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In linguistics, relexification is a mechanism of language change by which one language changes much or all of its lexicon, including basic vocabulary, with the lexicon of another language, without drastically changing the relexified language's grammar. The term is principally used to describe pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages.[1][2][3]

Relexification is not synonymous with lexical borrowing, by which a language merely supplements its basic vocabulary with loanwords from another language.

Language creation and relexification hypothesis

Relexification is a form of language interference in which a pidgin, a creole or a mixed language takes nearly all of its lexicon from a superstrate or a target language while its grammar comes from the substrate or source language or, according to universalist theories, arises from universal principles of simplification and grammaticalization. The language from which the lexicon is derived is called the "lexifier".[4] Michif, Media Lengua, and Lanc-Patuá creole are mixed languages that arose through relexification.[5]

A hypothesis that all creole languages derive their grammar from the medieval Mediterranean Lingua Franca was widely held in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, but it fell out of favour. It was later argued, for example, because of underlying similarities between Haitian Creole and Fon language that the grammar of Haitian Creole is a substratum that was created when Fon-speaking African slaves relexified their language with French vocabulary. However, the role of relexification in creole genesis is disputed by adherents of generative grammar. Wittmann (1994), Wittmann & Fournier (1996), Singler (1996), and DeGraff (2002), for example, have argued that the similarities in syntax reflect a hypothetical Universal Grammar, not the workings of relexification processes.

Second language acquisition

Spontaneous second language acquisition (and the genesis of pidgins) involves the gradual relexification of the native or source language with target-language vocabulary. After relexification is completed, native language structures alternate with structures acquired from the target language.[6]

Conlangs and jargon

In the context of constructed languages, jargons, and argots, the term is applied to the process of creating a language by substituting new vocabulary into the grammar of an existing language, often one's native language.[7]

While the practice is most often associated with novice constructed language designers, it may also be done as an initial stage towards creating a more sophisticated language. A language thus created is known as a relex. For instance, Lojban began as a relex of Loglan, but the languages' grammars have diverged since then.[8] The same process is at work in the genesis of jargons and argots such as these:

  • Caló is a jargon used by Gitanos (Spanish Gypsies) that mixes a Spanish grammar with Romany vocabulary.
  • A literary example of relexification is the comical mock-Latin used by a character in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:[9]
    • Ego credo ut vita pauperum est simpliciter atrox, simpliciter sanguinarius atrox, in Liverpoolio.
    • I believe that the life of the poor is simply atrocious, simply bloody atrocious, in Liverpool.



  • Bakker, Peter (1997), A Language of Our Own, New York: Oxford University Press
  • Bickerton, Derek; Odo, Carol (1976), General phonology and pidgin syntax, Change and variation in Hawaiian English, 1, University of Hawaii
  • Brightman, Robert (1995), "Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification" (PDF), Cultural Anthropology, 10 (4), pp. 509–546, doi:10.1525/can.1995.10.4.02a00030, ISSN 0886-7356, JSTOR 656256, archived from the original (PDF) on 29 March 2016
  • Campbell, Lyle; Mixco, Mauricio J. (2007), A Glossary of Historical Linguistics, Edinburgh University Press, p. 170, ISBN 978-0-7486-2379-2
  • Crystal, David (2008), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (PDF), The Language Library (6th ed.), Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, p. 412, ISBN 978-1-4051-5296-9, LCCN 2007-52260, OCLC 317317506, archived (PDF) from the original on 29 March 2016
  • Danchev, Andrei (1997), "The Middle English creolization hypothesis revisited", in Fisiak, Jacek (ed.), Studies in Middle English Linguistics, Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM], De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 79–108, doi:10.1515/9783110814194.79, ISBN 978-3-11-081419-4, OCLC 203288487
  • DeGraff, Michel (2002), "Relexification: A reevaluation" (PDF), Anthropological Linguistics, 44 (4): 321–414
  • Joyce, James (1916), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York: The Modern Library
  • Matthews, P. H. (2007) [1st pub. 1997], "'relexification'", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, Oxford Paperback Reference (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 343, ISBN 978-0-19-920272-0, LCCN 2007-34904, OCLC 4811330769, OL 2654835W
  • Muysken, Pieter (1981), "Halfway between Quechua and Spanish: The case for relexification", in Highfield, Arnold; Valdman, Albert (eds.), Historicity and variation in creole studies, Ann Arbor: Karoma, pp. 52–78
  • Singler, John Victor (1996), "Theories of creole genesis, sociohistorical considerations, and the evaluation of evidence: The case of Haitian Creole and the Relexification Hypothesis", Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 11 (2): 185–230, doi:10.1075/jpcl.11.2.02sin
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald (2002), "Pidgins and Creoles", An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (fourth ed.), Blackwell Publishing, pp. 57–86
  • Wittmann, Henri (1989), "Relexification et argogenèse," Communication, 1er Colloque international d’argotologie, Université de Besançon, Oct. 13-1, 1989
  • Wittmann, Henri (1994), "Relexification et créologenèse" (PDF), Proceedings of the International Congress of Linguists, Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 15 (4): 335–38
  • Wittmann, Henri; Fournier, Robert (1996), "Contraintes sur la relexification: les limites imposées dans un cadre théorique minimaliste" (PDF), in Fournier, Robert (ed.), Mélanges linguistiques (in French), Trois-Rivières: Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières, pp. 245–280

Further reading

  • Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken & Norval Smith. 1995. Pidgins and Creoles: an introduction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Sebba, Mark. 1997. Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press.
  • Speer, Rob; Havasi, Catherine (2004), Meeting the Computer Halfway: Language Processing in the Artificial Language Lojban (PDF), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, archived (PDF) from the original on 23 October 2014

External links