ALL LANGUAGE IS LANGUAGE IN CONTACT

In section 3 we saw that, of the two definitions of a creole at the heart of the confusion over the possible creole origins of Middle (and thereby also Modern) English, the definition that allows a creole to result from a contact situation between two or more languages is the bone of contention. For obvious reasons, the definition that a creole is a nativised pidgin has not been seriously entertained to explain the origins of Middle English, and no scholar has yet been bold enough to suggest that Anglo-Saxon was a pidgin from which Middle English was nativised.[1]

The problem with the first definition resides in the very wide range of possible language contact situations, each depending on the sociocultural conditions under which contact is made between individuals speaking different language varieties in instantiations of emergent social practice. In addition, each instantiation of social practice, precisely because it is emergent, is both guided by prior experience of similar social practices and forms a locus of negotiation between the participants as to how that particular social practice should be carried out. If the participants have no prior experience of the sociocommunicative situation in which they are involved, they will have two alternatives: they can either break off communication, or they can negotiate and construct a set of practices according to which they can attempt to communicate with one another.

Let us now assume that the participants in an instantiation of emergent social practice use a very high proportion of the same linguistic constructions that evoke meanings that they share in common—or rather that they assume they share in common. They might then be said to “speak the same language variety”. Does this then mean that the communicative situation is not characterised by language contact? Quite the opposite is the case. Two interlocutors may use the same linguistic constructions, and yet those constructions may evoke slightly different meanings. This, in turn, implies that all instantiations of emergent social practice involving language are characterised by a shared negotiation of meanings, that all human language is reconstructed and reproduced in emergent interaction and therefore, strictly speaking, that no two interlocutors ever speak the same language, although they may of course share it. Two conclusions emerge from this line of thinking: (1) that “languages” or “linguistic varieties” are a second-order cognitive construct from the emergent use of human language—they are, cognitively speaking, deeply entrenched mental blends; and (2) that every instantiation of emergent social practice in which human language is used is a language contact situation.

However, the fact that we are accustomed to assuming the truth of statements such as “x and y speak the same language / x and y speak different languages” makes it difficult to accept this line of argumentation. The premise of “speaking the same language” lies at the heart of all sociolinguistic definitions of language contact, and to question that premise, as I have done above, is to admit that whenever we enter into communication with an interlocutor, we re-create a language contact situation. Language contact situations are generally thought of as situations in which two or more interlocutors communicate using different language varieties.

But what do we mean when we speak of “different language varieties”? The linguistic differences between speaker A and speaker B, even if we assume that they speak the same language, will always be on a cline from total intelligibility of the linguistic constructions used in the contact situation to total unintelligibility. For example, the interlocutors may be of a very different social status so that power differentials, authority and types of social control are likely to influence different kinds of linguistic construction used by A and B. If social status between the participants is equal, differences in linguistic constructions between A and B may be virtually nonexistent. Speakers A and B may come from different ethnic groups in the overall population that are demographically strong or demographically weak, and the status of members of these groups may also differ considerably. The type of social interaction in which the interlocutors are engaged may be of a formal or an informal nature and may or may not be institutionally significant. The frequency of the interaction type in which A and B are engaged may also be low or high.

If we consider all these parameters, and many more,[2] we arrive at an immensely complex set of potential language contact situations, each defined within the overall communicative space within which individuals may interact. During the course of one single instantiation of emergent social practice, the value of any of those parameters may also change. Given the potential complexity of individual language contact situations in the endless multiplicity of instances of emergent social practice, statements by language contact researchers to the effect that language A was in a state of extended contact with language B over a certain period of time sound rather hollow. What they really mean is that speakers of language variety A and language variety B frequently had recourse to social interaction using one or both of those varieties during that time.[3] To illustrate this complexity, the reader is invited to imagine the following three fictional language contact situations, one in the tenth-century Danelaw, the other two anywhere in rural England in the thirteenth century.

Two farmers in the tenth century Danelaw area of England: Imagine a Danish farmer in the tenth century enjoying a jug of some form of alcoholic beverage with his Anglo-Saxon-speaking neighbour after both have been busy at the local cattle market. The likelihood of this fictional representation being a reflection of real interactions is high. The social status of both participants must have been one of relative equality wherever it is placed on the social status cline. The function or type of interaction is decidedly nonformal. The demographic strength of the ethnic groups to which each farmer belongs was probably tipped in favour of the Anglo- Saxon neighbour, although this would ultimately depend on where in the Danelaw area the interaction took place. It can be shown that constructions in Old Norse were linguistically not very far from those in Anglo- Saxon (cf. Dance 2004; Davis 2006), so intelligibility would have been relatively high, particularly with respect to the topics that they might have chosen to talk about. In addition, although they must have been aware that each of them spoke somewhat differently from the other, there would probably have been little consciousness of the one speaking “Old Norse” and the other speaking “Anglo-Saxon”. The main point of interest for both of them was to enjoy one another’s company and to talk.

If this kind of situation is multiplied over the whole area of the Danelaw through a period of 150 to 200 years, the resulting forms of language that must have emerged from such extended language contact would be similar to those resulting from processes of koi'neisation in which two mutually intelli?gible language varieties contribute towards a new variety over a period of roughly three generations of speakers. Kerswill (2002) refers to two kinds of koine, “regional” and “immigrant”. A “regional koine” develops when a strong regional dialect comes into contact with dialects of speakers who move into the region. An “immigrant koine” emerges in the situation in which speakers of a related language variety settle as immigrants in the territory occupied by speakers of another variety, and this is, in all probability, what happened between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon from the ninth century on.[4] There is no question of the creolisation of either the Danish variety of Old Norse or of Anglo-Saxon. In each case we are likely to have had mutual simplification and lexical borrowing on both sides, but with the dice loaded in favour of the demographically stronger ethnic group, speakers of Anglo-Saxon.

A Middle English-speaking peasant summoned to testify in a case of theft at the local assizes: In this language contact situation, the magistrate at the court, who is likely to have been a native speaker of Anglo-Norman French, belonged to a demographically weak ethnic group (cf. Berndt [1965] 1969), but this was largely offset by the magistrate’s social status in comparison with the peasant’s and by the institutional power he must have wielded. The situation would probably have led to the need for an interpreter, or, at the very least, the magistrate may have used whatever Middle English he could.

The likelihood of this language contact situation occurring would have been low for the peasant but high for the magistrate, and the degree of formality would have been high. This is decidedly not the kind of social interaction that would have favoured much intelligibility unless an interpreter was used. How can it be said to have encouraged the creolisation of Middle English? And even if this had been the case, whose Middle English would we be talking about, the peasant’s or the magistrate’s?

A Middle English-speaking clerk discussing the accounts of the demesne with his employer, the lord of the manor: In this second fictional case of thirteenth-century language contact, the clerk would have been far more likely to use whatever French he could. He may have been bilingual, or- and this was a strong possibility—both may have reverted to Latin. The clerk, however, would have had the opportunity to import French terms into his written English, and within his own circle of acquaintances, he may even have used these terms in face-to-face oral interaction. However, this phenomenon represents a case of extensive borrowing, and the clerk’s English was probably very different from the peasant’s, even if they interacted socially.

The first fictional situation involving contact between speakers of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon is so radically different from either of the two Middle English situations that to refer to both forms of contact as resulting in a creole is patently absurd. Equally, and for different reasons, when one searches within the sociocultural space in which language contact situations can occur, any suggestion that language contact always results in creoles tends to disregard the very sociocultural conditions under which language contact takes place.

The next part of my argument consists in producing evidence to show that Anglo-Saxon, particularly from the Danelaw part of the country, shows clear signs of simplification well before the Norman Conquest, presumably under the influence of the koi'neisation process created by language contact situations involving both Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. In addition, texts from the transition period from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English after the Conquest show how quickly these simplification processes progressed without the presence of a standard form of the language. The central texts in this demonstration will again be the First and Second Continuations of the Peterborough Chronicle.

  • [1] This suggestion was made during the Internet discussion dealt with in section 2 of this chapter, however, which is just one indication that embryonic narratives are in the process of discursively constructing a newmyth about English: the creolisation of English myth. I discuss this in the final section of this chapter.
  • [2] One of these would be whether there is some standard written language in a community acting as akind of authoritative reference for people who interact with each other.
  • [3] Readers are asked to bear in mind the point made above that the existence of language varieties A andB is in any case a second-order cognitive construct from the emergent use of human language. It is an abstractionaway from the reality of using forms of human language in real-time instantiations of social practice.
  • [4] Note that Kerswill refers to “dialects” that are mutually intelligible, whereas I am still referring, perhaps rather loosely, to “Old Norse” and “Anglo-Saxon”. To take my argument in this section seriously, however, we are in reality confronted with two closely related Germanic forms of language regardless of whetherwe refer to them as “dialects”, “varieties”, or “languages”.
 
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