Middle English as Creole: “Still trying not to refer to you lot as ‘bloody colonials’”

Brandy Ryan

copyright 2005 

Language Contact: Pidgins and Creoles

Extensive contact between two language community cannot exist without some means of shared communication; to this end, contact situations give birth to a simplified and restricted language known as a pidgin.  Pidgin languages allow speakers of different languages to communicate, usually for economic reasons (trade, seafaring, labour management) (Herbert Schendl 59).  A pidgin, then, is a makeshift form of communication between speakers of two distinct languages; it is neither language community’s mother tongue.  The linguistic elements that are borrowed by one community to communicate with another tend only to be exchanged for necessary and restricted range of functions.  Pidgins can and do develop into a new and more sophisticated language (a creole) to accommodate a wider range of function than the primarily economic restrictions of pidgins allow.  Creolization, as this “evolutionary” process is called, is considered a natural linguistic process, and reflects the “maturation” of an inferior language (substrate) to reflect the sophistication and complexity of the dominant language (superstrate) with which it has had extensive and prolonged contact.  When the structure of the language becomes stable enough to be passed on to the next generation, it has become a creole language.  Pidgins characteristically demonstrate diverse pronunciation, reduced phonology, simplified morphology and syntax, and a restricted vocabulary, whereas creoles reveal a more complicated structure: morphology and syntax become more elaborate, pronunciation stabilizes, and there is a marked increase in vocabulary (61).  Creole tends to be something of a “ghetto” language, co-existing simultaneously with the dominant (usually colonial) language; unlike pidgins, however, creoles acquire native speakers.


The Argument: Middle English as French Creole

Linguists arguing about the plausibility of creole status for Middle English do so because of the substantial changes between Old and Middle English, in an attempt to substantiate the mysterious mechanism which began the process of change.  Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt begin this contentious debate in 1977; they discuss Middle English as a “gradient mixture of two or more languages … [the] result of mixing which is substantial enough to result in a new system … separate from its antecedent parent systems” (21).  Beginning with the claim that 40% of the English lexicon, semantics, phonology, and morphology are mixed, Bailey and Maroldt paint a picture of Middle English as the child of Old French, with Anglo-Saxon English denoted as the absentee father and Old Norse as the smooth first boyfriend who paves the way for his predecessor.  They do not ask if Middle English is a creole language, but rather how it became so: was it the product of Old French mixing with Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon mixing with Old French, or so thorough a union that it is impossible to say definitively?  Bailey and Maroldt champion the “major” influence of Old French before 1200 and the “minor” influx of Central French during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Their findings are based on percentage of French loans in the English lexicon, morphological compounds (mixing of French and Anglo-Saxon stems and affixes), phonology, syntax, and tense.  For Bailey and Maroldt, that Middle English is a creole of Old French superstrate and Anglo-Saxon substrate is “by and large,” “all and all” without question.  Bailey and Maroldt’s argument does not convince many scholars; as Manfred Görlach argues, “the term ‘creole’ is used quite vaguely by some scholars; others have redefined it to make it satisfy the specific needs of their arguments” (330).  He goes on to suggest that if we take the minimal criteria for classifying a creole that linguists like Bailey and Maroldt have done, most of the languages of the world would be considered creoles.  To pursue this argument skillfully, a linguist must argue for creolization based on more than “simplification and language mixture” (335).


The Other Contenders – Latin, Scandinavian, Language Death

Anthony Warner and Patricia Poussa both advocate for Middle English as creole, although Warner considers Middle English as the child of English and Latin, and Poussa argues for the dominant influence of Scandinavian.  Warner’s argument takes up the Wyclifite sermons as evidence that both audience and authors were thoroughly familiar with both Latin and English – the sermons represent how English begins to discharge linguistic and system functions previously the domain of Latin (qtd. in Gilbert 123).  Poussa, on the other hand, advocates for Scandinavian creolization on the basis of the spoken form of language where Old English and Scandinavian hybridize as a result of direct contact; for her, creolization can be determined by loss of grammatical gender, extreme simplification of inflexions, and borrowing of common lexical words and form words (70).  Christiane Dalton-Puffer, however, contends that the case for creole ME is as plausible as the case for eME as representative of “language death”; questioning her predecessors’ uncritical use of linguistic terms constructed for creole languages in which linguists have literal contact with speakers, Dalton-Puffer places Middle English in the status of language death, where an unstable bilingual (Norman French and Old English) language community demonstrates a language shift from the “‘regressive majority language’” (Old English) to a “‘dominant minority language’” (Norman French) (qting Dressler 40).  Treating Middle English as the last vestige of Old English, her hypothesis discusses several indicators of language death: the discontinuation of giving or using proper names, the relaxation of linguistic rules as a result of the devaluing of the language, and the restriction of Middle English to informal or private functions (as opposed to French or Latin, which was the language of formal and public functions).  Dalton-Puffer argues this language death hypothesis to emphasize the near-impossibility of arguing conclusively on Middle English’s status as creole; by using the same arguments as her predecessors, she builds a case that up until its conclusion (English is not, in fact, dead) carries the same internal logic as the creole case. 


The Counter-Argument: The Journey Matters

W. Rothwell follows in the footsteps of both Görlach and Dalton-Puffer in its desire to clarify and re-examine the criteria of creolization in the Middle English debate.  He argues that the mere identification of a specific form of one language (Anglo-French, for example) in another (Middle English) does not prove the case for creolization without supporting evidence of semantic content and development.  Rather than seeing Middle English as a creole that took on aspects of the socially dominant language in England, Rothwell argues that the English was “enrich[ed]” by the passing of “lexical and morphological/syntactical” (163) processes.  French was, to its Middle English speakers, not “a discrete, self-contained language entirely separate from English, but … part of the common stock of llinguistic material available for use … either in the form of complete lexical items or as components that could be combined with English elements” (164).  Rothwell’s discussion of the influences on Middle English relies on a careful (and he argues, critical) distinction of Anglo-French from Old French, whose appearance in Middle English linguistics is rare, although enough materials have been collected over the past forty years to substantiate a thorough investigation of how and when French words came into English.  The biggest rejoinder Rothwell offers his predecessors is that creolization assumes one of the languages is highly developed and the other more primitive, but none of Old English, Middle English, Central French nor Anglo-French can reasonably be considered undeveloped.  Rothwell proposes instead the treatment of the Middle English language as trilingual, drawing on evidence from the scribal class (admittedly a minority), which would have been familiar if not fluent with Anglo-French, Latin, and various dialects of Middle English.  This trilingual approach allows linguists to examine variations of contact, influence, and change – without the need to consider Middle English as an untutored tongue, in need of civilization. 


For Further Reading

Bailey, Charles J. and Karl Maroldt.  “The French lineage of English.”  Langues en contact – Pidgins – Creoles.  Ed. Jürgen M. Meisel.  Tübingen: Narr, 21-53.

Dalton-Puffer, Chritiane.  “Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation.”  Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions.  Ed. Jacek Fisiak.  Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995.  35-50.

Dawson, Hope C.  “Defining the Outcome of Language Contact: Old English and Old Norse.”  OSUWPL 57 (2003): 40-57.

Gilbert, Glenn G.  Pidgin and Creole Languages: Essays in Memory of John E. Reinecke.  Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1987.

Görlach, Manfred.  “Middle English – a creole?”  Linguistics Across Historical and Geographical Boundaries.  Eds. Dieter Kastovsky and Aleksander Szwedek.  Berlin:Mouton de Gruyter, 1986.  329-344.

Poussa, Patricia.  “The Evolution of Early Standard English: The Creolization Hypothesis.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 14 (1982): 69-85.

Rothwell, W.  “Arrivals and Departures: The Adoption of French Terminology into Middle English.”  English Studies (1998) 144-65.

Schendl, Herbert.  Historical Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

Warner, Anthony.  Complementation in Middle English and the Methodology of Historical Syntax: A Study of the Wyclifite Sermons.  London: Croom Helm, 1982.