Middle English creole hypothesis

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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, 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.

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