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Middle English creole hypothesis: Wikis


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The Middle English creole hypothesis is the concept that the English language is a creole, i.e., a language that developed from a pidgin. The vast differences between Old and Middle English have led some historical linguists to claim that the language underwent creolisation at the time of either the Norse or Norman Conquests, or during both.


History of the theory

The theory was first proposed in 1977 by C. Bailey and K. Maroldt. But, it was soon discredited and the current consensus among academics is that it is unlikely to be accurate.[1]

Differences between Middle and Old English

The argument in favour of calling Middle English a creole comes from the extreme reduction in inflected forms from Old English to Middle English. The system of declension of nouns was radically simplified and analogized. The verb system also lost many old patterns of conjugation. Many strong verbs were reanalysed as weak verbs. The subjunctive mood became much less distinct. Syntax was also simplified somewhat, with word order patterns becoming more rigid.

These grammatical simplifications resemble those observed in pidgins, creoles and other contact languages, which arise when speakers of two different languages need to communicate with one another. Such contact languages usually lack the inflections of either parent language, or drastically simplify them.

However, many say that English is probably not a creole because it retains a high number (283) of irregular verbs.[2]

Causes of grammatical changes

It is certain that English underwent grammatical changes, e.g., the collapse of all cases into genitive and common. However, the reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (i.e., to unpronounced vowels), due to a fixed stress location, contributed to this process, a pattern which is common to many Germanic languages (although a few, such as dialects of Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese, have not undergone this reduction of vowel sounds). The process of case collapse was also already underway in Old English. For example, in strong masculine nouns, where the nominative and accusative cases had become identical. Thus the simplification of noun declension from Old English to Middle English may have had causes unrelated to creolization.

French influences

Although English has numerous French and Norman loanwords, most of the borrowing happened after 1400, two centuries after the nobility ceased to be French speaking. The most striking Norse borrowing, their pronouns, cannot be attributed to creolisation either. It was more likely a result of ambiguity between hiem and him etc.

Most Romance languages have only two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. Old Germanic languages had masculine, feminine and neuter. It has been suggested that since these two gender systems are incompatible, English responded by dropping genders altogether, but this is only conjecture. It fails to reflect the fact that the neuter gender (it), prevalent in Old English, survives in Modern English. The loss of agreement between modifiers is perhaps attributable to the reduction to schwa.

The plural form in English originates from a masculine nominative-accusative plural (Old English -as) and is cognate with the Old Saxon plural -os and the Old Norse plural -ar. The French plural descends from oblique formations in Old French and is ultimately of pronominal, not nominal, origin.[citation needed] The plural forms in the two languages are not related.

There is at least one change that may be a direct result of French influence: the loss of Thou. Under Norman influence, Thou came to be parallel with Tu. Thou fell into disuse. However, a similar process took place across Western Europe, including in Spain and Germany, without such influence; see T-V distinction.

The combination of a largely French-speaking aristocracy and a largely English-speaking peasantry gave rise to many pairs of words with a Latinate word in the higher register and a Germanic word in the lower register. For example, the names of farmyard animals tend to be Germanic, from the names the English farmers and herders used:

  • chicken/fowl
  • calf
  • cow
  • sheep/lamb
  • swine/pig

The names of the animals when they appear on one’s plate, as the aristocracy saw them, are of Latin origin:

  • poultry
  • veal
  • beef
  • mutton/agnew
  • pork

Other such doublets include:

Latin Germanic
bellicose warlike
benediction blessing
close shut
commence begin
decapitate behead
desire wish
gentle mild
labour work
novel new
verity truth

During the reign of the Normans, many words related to the ruling classes and the business of government entered English from French. Among these words are:

  • attorney
  • bailiff
  • baron
  • city
  • conservative
  • countess
  • county
  • damage
  • duchess
  • duke
  • empire
  • executive
  • felony
  • govern
  • judicial
  • jury
  • justice
  • legislative
  • liberal
  • marriage
  • nobility
  • parliament
  • perjury
  • petty
  • prince
  • prison
  • regal
  • representative
  • republic
  • royal
  • senator
  • sovereign
  • state
  • traitor
  • viscount

A few words retain the French construction of noun followed by adjective, in contrast to the typical English construction of adjective plus noun:

See also


  1. ^ This judgement is found in both of these books:
    • p. 19, A History of the English Language, Hogg & Denison, 2006
    • p. 128, The History of English, Singh, 2005
  2. ^ The morphology and syntax of present-day English: an introduction, S. H. Olu Tomori


  • Curzan, Anne (2003) Gender Shifts in the History of English (section 2.6 The gender shift and the Middle English creole question)
  • Dalton-Puffer, Christiane (1995) "Middle English is a Creole and its Opposite: on the value of plausible speculation" in Jacek Fisiak (ed), Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions
  • Görlach, Manfred (1986) Middle English: a creole? in Dieter Kastovsky, et al. (eds), Linguistics Across Historical and Geographical Boundaries

External links



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