Is English a creole?

Hi all!

By now, I figure most of you have noticed that when a post shows up at the HLC about the development of the English language in particular, I show up. Today is no exception to the rule (though there will be some in the future)!

Anyway, it’s safe to say that England has been invaded a lot during the last couple of… well, centuries. All this invading and being invaded by non-native people had a tremendous effect on most things English, the English language among them.

This is, of course, nothing new. I’ve previously discussed the question of whether English is a Romance language, but today, we’re going to jump into something different, namely, the question of whether English is a creole.

In order to do that, I’ll first need to say a few words about what a creole actually is, and we’re going to do the basic definition here: a creole is a pidgin with native speakers.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Right, so a pidgin is a form of language that develops between two groups of people who don’t speak the same language but still needed to understand each other for one reason or another.

Typically, in the formation of a pidgin, you have a substrate language and a superstrate language. The substrate is the ‘source’ language. This language is, usually for political reasons, abandoned for the more prestigious superstrate language.

But not completely. Instead, the pidgin becomes a sort of mix, taking characteristics of both the substrate and the superstrate to create a ‘new’ language. A rather distinct characteristic of this new language is that it is typically less grammatically complex than both the sub- and the superstrate language. Another distinct characteristic is that it has no native speakers since it’s in the process of being created by native speakers of two different languages.

But, it can get native speakers. When a new generation is born to pidgin-speaking parents, and the new generation acquires the pidgin as their native tongue, the pidgin ceases to be a pidgin and becomes a creole. So, a creole is a pidgin with native speakers. Typically, a creole becomes more grammatically complex, developing into a new language that is a mix of the two languages that created the pidgin.

But enough of that. Question is: is English a creole?

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

There is a distinct difference between Old English and Middle English, the primary one being a dramatic discrepancy in grammatical complexity, with Middle English being far simpler. As we now know, this is one of the primary features of a pidgin.

There were also politically stronger languages at play during the relevant time periods that just might have affected Old English so much that it was largely abandoned in favour of the other language.

First came the Vikings…

*1

One often thinks about murder and plunder when thinking about the Vikings, but a bunch of them settled in Britain around the 9th century (see Danelaw) and likely had almost daily contact with Old English speakers. This created the perfect environment for borrowing between the two languages.

But see, Old Norse, at least in the Danelaw area, was the politically stronger language. Some people claim that this is the cause of the extreme differences we see when Old English transitions into Middle English.

One of the main arguments for Old Norse as the superstrate is a particular borrowing that stands out. Though English borrowed plenty of words from Old Norse, for example common words like egg, knife, sky, sick, wrong, etc., it also borrowed the third person plural pronouns: they, them, their (compare Swedish de, dem, deras).

This is odd. Why, you ask? Well, pronouns are typically at what we might call the ‘core’ of a language. They are rarely borrowed because they are so ingrained in the language that there is no need to take them from another.

The borrowing of the pronouns from Old Norse implies a deep influence on the English language. Combined with all other things that English borrowed from Old Norse and the grammatical simplification of Middle English, this has led some linguists to claim that English is actually an Old Norse/Old English-based creole.  

We’ll discuss that a bit more in a sec.

After the Vikings, the Brits thought they could, you know, relax, take a deep breath, enjoy a lazy Sunday speaking English…

And then came the French…

*2

Now, here, there’s no doubt that French was the dominant language in Britain for quite some time. The enormous amounts of lexical items that were borrowed from French indicate a period of prolonged, intense contact between the two languages and, again, the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English might be reason enough to claim that Middle English is a creole of Old English and Old French.

And a good number of linguists2 have, indeed, said exactly that. This is known as the Middle English creole hypothesis and it remains a debated topic (though less so than it has been historically).

‘But, Sabina,’ you might ask, ‘I thought you were going to tell me if English is a creole?!’

Well, sorry, but the fact is that I can’t. This one is every linguist (or enthusiast) for themselves. I can’t say that English is not a creole, nor can I say that it is one. What I can say is that I, personally, don’t believe it to be a creole.

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

It is true that Middle English, and subsequently modern English, is significantly less grammatically complex than Old English. That’s a well-evidenced fact. However, that simplification was already happening before French came into the picture, and even before Old Norse.

In fact, the simplification is often attributed to a reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (good thing Rebekah covered all of this, isn’t it?) which led to the previously complex paradigms becoming less distinct from each other. Might not have anything to do with language contact at all. Or it might.

The borrowing of Old Norse pronouns is, indeed, unusual, but not unheard of, and studies have shown that the effect of Old Norse on English may not be as significant and widespread as it was believed.

When it comes to French, while an intriguing hypothesis which is well-worth pursuing for leisurely interests, extensive borrowing is not sufficient evidence to claim that a creole has been created. Extensive borrowing occurs all the time among languages in long, intense contact.

*3

Combined with the fact that we have evidence of grammatical simplification before both Old Norse and French came to play a significant role in English, and the trouble we stumble onto when considering the question of when English was ever a pidgin, I personally find both creolization hypotheses unlikely.

However, I encourage you to send us a message and tell us what you think: is English a creole?

Tune in next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the Transatlantic accent!

Sources and references

Most famously Patricia Poussa’s work ‘The evolution of early Standard English: the creolization hypothesis’ (1982).

Most famously Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt “The French lineage of English” (1977). The interested reader may also wish to take a look at Dalton-Puffer’s (1995) interesting discussion on the phenomenon in the chapter ‘Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation’ of Fisiak’s (1995) book Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions

Credits to the creators of the pictures herein used. They have been found on the following pages:

*1: https://quotesgram.com/img/funny-viking-quotes/1373665/

*2 https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f7/6d/3d/f76d3dad4183d34f8d0669a433684df5.jpg

*3 Credits to James Nicoll, no URL offered since the domain has since expired.

2 Replies to “Is English a creole?”

  1. I do not know how well this fits with general theory, but my idea is that generally, the new management, is the technologically most advanced, and tends to impose its grammar on the pidgin, while it allows the population to add its vocabulary. As the pidgin is creolised, the management vocabulary is more and more replaced by the people’s vocabulary, but the grammar of the new management tends to stay in control.
    We see this in German, where the Caesars, in occupation, pidginised Latin with Nordic, so now German looks germanic, but its grammar is very Latin.
    And with the Norman invasion, the fact that Norman French was backed by a written language, meant that Norman French grammar prevailed, while the Saxon and Nordic vocabulary took over.
    I am not a linguist, but I have been involved in the translation of Pre-Norman documents, mainly Latin, and AHD, so I have seen these strange mixtures of grammar and vocabulary.
    Am I seeing something which is not there, or am I onto something?

    1. Hi there, David!

      That’s a great question!

      It might certainly be that the invaders might be more technologically advanced, but looking at English, this doesn’t seem to really hold up under scrutiny. When Britain was overtaken by the Normans, England was, for the time, fairly advanced. They had significant writing centres, for example, which came to influence Europe. Although, France was, of course, also quite advanced, but I think on this point that we’ll have to claim them to be fairly equal.

      In regards to language development, what you’re proposing is interesting. However, looking at the state of both German and English (today and historically), their grammars are fundamentally Germanic. Let me explain.

      It’s easy to forget that both Germanic and Latin, originally, came from the same language: Proto-Indo-European. As such, it is reasonable to assume that, although they’ve grown apart throughout the centuries, some grammatical features are the same (or very similar).

      In German, we find a significantly more grammatically complex system than in, say, English. This could easily be confused as a grammar borrowed from Latin (as a very similar system can be seen there). However, the grammatical system used by German is actually the same system that originally was a part of all Germanic languages – a part of the Germanic inheritance, we might say. Icelandic also retains a lot of these features though many other Germanic languages have gone through a significant simplification process (English and Swedish, for example). We might say that the grammar of German is Germanic: it has simply retained so many of the features of Proto-Germanic that it may seem to have more in common with Latin than with many other Germanic languages.

      Similarly, English grammar was actually quite unaffected by the invasion. As explained in the post, many of the grammatical shifts that we see in Middle English were well underway before the invasion and not too many grammatical features of French were borrowed in. Instead, borrowed vocabulary from French is very common – it is estimated that approximately 29% of the English vocabulary is borrowed directly from French and another 29% from Latin, yet the grammar of Present-Day English, although greatly simplified, remains primarily Germanic (for more details, check out for example ‪A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach by Barbara Fennell).‬

      ‪I hope that answered your question! ‬

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