First opponents

In the same year in which Bailey and Maroldt’s contribution appeared in Meisel’s collection, an article by Nicole Z. Domingue titled “Middle English: Another creole?” was published in the first volume of the Journal of Creole Studies. In that article, Domingue correctly points out that prior to the obvious influence of French on English after the Conquest there is no substantial evidence on which to base the assumption that a mixed language involving English ever existed in Britain. It is a strong argument against the hypothesis that creolisation, or even pidginisation, was a significant factor in the history of the language. Even using the term “mixed language” is assuming what we simply do not know. She makes a careful analysis of the sociocultural conditions under which the creolisation scenario might have taken place, if we were to accept Bailey and Maroldt’s definition of the term in preference to the nativisation-of-a-pidgin hypothesis. After also looking closely at those linguistic features that characterise creoles, she concludes that there are few features that would even warrant the classification of Middle English as a creole, and she ends by simply classifying it as a hybrid language.

Now, what elements in these two obviously conflicting analyses indicate that we may have the beginnings of a linguistic myth that has found favour beyond the academic linguistic community? In the first place, Domingue’s reaction, like that of Edgar Polome in 1980, to which I shall turn shortly, is evidence of a long-standing dispute over the two definitions of creole. Creolists have been somewhat strict in positing that creoles develop from sociolinguistic situations in which a pidgin, very often an elaborated pidgin, becomes the native language of a generation of speakers. There is a strong feeling that sociolinguistic articles such as Whinnom’s “Linguistic hybridization and the ‘special case’ of pidgins and creoles” (1971), in which simplification processes in certain kinds of language contact situations are equated with pidginisation and creolisation without fulfilling the typical sociocultural conditions necessary for the development of pidgins, constitute a misleading use of both terms. In 1974 Todd, in her survey Pidgins and Creoles, had even suggested that modern English displays “features consistent with pidginisation” when compared to Anglo-Saxon. But to be fair to Bailey and Maroldt, Whinnom and Todd, the suggestion that the theoretical apparatus of creolistics may be of some help in opening up new research pathways that historical linguistics might take up was perfectly reasonable. We have here a classical case of noli me tangere on the part of creolists and historical linguists with respect to perceived encroachments of sociolinguists into the academic territory of historical linguistics.

In addition, and possibly more important in explaining how the myth has spread beyond academia, people do not take too kindly to having their languages associated with pidgins or creoles. The study of pidgin languages began at the beginning of the twentieth century with the pioneering work by Schuchardt, but pidgins were always thought of as simplified, incomplete versions of their lexifier languages that were not worth paying any attention to. It was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that Robert Hall Jr. resurrected pidgins and creoles as a respectable and important area of research in linguistics. Since that time the study of pidgin and creole languages has burgeoned into an important and insightful area of research. Lay attitudes towards pidgins and creoles, however, have lagged far behind the development of pidgin and creole studies. For many scholars specialising in the English language, to read Bailey and Maroldt seriously arguing for a process of cre- olisation in Middle English is almost equivalent to being told that the language is somehow inferior or has at least sprung from lowly origins.

One of the most convincing arguments against the Middle-English-is-a- creole hypothesis, but at the same time one of the most difficult to read because of his extraordinarily wide-ranging use of evidence from languages belonging to different language families, was made in 1980 by Polome in an edited collection of contributions to creole studies titled Theoretical Contributions to Creole Studies (Valdman & Highfield 1980). The crux of the problem for Polome is the tendency “to assume pidginization or language simplification for a large number of cases where languages come into contact” (1980: 185), and, if this is the case, he suggests that studying “the linguistic features that are common to pidgins and creoles may prove as valuable a parameter in the study of the history of languages as the study of sound changes was in the past” (185). He proceeds to demonstrate that in those instances in which pidginisation and creolisation processes have been claimed as part of the history of various languages, insufficient evidence is at hand to support those claims, and if, as Bailey and Maroldt claim, creolisation results in the substitution of one linguistic system for another, the first points that the researcher needs to consider are whether “a new language is acquired, with the impact of the other language(s) limited essentially to phonology and the lexicon” and whether “pidginization and creolization [have taken place] with thorough restructurization by the native population of the language introduced by the invaders” (192-193). Referring to Domingue’s 1977 paper, he argues that she demonstrates convincingly that the hypothesis of the creolisa- tion of Middle English fails to show the features of a creole syntax.

Polome also urges readers to consider three conditions in the language contact situation that need to be met to argue in favour of creolisation. To begin with, “there must be clear evidence of a break in continuity in language development”, which, as I shall demonstrate for the Anglo-Saxon period, holds neither for the Anglo-Saxon-Old Norse contact situation nor for the Anglo-Norman French/French-Middle English situation. Second, “there must be linguistic features characteristic of creolization (successive phases of simplification . . . and restructuration”, which is only partially the case in the Middle English period. And third, “there must be adequate evidence of the socio-economic or politico-cultural conditions by which deculturation/accul- turation processes of outsiders acquiring the language can be documented” (197). In the case of both Anglo-Saxon-Old Norse and Middle English, this kind of evidence is also lacking.

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