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Because Middle English was a hodgepodge mélange of Old English (a Germanic tongue) and Norman French (a Romance language), it seems like Middle English was actually a kind of pidgin or creole.

My question is:

Was it such, and if so, which one was it: a creole or pidgin? If so, when did it stop being such — or didn’t it stop being such?

Related musings of my own that I don’t expect answers for follow.


I do wonder whether in today’s world of English becoming the lingua anglica of common communication as French gave rise to the lingua franca of yesteryear, such a creolization might not be recurring, at least in certain places with a dominant alternate language, such as in India or Singapore.

I’ve found several articles on the notion, but they are unclear about what is happening today with World English and how that relates to what happened after 1066.

Perhaps the English of tomorrow will look as much like today’s English as Chaucer looked like Beowulf.

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    Sounds pretty opinion based? – bib Dec 23 '13 at 0:28
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    @Bib I don’t think calling it a creole or pidgin need be “opinion” based: those terms have fairly agreed-upon meaning. The musing about the future was just that, and not the central question. – tchrist Dec 23 '13 at 0:32
  • But what was Old English and Norman French, and does it matter? At what year do you draw the line? It seems like there is a discourse of great length about the evolution of each/all of these that is not necessarily amenable to a specific answer. – bib Dec 23 '13 at 0:38
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    homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361ryan.htm Dalton-Puffer, Chritiane. “Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation.” Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions, 1995. 35-50. Görlach, Manfred. “Middle English – a creole?” Linguistics Across Historical and Geographical Boundaries. 1986. 329-344. Poussa, Patricia. “The Evolution of Early Standard English: The Creolization Hypothesis.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 14 (1982): 69-85. – Mitch Dec 23 '13 at 0:43
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    @Mitch That’s an answer, not a comment. – tchrist Dec 23 '13 at 0:45
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I think this is an opinion-soliciting question, best answered by linguists. Since none are coming to your assistance, I'll contribute the little I know from my studies related to teaching Latin.

English is definitely not a pidgin language, insofar as pidgin means a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language.

You are perhaps looking for a discussion of Language Myths and the History of English (Richard J. Watts, 2011)?

While there may have been a creolized English after 1066, I doubt it, as 1) French was mainly spoken in the court and among the aristocrats, who, in their dealings with native English speaking, could speak English; 2) bilingualism was hardly uncommon among the educated; 3) they had an interlanguage* of the educated, merchants, the religious and their audiences at the time (Latin) as opposed to a lack of an interlanguage with Hawaiian or Chinese Pidgin; 4) pidgin/creole has fewer words than either of the languages which have been combined, whereas 1066 marked the beginning of the period of the greatest expansion ever of the English Language, which then started to slow down in the late 14th - early 15th Century.

*Warner’s argument against creolization takes up the Wyclifite sermons (ca 1377 to ca 1412) as evidence that both audience and authors were thoroughly familiar with both Latin and English

(Complementation in Middle English and the Methodology of Historical Syntax: A Study of the Wyclifite Sermons Anthony Warner, 1982)

The construction of a modern myth: Middle English as a creole Richard J. Watts (Contributor)

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    Arguably middle English is a pidgin, losing the complicated Germanic cases of Anglo-saxon/Old-English and gaining a simplified word order. – mgb Dec 23 '13 at 2:41
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    @mgb I think it's very difficult to argue that Middle English was a pidgin if you look at the definition of 'pidgin'. As for the word order in Middle English, it was not simplified, it was much more complex than in Old English (it had to be, to compensate for the loss of inflections), and remains so today. – Gaston Ümlaut Dec 23 '13 at 9:31
  • @GastonÜmlaut, sorry phrased that badly. I meant it simplified the grammar in favour of word order. – mgb Dec 23 '13 at 16:02
  • @Mgb: if you meant that, then you are confused. Much of the grammar of modern English is exactly rules of syntax, i.e. word order. – Colin Fine Dec 23 '13 at 17:48
  • There are parts of English that were "creolized" (for lack of a better term) though. Food names, for one. Beef, mutton, venison, pork, etc. come from French terms (because French-speaking nobles ate the food), while cow, sheep, deer, and pig come from existing English terms (because English-speaking peasants herded the animals). As I understand it, this distinction is unusual outside of English. – Bacon Bits Dec 13 '18 at 14:37
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In a way, one could argue that Middle English was indeed a form of pidgin, it, of course, stems from a time where contact with French was self-evident.
Couple that with the reasons why we have pidgins: basic, commercial communication requirements and it is very likely that at some point there was a business oriented subset of some language (either English or French) that was the pidgin of the day. However, it's fair to say that nobody was born into that language, and thus it never further developed into a creole.

Of course, there being an actual pidgin is just speculation. What I dare say is that, IMO, Middle English still was a Germanic language, that just got over-seasoned with Romanic vocab.

The adoption of foreign vocab is, though now receding rapidly, has long been a trait of English. As I seem to recall, English is one of, if not the, richest language(s) in terms of vocab.
Owing to its speakers having had encounters with people across the globe, they have adopted thousands of words, from many, many other languages, including Dutch (nautical terms, for example), German (ie aspirin), India (Cumin, mango), African languages doubtlessly had their input, too.

Wherever these encounters occurred, it's very likely a form of a pidgin-like language cropped up (in some cases there are creole languages that prove this). These pidgin-y thingies resulted in new vocab that got added to the English dictionaries, but then you could say that the fact that sailing had a far more profound effect on English as an actual language (need for short, and clear orders -> short sentences).

Ah well, if English were a creole, then surely American or South-African English are far more likely candidates to be branded as such, because in both cases the influence of Dutch has left a clear mark.

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This is not really a full answer, since I don't think I'm qualified to describe the historical development.

However, I think it's interesting and possibly illuminating to compare English to a language that is uncontroversially classified as a French-based creole: Haitian Creole.

According to Wikipedia, Haitian creole exhibits the following characteristics:

  • 90% of the vocabulary is of French origin

  • verbs are not inflected for tense or person

  • 3 types of copula, but none inflect

  • no grammatical gender or any kind of adjective agreement

  • plurals all marked by the same postposed plural word/suffix

English exhibits the following characteristics:

  • apparently around 29% vocabulary of French origin, 29% Latin, 26% Germanic (Wikipedia)

  • verbs are inflected for tense and number; each verb has at least 4 forms (plain, -(e)s, -ed and -ing) and a sizable number have 5; there are various classes of irregular verbs, including strong verbs that have inherited Germanic ablaut vowel alternations

  • copula "be" has 7 distinct inflected forms

  • no grammatical gender or any kind of adjective agreement

  • a number of adjectives can be inflected for comparative and superlative, a handful irregularly

  • plurals mostly marked by a regular suffix; some irregular plurals that are clearly inherited from Germanic for common words such as men, women, children, feet, teeth, geese

My opinion has probably biased what I put on this list, but to me, it doesn't seem useful to classify these as having developed in the same way. Obviously there are different creoles and Haitian Creole might not be the most representative.

A creole does not necessarily, or even typically have a very mixed vocabulary, as you can see from that 90% number given for Haitian Creole. Pidgins (and the creoles that develop from them) are supposed to emerge from language contact where a large number of second-language learners incompletely acquire the grammar of the learned language, resulting in a large amount of simplification and later restructuring when the language is acquired as a first language (the creole).

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