Clarity returns

In 1986 Gorlach published an article in the first volume of a Festschrift for Jacek Fisiak titled “Middle English—A creole?” in which he stresses the point already made by Polome (1980: 185) 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”. However, since Polome is not referred to explicitly, we may safely assume that Gorlach simply comes to the same conclusion: he asks whether “the methods of creolists—drawing, as they do, their data from a sociolinguistics laboratory under the eyes of the participant observer—[can] help us to understand the motivation for linguistic changes observed in the early histories of modern languages”, or whether “such methods [can] be more helpful than the traditional methods of historical linguistics have been” (1986: 328). Gorlach makes the valid point that a creole provenance has also been suggested for several other languages (e.g. the Romance languages, Yiddish and Bulgarian). He insists that linguists should provide answers to the following questions before a creolisation hypothesis can be advanced for any language, including, of course, Middle English:

  • 1. How are, or can the central terms used in classification be defined?;
  • 2. What features are thought to be constitutive for creole languages?;
  • 3. What contact situations are recorded in the history of English and its speakers (to see whether the sociolinguistic conditions can be equated with those that gave rise to pidgins, creoles, creoloids, etc.)? (1986: 330)

He also makes the point that “the term ‘creole’ is used quite vaguely by some scholars” and that “others have redefined it to make it satisfy the specific needs of their arguments”, and he evaluates Bailey and Maroldt’s use of the term “creole” as “an idiosyncratic redefinition” (330). It is hardly surprising that Gorlach criticises Poussa along lines similar to those I have presented above, but when he comes to dismantling Bailey and Maroldt’s claim, he needs to refer very specifically to those points at which the syntax and morphology of Middle English fail to show the features of a creole syntax. After summarily dealing with most of the major creole features and showing that Middle English cannot be interpreted as showing any of them fully, he comes to the following tentative conclusion:

Unless simplification and language mixture are thought to be sufficient criteria for the definition of a creole or creoloid (and I do not think they are, since this would make most languages of the world creoles, and the term would consequently lose its distinctiveness), then Middle English does not appear to be a creole. (1986: 335)

Of course, it still remains open for creolists to dispute this point and to argue that simplification and language mixture do constitute sufficient criteria for defining a creole or a creoloid. He insists that the sociopolitical and sociocultural relationship between Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse from the ninth century on and between varieties of French and Middle English in the first three centuries following the Conquest must be adequately taken into account. If we do this with reference to French, we note that Anglo-Norman French was a written language in England after the Conquest and was used as a native language by a small but immensely powerful elite of royalty, nobles, clergy and merchants, which enabled it to linger on as a native language till well into the fifteenth century. With respect to the language contact between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, however, Gorlach makes the following eminently sensible point:

The great concentration of northern settlers in some Midland areas . . . and the fact that Scandinavian and Anglian dialects were of similarly low prestige and largely unused in written form is likely to have led to forms of communication quite unlike those between speakers of English and French: with no lingua franca available, Scandinavians and Anglians had to use both languages in order to com- municate—an objective greatly facilitated by the similarity between the two varieties. There was no norm that a speaker could have aimed at: West Saxon was, for a speaker of Anglian, a dialect almost as remote as that spoken by his Scandinavian neighbour, and its limited use in writing made it much less present than Danish. (1986: 338)

Gorlach’s argument is simply that the term “creole” should not be bent to such an extent that it can be pressed into service to define all the results of all language contact situations. If it is, it becomes meaningless. In addition, the language changes affecting Anglo-Saxon can be shown to have been under way well before the Conquest. Those that are on record in written texts from the Danelaw part of the country reach back as far as the tenth century, as I shall show later, and the logical outcome of the kind of simplification processes that were already under way may or may not have been caused by the contact situation itself, but was certainly encouraged by it. In this sense we can still argue for a continual process and a linguistic continuity in the ultimate development of varieties of English without having to revert to the longevity of English myth and its submyth, the ancient language myth.

Other articles support the creolisation hypothesis (e.g. Wallmannsberger 1988) or refute it (e.g. the sections of Thomason & Kaufmann 1988 that specifically deal with the history of English; Danchev 1997; Dalton-Puffer 1995; Dawson 2003). Still others deal with the borrowings from Anglo-Norman French and French into English from the perspective of researchers into

Anglo-Norman French (e.g. Short 1980; Rothwell 1998), who advise researchers into English to look at the Middle-English-as-a-creole hypothesis from both sides of the coin—from the point of view of French as well as from the point of view of English. Berndt ([1965] 1969) approaches the language contact situation between Anglo-Norman French and Middle English from a demographic point of view and shows convincingly that the number of French speakers in England was never at any time in the period after the Conquest large enough to “oust” English, as Legge (1941) maintained. Bailey and Maroldt make light of Berndt’s arguments, but his arguments are strong enough to throw a considerable amount of doubt on the creolisation hypothesis.

What evidence is there, then, that the change from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English was by no means so great as to warrant the hypothesis of a decisive break in linguistic continuity? And why is this controversy on the point of becoming yet another myth? In the following three sections I will deal with these problems. The first point we need to consider in section 4 is what the nature of a language contact situation is and whether there are other alternative scenarios that would correspond to the sparse data that we have so that we can avoid falling into the trap of the longevity of English myth and can factually dismantle the myth that modern English has creole origins.

 
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