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THE "MIDDLE ENGLISH IS A CREOLE" DEBATE IN THE ACADEMIC LITERATURE

Beginnings of the debate: Bailey and Maroldt (1977)

The debate began in 1977 with Charles-James Bailey and Kurt Maroldt’s contribution to a collection of articles on pidgins and creoles edited by Jurgen Meisel. It was given the deceptive title “The French lineage of English”, which, rather than declare itself openly as an argument for the creole status of

Middle English, uses the well-worn heredity and family-tree metaphor for the conceptualisation of the history of languages. This, in its turn, is also part of the anthropomorphic metaphor (A language is a human being), which was used in the Internet discussion in the previous section.

Bailey and Maroldt waste no time in making clear which of the two conflicting definitions of the term “creole” they support. On the first page of their article they make the following unequivocal statement: “By creolization the authors wish to indicate gradient mixture of two or more languages; in a narrow sense, a creole is the result of mixing which is substantial enough to result in a new system, a system that is separate from its antecedent parent systems” (1977: 21).

They go on to make absolutely clear that their understanding of a creole has nothing to do with the nativisation of a pidgin: “We make no claim that Middle English developed out of a pidgin” (22). The confusion that has arisen in the “Middle-English-is-a-creole” debate, a confusion that has gone well beyond the field of professional sociolinguistics, is directly attributable to two apparently irreconcilable definitions of the term.

Bailey and Maroldt’s major argument concerns the claim that, while “internal language-change will result only in new subsystems”, creolisation “is required for the creation of a new system, i.e. a new node on a family tree”. The onus of proof now lies on their shoulders to show that prolonged language contact with Anglo-Norman and other varieties of French actually did result in a new language system, and this can only be shown if we accept the categorisation of human language into uniquely distinct systems. It is also worth noting that they again resort to the family tree metaphor and the metaphorical anthropomorphisation of human language.[1]

Calling Middle English (or any other stage in the development of English or indeed any other language system) a creole is certainly one way of accounting for the remarkable changes—most of these morphological simplifications and an extensive amount of lexical borrowing from French—which occurred in English in the roughly 300 years after the Norman Conquest. However, it becomes problematic when placed against the nativisation hypothesis proposed by what Bailey and Maroldt call “traditionalists” (1977: 23) and when compared with other explanations of “a mixed language” that do not need to use the term “creole”. They make their point somewhat forcefully as follows:

It cannot be doubted that [Middle English] is a mixed language, or creole. The only question is whether Old French was creolized with Anglo-Saxon . . . whether Anglo-Saxon was creolized with Old French, or whether the mixture was of so thorough-going a nature that it makes little sense even to pose the question at all. (22-23)

Evidence that they are fully conscious of the provocative nature of their hypothesis is given when they state that they “naturally expect to meet with much opposition from traditionalists, who will find it hard to see the matter in such a new, if convincing, light” (23). No one can reasonably doubt that “the basic fact of mixture . . . does not seem to be rationally disputable”, but they may wish to doubt that the use of the term “creole” to explain this mixing is presented in a “convincing light”, despite the wealth of detail they give in the article.

Their purpose is to argue for two stages in the “French creolisation” of English, one prior to 1200 from Anglo-Norman French and the other involving massive lexical borrowing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from what they call “Central French”, but they also maintain that these two stages of creolisation under the influence of French had already been preceded from the ninth century on by a period of Old Norse/Anglo-Saxon creolisation. This assumption goes a little too far, as I aim to demonstrate in a later section of this chapter. For the moment, however, we need to focus on the reactions to Bailey and Maroldt’s article.

  • [1] This becomes even clearer in the following sentence, in which they state that “each node on a familytree therefore has to have, like humans, at least two parents”.
 
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