extent to Taylor's humility and his great desire for privacy and the simple life.

He was blessed with an extraordinary generosity which made him ready to help a fellow researcher, even a humble graduate student such as I was when I first met him in 1968. In the years that followed, he voluntarily shared with me written material which had come into his possession, as well as his expertise. Such gestures came quite naturally to a man whose patrician upbringing was evident under all circumstances and whose devotion to scholarship has earned him a definite place in the history of creole studies.

Select Bibliography


1945. Certain Carib morphological influences on Creole. International Journal of American Linguistics 11: 140–55.

1947. Phonemes of Caribbean Creole. Word 3:173–79.

1951. Structural Outline of Caribbean Creole. Word 7: 43–59.

1952. A note on the phoneme /r/ in Dominican Creole. Word 8: 224–26.

1955. Phonic interference in Dominican Creole. Word 11: 45–52.

1956. On the classification of creolized languages. Word 12: 407–14.

1959. On function vs. form in non-traditional languages. Word 15: 485–89.

1960. Language shift or changing relationship? International Journal of American Linguistics 26:155–61.

1961a. New languages for old in the West Indies. Comparative Studies in Society and History 3:277–88 [Reprinted in Readings in the Sociology of Language , edited by J. Fishman, 1968, 607–19.]

1961b. Some Dominican descendants of the French definite article. In Creole Language Studies II , edited by R.B. Le Page, 85–90.

1962. Le créole de la Dominique. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Langages . Paris: Gallimard, 1022–49.

1963. The origin of West Indian creole languages: evidence from grammatical categories. American Anthropologist 65: 800–14.

1971. Grammatical and lexical affinities of creoles. In Pidginization and Creolization of Languages , edited by D. Hymes, 293–6.

1977. Languages of the West Indies . Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of The Carrier Pidgin (ISSN: 0739–3474)

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