Today's New York Times includes an obituary for the pioneering creolist John Holm, with some remembrances from our own Sally Thomason.
John Holm, a linguist who helped bring the study of creole and pidgin languages into the scholarly mainstream, died on Dec. 28 in Azeitão, Portugal. He was 72.
The cause was prostate cancer, his husband, Michael Pye, said.
While hitchhiking through Mexico and Central America as a teenager, Mr. Holm heard black Nicaraguans along the Caribbean coast speaking a non-Spanish language that seemed oddly familiar. They called it “pirate English,” a reference to its probable origin as a pidgin spoken on pirate and British Navy ships.
Although Mr. Holm could barely understand what he was hearing, it planted the seed for what would become his life’s work: the study of creole and pidgin languages spoken by millions of people around the world, especially the English-derived creoles of the Caribbean.
A pidgin is a reduced language used by groups with no language in common who need to communicate for trade or other purposes. A creole, by contrast, is a natural language developed from a mixture of different languages, like Haitian Creole, which is based on 18th-century French but absorbed elements of Portuguese, Spanish and West African languages. Semi-creole languages, which Mr. Holm also studied — Afrikaans is an example — share even more traits with their vocabulary-source languages.
After compiling the first dictionary of Bahamian English, Mr. Holm produced a landmark study, the two-volume “Pidgins and Creoles,” which traced the socio-historical evolution of pidgins and creoles, explained their structures and described more than 100 varieties.
“Pidgin and creole studies had generally been dismissed, largely because creole languages in particular were thought to be spoken almost exclusively by poor people of color and were considered to be bastardized versions of the European languages that contributed their vocabularies,” said Sarah Thomason, a linguist at the University of Michigan and an associate editor of The Journal of Historical Linguistics.
“By publishing careful empirical studies of creole and semi-creole language structures, and by publicizing these languages in ‘Pidgins and Creoles,’ John helped create one of the most exciting subfields of linguistics,” she added.
Update: An obituary for Holm also ran in The Bahamas Tribune.