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In linguistics, relexification is the mechanism of language change by which one language replaces much or all of its lexicon, including basic vocabulary, with that of another language, without drastic change to its grammar. It is principally used to describe pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages.[1] Relexification is not synonymous with lexical borrowing, which describes the situation where a language merely supplements its basic vocabulary with words from another language.

Language creation and the relexification hypothesis[edit]

Relexification is a form of language interference in which a pidgin, a creole or a mixed language takes the great majority of its lexicon from a superstrate or target language while its grammar either comes from the substrate or source language, or, according to universalist theories, arises from universal principles of simplification and grammaticalisation. The language from which the lexicon is derived is called the "lexifier".[2] Michif, Media Lengua, and Lanc-Patuá creole are mixed languages which arose through relexification.[3]

A hypothesis that all creole languages derive their grammar from the medieval Mediterranean Lingua Franca was widely held at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s before falling out of favor. It was later argued that, for example, the grammar of Haitian Creole is a substratum, created when Fon-speaking African slaves relexified their language with French vocabulary, because of underlying similarities between Haitian and Fon. 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[edit]

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.[4]

Conlangs and jargon[edit]

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.[5]

While this 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.[6] The same process is at work in the genesis of jargons and argots. Examples of this are:

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.


  1. ^ P.H. Matthews. 2007. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics. Second edition. Oxford.
    Lyle Campbell & Mauricio J. Mixco. 2007. A Glossary of Historical Linguistics. University of Utah Press.
    David Crystal. 2003. A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics. Fifth edition. Blackwell.
  2. ^ Wardhaugh (2002:76)
  3. ^ Bakker (1997), Muysken (1981), Wittmann (1994)
  4. ^ Bickerton & Odo (1976)
  5. ^ Wittmann (1989, 1994), Brightman (1995).
  6. ^ Section on the term "relex" in the Conlang Wikibook
  7. ^ Joyce (1916:245)


  • 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," Cultural Anthropology 10:4.509-546
  • Danchev, Andrei (1997), "The Middle English creolization hypothesis revisited", in Fisiak, Jacek, Studies in Middle English linguistics, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 79–108, ISBN 3-11-015242-8 
  • 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 
  • Muysken, Pieter (1981), "Halfway between Quechua and Spanish: The case for relexification", in Highfield, Arnold; Valdman, Albert, 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, Mélanges linguistiques, Trois-Rivières: Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières, pp. 245–80. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 & Catherine Havasi (2004), Meeting the Computer Halfway: Language Processing in the Artificial Language Lojban, Massachusetts Institute of Technology [1]

External links[edit]