Middle English creole hypothesis

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The vast differences between Middle and Old English have led some to claim that English is a pidgin; in other words, that it underwent creolisation at the time of either the Norse or Norman Conquests, or both.


Differences between Middle and Old English

The argument in favour of calling Middle English a pidgin comes from the extreme reduction in inflections from Old English to Middle English. The system of declension of nouns was radically simplified and analogised. The verb also suffered significant loss of older patterns of conjugation. Many strong verbs were remade into weak verbs. The subjunctive mood became much less distinct. Syntax was also simplified somewhat, with word order patterns becoming more rigid.

It has been argued that 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. These contact languages usually lack the inflections of either parent language, or drastically simplify them.

Some say that English is probably not a creole because if it were, it would be unlikely to have 283 irregular verbs.

Causes of grammatical changes

There certainly are grammatical changes, e.g., the collapse of all cases into genitive and common. However, the reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa due to a fixed stress location contributed to this process, a pattern common to many Germanic languages, though several, such as dialects of Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese, have not undergone the reduction of vowel sounds. The process of case collapse was also already underway in Old English. For example, in strong masculine nouns, the nominative and accusative cases had become identical. Thus, the simplification of noun declension from Old English to Middle English could have had causes unrelated to creolisation.

French influences

French and English both put auxiliaries before the main verb and invert them to make questions. In Old English, Verb-Subject-Object word order made questions. Today, and at that time, French used the same process to make questions. Today, English inverts auxiliary verbs and their subjects to make a question. If English was a pidgin, it seems logical to presume that VSO word order would continue to be used. The change, moreover, comes with Early Modern English, not Middle English; Shakespeare and the King James Bible continued to ask questions with the old pattern: Knowest thou?

No one denies that English had an unusual amount of French and Norman loanwords. However, 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. That was the cause of the borrowing.

Most Romance languages have only two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. Most Germanic languages have 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. The loss of agreement between modifiers is attributable to the reduction to schwa.

The plural form in English originates from a neuter nominative plural and is cognate with the general Scandinavian plural ar. The French plural descends from oblique formations in Old French and is ultimately of pronominal, not nominal origin so 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. Due to politeness among English speakers, Thou fell into disuse. However, a similar process took place across Western Europe, including Spain and Germany; see T-V distinction.

See also


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