Middle English creole hypothesis

Middle English creole hypothesis

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 and has since found both supporters and detractors in the academic world.[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 Old 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, e.g. 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, although creolization may have caused the grammatical changes to occur more rapidly.

French influences

Although English has numerous French and Norman loanwords, most of the borrowing happened during the 14th century[3]; the nobility ceased to be French-speaking in 1362.[4] Nevertheless, the Norman Invasion had still resulted in the loss of many native Anglo-Saxon words. In fact, by the end of the period in which Middle English was spoken, as much as eighty percent of Old English vocabulary was no longer in use.[5] However, the most striking Norse borrowing (their pronouns) cannot be attributed to creolisation. It was more likely a result of ambiguity between hiem and him etc.[citation needed]

The most common plural form in English is cognate with the masculine nominative-accusative plural (Old English -as) and is also cognate with the Old Saxon plural -os and the Old Norse plural -ar. However, the widespread use of the -s plural may suggest French influence; compare English pluralization to that of German and Dutch (English, Dutch, and German are all categorized by many as West Germanic languages). Although German and Dutch do use the -s plural, it is used much less often than in English; while the use of an -n or -en plural may be viewed as an irregular method of pluralization in English, the opposite is true in Dutch, and, to a lesser extent, in German.

There is at least one change that may be a direct result of French influence: the loss of Thou. Under Norman influence, Thou became parallel with Tu, but then fell into disuse as it eventually came to be seen as rude. However, a similar process took place across Western Europe, including in Spain and Germany, without such a direct influence.

French influence has affected English pronunciation as well. Whereas Old English had the unvoiced fricative sounds [f], [s], [θ] (as in thin), and [∫] (shin), French influence helped to distinguish their voiced counterparts [v], [z], [ð] (the), and [ʒ] (mirage), and also contributed the diphthong [ɔj] (boy).[6]

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 Norman French-speaking aristocracy saw them, are of Latin origin:

Other such doublets include:

Latin Germanic
bellicose warlike
benediction blessing
close[12] shut
commence[13] begin
decapitate behead
desire[14] wish
gentle[15] mild
labour[16] work
novel[17] new
verity[18] 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:

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
  3. ^ http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:About_English#Etymology
  4. ^ http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361Heys.htm
  5. ^ Archaic English Words and Phrases: Thou, Changes to Old English Vocabulary, Prithee, Costermonger, Zenzizenzizenzic, Roodmas, Milord, Books LLC.
  6. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Houghton Mifflin Compan
  7. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/poultry
  8. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/veal?show=0&t=1310416850
  9. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beef
  10. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mutton
  11. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pork
  12. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/close
  13. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/commence
  14. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/desire
  15. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gentle
  16. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/labor
  17. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/novel?show=0&t=1310418169
  18. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/verity
  19. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/attorney
  20. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bailiff
  21. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/baron
  22. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/city
  23. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/countess
  24. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/county
  25. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/damage
  26. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duchess
  27. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duke
  28. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empire
  29. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/felony
  30. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/govern
  31. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jury
  32. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice
  33. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/liberal
  34. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/marriage?show=0&t=1310419644
  35. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nobility
  36. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/parliament
  37. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/perjury
  38. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/petty
  39. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prince
  40. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prison
  41. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regal
  42. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/royal
  43. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/senator
  44. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sovereign
  45. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/state
  46. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/traitor
  47. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/viscount


  • 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

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