THE DISCUSSION THREAD "IS ENGLISH A CREOLE?"
The question that gave rise to the discussion “Is English a creole?” was originally posted on 20 September 2006 by V** on the Web site WordReference. com/Language Forums. In all, there were 25 postings in the thread within the space of almost 29 hours. V** asks others in the forum whether they would consider English to be “a creole language, a formalized French-like language with a Germanic substrate”. He immediately modifies this question by restricting the term “creole” to Middle English and then goes on to mention the large number of French-based borrowings in English. But he does not explain what he understands by the term “creole”.
The first six responses react positively in two postings and negatively in four to V**’s original question, but there is not much attempt to define what a creole is until the third poster uses a definition taken from an Oxford Dictionaries Web site as “a pidgin language which has become a mother tongue”. This same poster, B**, refers to the original posting by suggesting that what V** is really talking about is the phenomenon of lexical borrowing into English. Poster number 5 (who does not give a name but only a set of punctuation marks) then offers a definition of a creole as being “a language that forms from extended contact between two languages”, and suggests that this is what has happened in the case of English. The sixth poster, M**, denies that English is a creole but seems to feel that creole languages are in any case only based on French: “Creole, on the other hand is highly modelled on French”.
So far, then, we have a selection of lay interpretations of whether or not English (or Middle English) is a creole, and two somewhat different definitions of a creole emerge:
- 1. A creole is “a pidgin language which has become a mother tongue”.
- 2. A creole is “a language that forms from extended contact between two languages”.
As the thread progresses, posters become more and more confused about how to define a creole. In posting number 7, B** offers a Wikipedia definition that clearly contradicts the earlier definition she or he offered concerning the relationship between pidgins and creoles. This new definition seems to fit the second definition offered above:
3. A creole is “the result of a nontrivial mixture of two or more languages, usually with radical morphological changes and a syntax which is not obviously borrowed from either of the parent tongues”.
However, this poster then goes on to suggest that perhaps a more appropriate term to use to characterise such a phenomenon would be “koine” and backs up this argument by referring to the earlier period of contact between Anglo- Saxon and varieties of Old Norse.
The following definitions are also offered:
- 4. A creole is a language that shows “simplification of the grammar”, which does not necessarily depend on whether it has been in contact “with one or more other languages”.
- 5. A creole is not “simply a mishmash of languages”. A creole “usually arises when speakers of one language become economically or politically dominant over speakers of another”.
- 6. A creole is “a mother tongue formed from the contact of a European language with another language, especially an African language”. (The poster of this definition, L**, who does not agree that Middle English is a creole, then goes on to seriously compromise his or her point of view by writing that “there are very good arguments for considering Old English a pidgin”. This poster also calls for a poll on the opinions given in the thread, which in itself indicates a considerable degree of confusion. Defining a creole does not, after all, depend on a popular vote. The poll is never taken.)
The question of whether English is or is not a creole finally peters out in a three-way discussion between J**, B** and O**, but not before some interesting statements have been made. One participant suggests that English is a “BAstard [sic] rather than a creole”. “Creole” for this poster indicates “a non-standard form of a known standard”, but she or he maintains that “English is not a ‘colorfully messed up’ version of some other more ‘legitimate’ standard”. The confusion between “standard”, “non-standard”, “creole” and “legitimate’ standard” displays a lack of expertise in matters of sociolinguistics, even though all the contributors to the discussion are obviously interested in the subject of language and the history of language. It is interesting to note that O**’s opinion that English is a “bastard” reveals the degree to which the participants revert to the anthropomorphic conceptual metaphor for language (A language is a human being). It is, of course, not possible to tell whether the term “bastard”, when ascribed to English, is meant to be taken seriously. In any event, the question of whether English is a creole appears to have prompted a more than average number of negatively affective comments. Another participant considers English to be “a pastiche”, which implies that it is a linguistic system that has been hurriedly put together from bits and pieces. Towards the end of the thread, B** says, “I don’t think there [sic] anything bad or disrespectful about it [being called a ‘creole’]”, and, once again using the anthropomorphic metaphor, O** asks, “So what does a language have to do to suddenly upgrade from a creole to a ‘proper’ language?” One inference to be drawn from this question is that there are “proper” and “nonproper” languages.
It is obvious that not all the participants in the discussion have English as their first language, but all have a more than average interest in linguistic issues. The majority appear not to be professional linguists, although one or two could be, and they all seem to be aware that people outside the discussion could also read the discussion thread (cf. the comment “While I believe that words mean what people mean them to be, i f people out there think that a creole is any language that has alot [sic] of foreign words then linguists need a new word for what they are under the impression ‘creole’ means”).
Four interesting points emerge from the Internet discussion:
- 1. The suggestion that English is a creole provokes strong feelings not only among professional linguists, but also among lay persons who are interested in human language.
- 2. Six different definitions of the term “creole” emerge.
- 3. Most of the definitions veer either towards the opinion that a creole is a simplified form of language arising from language contact situations or towards the opinion that a creole is a nativised pidgin; they come surprisingly close to the two definitions I shall deal with in the following section.
- 4. All the discussants consider language contact to be significant in some way or another.
-  This is a distinctly odd point of view which would lead every dialect or sociostylistic variety of a language to be classified as a “creole”.