Confusion reigns

The kinds of difficulty that may arise through the confusion of two distinctly different definitions of pidgin and creole can be illustrated with an article by Patricia Poussa, “The evolution of early standard English” (1982). On the one hand, Poussa defines a pidgin as “a language which has been drastically simplified in structure and vocabulary, in order to serve restricted communication needs. A pidgin is no-one’s native language” (69), and she suggests that pidgins tend to emerge through “sudden direct contact” such as “military invasion or trade contact”. This is the standard explanation of a pidgin, although one should go a little further and also mention that the language which is “pidginised” is the non-native language of the nondominant language group. There are, in other words, social-cultural constraints on the development of a pidgin. She also presents the standard explanation of a creole as being derived from a pidgin when she says that a pidgin is adopted “as the first language of a community” (70). She then goes on to say that such an adoption leads to elaboration, which she equates with creolisation. In point of fact, in most nativisation scenarios, the original pidgin has already undergone considerable elaboration before being adopted as a native language (cf. the case of Tok Pisin). However, in the very next paragraph, she states that “I shall use the term creolization to cover the pidginization-creolization processes which take place in the spoken form when two languages hybridize to form a creole as a result of direct contact between two speech communities” (70, my emphasis).

This is a notion of creole decidedly different from the one she has presented, and it is one that leads her into difficulties.

Poussa rightly criticises Bailey and Maroldt for using written sources to support their creole hypothesis. Any language contact situation is primarily oral, and we simply have no linguistic evidence as to how people spoke to one another on an everyday basis during either the period of French-Middle English contact or the period of Anglo-Saxon-Old Norse contact. At least for the Middle English period we can find useful clues, often from the writings of Chaucer, but certainly not enough to be able to define the contact situation in any detail. For the Old Norse situation, we have no clues at all.

This indisputable fact is important in assessing the path that Poussa takes in her article. First she focuses on precisely that period in which linguistic evidence is virtually nonexistent, and she fictionalises a situation of contact that, even if it might represent some element of reality, certainly fails to cover the “normal” situation of Danish settlers farming land close to Anglian or Northumbrian farmers. It is worth quoting this passage in full with my comments added:

The civilian population of the East Midlands [What about the North Midlands and Northumbria up as far as the River Tees?], caught between two Danish armies [At what time would this have been the case and how long would this population have been caught in comparison with the long period of peaceful cohabitation?], consisting largely of women and children and men too old to have served in the levy, must have been in complete disarray [Yes, but for how long? Surely only during the hostilities, but quite apart from anything else there is no evidence to back up this story]. The settlement of the area by the Danish army and later arrivals must have involved intermarriage with the local women on a large scale [This could have been the case, I admit, but settlers might also have arrived with their families. Again we simply do not know, nor do we know the size of the Danish army, although it could hardly have been more than 10,000 at an absolute maximum]. The children of such unions [which could hardly have been that numerous] would be compound bilinguals, hearing both languages in the home [The crux of my later argument is that we are probably dealing not with two different languages, but rather with two “dialectal” varieties that were to a large extent mutually intelligible. In that kind of situation, is it feasible to talk of “compound bilingualism”?]. In this kind of bilingual [bidialectal] society, language mixing and switching is normal behaviour. Some families or villages would have maintained their “pure” Danish or English [Even if Poussa puts the lexeme pure between quotation marks, this is still an ideological statement prompted by the myth of the pure language (cf. chap. 5)] longer than others, but separation from both parent speech-communities would favour the development of a hybrid language, a creole. (1982: 74)

My final comment on Poussa’s “story” is that she has now given up the principle that a creole derives from the nativisation of a pidgin and has shifted to the principle that a hybrid language constitutes a pidgin regardless of the social situation which, in all probability, governed the language-mixing situation in the first place.

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