Lunchtime Colloquia 2023-2024 | Atlantic World Research Network

Lunchtime Colloquia 2023-2024

“Creolization: A Traveling Concept”

Dr. Anca Parvulescu, Professor of English and Liselotte Dieckmann Professor of Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis

November 7, 2023


Creolization is a keyword for comparative literary studies. Dr. Parvulescu was recently asked to write an essay for the American Comparative Literature Associate (ACLA) report, and creolization immediately came to mind as a topic on which she could write.


Parvulescu discusses three main points on creolization:

  1. Emergence and travels of a concept: the concept developed on an arc between Eastern Europe and the Caribbean
  2. Its place in contemporary comparative literature
  3. The concept at work in Creolizing the Modern: Transylvania Across Empires


The comparative arc on which the concept emerged:

  • Natalie Zemon Davis died recently and published Listening to the Languages of the People. This book is an intellectual biography of the Jewish-American linguist Lazar Saineanu. The recent book by Davis was prompted by a discovery on Yiddish.
  • For the past decade, Davis had turned toward history, and was interested in figures who participated in multiple worlds. Saineanu was unusually multi-lingual: he learned Yiddish through his mother, and Romanian as a child; he studied Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Sanskrit, and English. His latest work was about Turkish.
  • At the time he entered linguistics, the field was working in a hierarchy of languages and a developmental model. He set out to revise the central arguments of linguistics. He challenged the idea that linguistic mixing makes languages less important. He thought of Yiddish instead as a paradigmatic exercise, and interlinguistic. He argued it was formed by migration and cultural exchange; it led to innovation. Forced to leave Jewish-speaking lands, Jewish people developed Yiddish by blending Hebrew and German. It became a unique organ of communication, a Jewish lingua-Franca.
  • There was a debate about Creole and Yiddish being “derivative” in nature. Saineanu compared Yiddish to the Roma language; he considered it crucial to an understanding of how all languages mix.
  • Upon completing his study on Yiddish, he sent it to Hugo Schuchardt. On a similar intellectual path, he supported the ongoing mixing of languages. Increasing nationalism was encouraging homogeneity.
  • When a new generation of linguists returned to the concept of creolization, Saineanu became a figure of mythos.


Soon, the conversation pushed beyond just linguistics and into the sociocultural.


Parvulescu noted that famed linguist Edouard Glissant finally returned to his comparativist origins. He wrote of the Caribbean as a laboratory for creolization, and about its modes of connectedness.


Many colleagues spoke about creolization’s play in comparative literature. The concept is invoked in many places, crossing multiple cultural geographies.


Creolization is at the heart of the very concept of comparison. It is essential for translation studies; the concept of creolization opens up translation studies.


The dominant ideology of Europe was modernization equaling monolingualism, but creolization radiates outward toward a constellation of such terms. They pathologized monolingualism, saying that multilingualism was not a sign of a “healthy” nation. If the Eastern European nations wanted to be “modern,” their logic was that they needed to be monolingual.


The concept at work in Parvulescu’s book:

  • The project was a methodological project, looking just at a Romanian village
  • Looking at Ion, a novel by Liviu Rebreanu which is important to the Romanian canon but not known globally, we see how Rebreanu’s fictional village of Pripas is modeled on the village of Prislop, at the crossroads of three empires—Byzantine, Holy Roman, and Ottoman.
  • Neo-serfdom was portrayed by Rebreanu in tandem with enslavement of the Romani people; Roma slavery took forms which shared a similar history with the Indian diaspora.
  • In Ion, one character admonishes his wife in German; another character struggles to speak in Hungarian. The husband says he doesn’t speak Hungarian, even though he does. The languages that characters choose to speak are almost as important as what is said.
  • Writers write with a deep awareness of the fraught relations between language groups.
  • The book talks a lot about the translation and code-switching between languages.
  • Colleagues observed that we are now living through a resurgence of multilingualism as an idea. In the 19th Century, the idea of a “foreign language” emerged; before that, it was just that everyone spoke “a language.”
  • It was also noted that along with this idea of foreignness there emerged the idea of linguistic purity, particularly in France with its Academie Française, which involved deliberately forgetting the obvious development of French from combinations of Roman Imperial Latin with Celtic and Frankish tongues—the same kind of blending/“bastardization” being true of all Romance languages and similarly true of Germanic languages.