Creoles, pidgins and the Middle English creolization hypothesis

Term Paper, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Pidgins
2.1 Definition
2.2 Types of pidgins
2.3 Example: Lingua Franca

3. Creoles
3.1 Definition
3.2 Types of creoles

4. The Middle English creolization hypothesis
4.1 Summary of English sociolinguistic history
4.2 Norse influence on English
4.3 Has Middle English undergone creolization?

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

In earlier times, many people thought of pidgin and creole languages as broken, inferior and reduced and considered them altered versions of ‘higher’ (European) languages. The speakers of creole languages were frequently perceived as savage and affronting the civilized habits because they apparently could not speak the language fluently enough. It is not very long ago that linguists have actually understood that these languages are not ‘wrong’ but rather ‘new’ languages.[1] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, pidgin and creole studies has become an important field within linguistics and more and more linguists got themselves interested in this field in more recent years. The publishing of numerous books and articles and the offering of various university courses on the topic has furthermore attributed to this development. Nevertheless still there is no precise definition of these groups of languages upon which all scholars can agree. In my term paper I will therefore begin by outlining the problematic situation of the definitions of these terms in order to find an acceptable basis to work with. Some linguists saw a connection between what happened to Middle English after close contact with French and Old Norse. In the following chapter I will therefore deal with the question whether Middle English can be considered a creole or not. In order do analyze this hypothesis I will first give an overview of the sociolinguistic history of the English language up to approximately the year 1500 and include the influence that French had on English. Next follows the time of Scandinavian settlement in England when English was supposedly altered by Old Norse.

2. Pidgins

2.1 Definition

A pidgin language may come into being, when two groups of people meet who do not share a common language and neither of them can or wants to learn the language of the other group. Thus an imperfect and reduced learning of the language – usually a world language - will occur.[2] In the initial stages of contact the communication is often limited to transactions where it is not necessary to have a large vocabulary. A pidgin is not the same as a broken language though, because speaking a language imperfectly does not always mean it is a case of a pidgin. Lexically, pidgins are derived from other languages; however, they feature a less complex structure as far as their morphology is concerned. Neither are they inferior or primitive languages because such language does not exist. Pidgins actually are creative variations of natural languages, and have a grammatical structure and rules of their own. Some pidgins can turn out to be so useful that they develop an important role in communication and are sometimes given official status as a lingua franca. The Hiri Motu pidgin is, for example, an official language in Papua New Guinea. Pidgins are sometimes also called auxiliary languages as they are subject to people who have different native languages but who must communicate in some way and hence need help in this difficult situation.[3] Even though a native speaker might at times get the impression of a reduced language when confronted with foreigners speaking it, English is not a pidgin. Mühlhäusler (1986) gives the following definition:

Pidgins are examples of partially targeted or non-targeted second language learning, developing from simpler to more complex systems as communicative requirements become more demanding. Pidgin languages by definition have no native speakers, they are social rather than individual solutions, and hence are characterized by norms of acceptability.[4]

There are quite a few further factors which a good definition of a pidgin should include. One important aspect, for example, is that a pidgin language has to be learnt and the person learning it must not be prevented from doing so. Historically, this was quite common in certain cases, for example when slaves working on the plantations in America were denied access to the English language. Moreover, two or more language groups using the pidgin are required although some have influences from other languages as well. If it is used only by one of the groups, it is most likely not a pidgin but rather foreigner talk or a second language which is not spoken well enough to be considered fluent.[5] Pidgin languages have a very scarce vocabulary- often only 700 to 2,000 words- and simplified grammar. Usually one language, the lexifier, contributes most of the vocabulary and accordingly the pidgin is termed as “English-based”, for example. Finally, pidgins and any of the languages whose native speakers use the pidgin are not mutually intelligible with each other. Evidence for this claim is, for example, the fact that the Russians thought of Russenorsk as Norwegian and the Norwegians considered it Russian.[6] When a speech form is mutually intelligible with its source language, is usually considered broken or foreign by the native speaker and can thus not be seen as a separate pidgin language. Another feature of pidgins is that they do not survive very long compared to other languages. They often become extinct or are creolized. Among languages that are subject to pidginization are English, French, Spanish, Italian, Zulu, and Chinook. Due to former colonialism many pidgins have developed out of a European language.[7]

The etymology of the word pidgin is uncertain, but it apparently is a Chinese version of the English word business which was logically used for transacting business in Chinese Pidgin English . Another source is offered in the word pidjom which means exchange, trade or redemption in a language derived from Hebrew.[8] Some people also falsely think that the term derives the bird, the pigeon. They believe that birds gave the language to the people as a great present. These people have carrier pigeons in mind, which were frequently used to carry short messages from one place to another in former times.[9]

2.2 Types of pidgins

There are several different types of pidgins that can be assigned to a category according to the circumstances in which they were created and in which social situations they occur most frequently. It is not always easy to fit each pidgin into one fixed category, because they could often be assigned to more than one of the categories. I will only briefly mention two of the possible categories, namely those which I find most significant.

The first category is nautical and trade pidgins, which were initially developed when sailors had to communicate with people that could not speak their mother tongue or by a combination of seafaring and trading.[10] Chinook Jargon, for example, undoubtedly originated from trade, more precisely from the language of fur trade that took place in the American Northwest. Eskimo Trade Jargon is also an example for a trade pidgin, as it was employed among European whalers and Inuit people in the Arctic. Both of these pidgins were spoken by traders speaking many different mother tongues and across a very large area of the American continent. A second category is the one of military and police pidgins. During the era of the Crusades, pidgins had an immense functional value since armies were always mixed language wise and thus served as an ideal basis for the birth of a pidgin language. Soldiers mainly from Southern Europe came together and were faced with each others languages. They had no other option but to find a way to communicate in order to be successful on the battlefields. For example, Juba Arabic is an Arab pidgin which arose in the Egyptian army; precisely among Sudanese soldiers occupying the city of Juba. It is still spoken there today. An example of a police pidgin is Police Motu, which is connected to the establishment of a police force by the British in Papua. The main feature of military and police pidgins is that mostly male workers living away from home for a long time mixed with speakers from other languages.[11]


[1] Holm, John. An introduction to pidgins and creoles, p. 1

[2] Sebba, Mark: Contact Languages: Pidgins and creoles p.14

[3] Singh, Ishtla: Pidgins and Creoles- An Introduction p.2

[4] Kaye, Allan S.: Pidgin and Creole languages p.16-17

[5] Arendts, Jacques: Pidgins and Creoles p.26

[6] Thomason & Kaufman: Language contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics p.168

[7] Bickerton, Derek: Pidginization and Creolization: Language Acquisition and Language Universals p. 49-57

[8] Holm, John: An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles p.9

[9] Kaye, Allan S.: Pidgin and Creole languages p.16-23

[10] Arendts, Jacques: Pidgins and Creoles p.27

[11] Sebba, Mark: Contact Languages: Pidgins and creoles p. 27-29

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Creoles, pidgins and the Middle English creolization hypothesis
University of Mannheim
Middle English
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ISBN (eBook)
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Creoles, Middle, English, Middle, English
Quote paper
Alexandra Nadler (Author), 2006, Creoles, pidgins and the Middle English creolization hypothesis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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