The construction of a modern myth: Middle English as a creole

Not long after the study of pidgins and creoles had begun to establish itself in its own right, a rumor started that English, too, was a candidate for this discipline. The rumor soon turned into a full-fledged linguistic discussion which had two main directions.

—Christiane Dalton-Puffer, “Middle English is a creole and its opposite”


Three chapters in this book deal with intentional or unintentional mythbuilding on the part of linguists themselves. In chapter 7, I take a look at the so-called complaint tradition suggested by James and Lesley Milroy in their influential book Authority in Language. Chapter 11 discusses the “talking- into-being” of a global form of English that underlies such labels as “English as a Lingua Franca” or “English as a World Language”.

The present chapter is closely linked to chapter 3 in that it deals with the far-reaching and rapid changes that took place in English from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. My main purpose, however, is to discuss the curious but often heated debate that has raged in the historical linguistics literature over the past 30 years on the results of the changes themselves. As with all debates, two opposing sides are concerned to present two apparently irreconcilable points of view (cf. Dalton-Puffer 1995). In the one camp, we find a group of linguists who argue that the form of language resulting from contact situations between speakers of English and speakers of Anglo-Norman French (or at an earlier stage with speakers of Old Norse) can best be classified as a creole. In the opposite camp, we find linguists who vehemently reject this hypothesis, arguing instead that the changes can be adequately explained as natural processes of levelling and simplification without having to resort to the term “creole” at all.

The bone of contention in this dispute is the use of the relatively harmless linguistic term “creole”, and, somewhat surprisingly, it has generated unusual amounts of emotional involvement on the side of the opponents. Evidence that the debate, as a debate, might have got a little out of hand is provided by the generation of a number of stories and counter-stories on whether English—and in particular Middle English—actually is a creole. Heated discussion threads can be found on the Internet among both language “experts” and language “novices”, and the arguments in both camps display a problematic lack of self-reflexivity and distance. We are dealing here with an embryonic modern myth, and the purpose of this chapter is to reveal its discursive origins.

The incipient myth may be called the myth of the creolisation of English,[1] and in this chapter I aim to show how the construction of meanings prompted by the linguistic term “creole” has tended to cloud our ability to assess linguistic change, variability, heterogeneity and hybridity as universal features of all language varieties. Ultimately, then, the dispute derives from the linguistic homogeneity myth presented in chapter 1, which lies at the heart of all the other myths in this book.

In chapter 3, I sketched out the sociohistorical framework within which the ASC emerged as a text type central to the dominant sociopolitical discourse in post-Alfredian Anglo-Saxon England. The archive that it helped to construct consisted of “meaningful statements” that determined the social structure of pre-Conquest England. The entries in the ASC from the last quarter of the eleventh century provide evidence that the archive was under the pressure of an alternative dominant archive, so it is hardly surprising that entries are only sporadic after the Norman Conquest of England and appeared to die out around 1080—with the exception of the Peterborough Chronicle; the “Bilingual Canterbury Epitome” (the F ms.); the single remaining leaf of the “Cottonian Domitian Fragment” (the H ms.), the rest of which was destroyed in the fire at Ashburton House in 1731; and the “Easter Table Chronicle” (the I ms.). The Second Continuation of the Peterborough Chronicle shows the greatest transformation from the “older” archive, and we can state with certainty that by 1154-55 a break had occurred in sociocultural transmission.

The following two questions can be asked about the language of the Peterborough Chronicle:

  • 1. Do the differences between, on the one hand, the language of the first scribe copying out the entries of the Peterborough Chronicle prior to 1116, together with the entries from 1121 to 1132 and, on the other hand, the language of the second scribe probably writing in 1154-55 and recording the events of Stephen’s reign in the Second Continuation constitute evidence of a process of creolisation in early Middle English?
  • 2. Are there continuities or similarities in linguistic constructions arising from two major language contact situations between Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse from the early ninth century on and Middle English and Norman French after 1066 that would invalidate this thesis?

The second question hinges on the assumption that there is an unbroken development of the English language from Anglo-Saxon through Middle English to Modern English, whereas the first question concerns the belief that this supposed continuity was disrupted twice in the history of English, once during the period of Scandinavian encroachments into England resulting in a de facto division of the country into the Danelaw and the rest and again after the Norman Conquest of England, in which French language varieties were brought to England. Those who support the theory of linguistic disruption tend to evoke the notion of creolisation to explain what may have happened, and in doing so they may have helped to construct an embryonic modern myth, the creolisation of English myth. Those who support linguistic continuity are often, but not necessarily always, those who believe in the longevity of English myth as it is represented in the submyth of the ancient language discussed in chapter 2. Looked at from a discursive rather than from a purely linguistic point of view, however, it is perfectly possible to reject a theory of the unbroken tradition of English (as demonstrated in chapter 3) while retaining a linguistic theory of the unbroken tradition.

Myths are discursively constructed from sets of beliefs that may or may not derive from or contain a few grains of “truth”. But they are still fictive constructions, and they form the basis of ideological discourses of English that may become dominant and hegemonic. My aim is to show that even a modern theory that is no older that 30 to 35 years and is located in a well-researched and well-established area of sociolinguistic research, creolistics, is open to being mythologised when it is made to challenge more solidly entrenched myths such as that of the longevity of English. At the same time, however, I wish to argue that continuity in language development need not always be equated with the longevity myth. The unfortunate fact is that, despite a number of written texts in Anglo-Saxon, we have relatively little in the way of reliable firsthand data with which we can reconstruct linguistic changes during the period between 800 and the advent of the Black Death (the plague) in England in 1348. We have a reasonably solid sociohistorical profile of living conditions and social structures during that period, but we have no information on how people used language in going about their daily lives, which is just what intensive language contact involves.

The dispute over the creole origins of Middle English can also be extended to refer to Modern English, and it currently reaches beyond the confines of the academic linguistic community. The major problems concern the nature of language contact situations and conflicting definitions of the term “creole” itself. But before we take a closer look at the scholarly dispute on whether or not Middle English was a creole, it might help to consider some of the points made in the Internet discussion I referred to earlier in this section.

  • [1] In the body of the text I shall consistently shorten the terminology such that the myth of x becomesthe x myth.
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