Four modes of creole formation

A ‘pidgin’ is a language formed by contact between speakers of different languages. A ‘creole’ is what happens when a pidgin becomes a birth language for children raised where a pidgin is spoken. Pidgins are simple languages, stripped to the running gears, Often creoles re-complexify in later generations, retaining grammar mostly from one parent language and vocabulary mostly from the other.

My interest in the historical linguistics of pidgins and creoles began a very long time ago when I noticed that pidgins, wherever they arise, are usually morphologically a lot like English – analytic (positional) grammar with few inflections, SVO order oftener than can be accounted for by the fact that English is often one of the parent languages. Why should this be?

Nicholas Ostler’s excellent Empires of the Word deepened the question by proposing that analytic SVO grammar is the common factor in languages like English, Chinese and Malay that have been very successful at spreading from their original homelands. In his account, that is because this class of language has the lowest complexity barrier to acquisition for adult speakers.

That would explain pidgins all right – they look like they do because they’re invented by adults as the simplest possible way to establish communication. And English, with similar traits, is a non-pidgin that has spread like crazy because it combines the prestige of the Anglosphere with being exceptionally easy for native speakers of other languages to learn.

Er, but why is English like that in the first place?

A few years back I tripped over – and was instantly fascinated by – the notion that English is best understood historically as an old creole. Most educated people know the ha-ha-only-serious line about English being the result of attempts by Norman men-at-arms to pick up Saxon barmaids; this refers to pidgin formation between late Anglo-Saxon and old French after 1066, with later Middle English viewed as the succeeding creole.

But there may have been an even more important creolization 150 years previously when Vikings conquered the region of central England known as the Danelaw and their West Norse collided with midlands Anglo-Saxon of the time. Midlands Anglo-Saxon could be considered to have been replaced by an Anglo-Norse creole with a simplified version of old Anglo-Saxon grammar and a lot of Norse vocabulary (including items as basic as most of the pronouns that English has used since).

So, double creolization with the grammar getting simplified at each stage. But wait! There’s more! We don’t know for sure because the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain after the Roman collapse in 410 weren’t literate, but it is quite possible that there was an even earlier creolization following on their domination of the Celtic natives.

So, running this forward in time, the oldest Anglo-Saxon collides with Celtic languages; the resulting creole becomes middle Anglo-Saxon. Which then collides with Old Norse; the creole from this becomes late Anglo-Saxon. That is what collides with Old French and, badda boom badda bing, Middle English.

At each stage the language grammar gets progressively more stripped to its running gears – more analytic, more SVO, more pidgin-like – only to partly re-complexify (as creoles do) and pick up loads of vocabulary items along the way.

Unfortunately we have only a badly foreshortened view of all this because the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are mostly from the late period. The only creolization process we can more or less track is the latest of the three; the previous two have to be inferred from, for example, the fact that late Anglo-Saxon had already adopted the pronouns of West Norse.

The other problem with this theory is actually a problem with linguists. Ever since philologists started reconstructing the history of the Indo-European language group in the 1800s, linguists have loved nice tidy evolutionary tree structures. Crosslinks that mess up that picture, like sprachbunds or creole formations, are not loved. There is still – at least it seems to me, as an amateur but careful observer – a tendency in academia to want to banish pidgin and creole formation to the periphery, denying that these can be central features of the history of “great” languages.

Part of this comes from historical connotation; pidgin and creole formation were first noticed in the record of the Age of Exploration, when Europeans were having a high old time rambling all over the globe trading with, warring on, enslaving, and having sex with various kinds of dusky-skinned natives. Pidgin/creole formation has still got an associative whiff about it of dandies keeping octoroon mistresses that’s a bit unseemly.

OK, so what if we try looking past that? What happens if, instead of admitting there’s been language hybridization and applying the label “creole” only when forced and the contact event was recent, we think of creolization as a language-formation process that is historically normal under certain circumstances, and go looking for examples and recurring patterns?

Now, much of the rest of this is mostly me being speculative. And I’m not a trained historical linguist with a PhD union card, so its unlikely any of the pros will care much what I think. But I see some fascinating vistas opening up.

For one thing, there are recurring patterns. I can see four: trade creoles, conquest creoles, camp creoles, and court creoles. The lines among these are not perfectly sharp, and sometimes a creole will be repurposed after it forms, but they illustrate four basic modes of formation.

A trade creole is a language evolved from a trade pidgin. There are numerous examples in the South Pacific, of which Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea is among the best known; these are recently formed within the last 200 years and linguists do apply the label “creole” to them.

On the other hand, Swahili seems to be an old trade creole, resulting from contact between coastal Bantu languages in West Africa and Arab traders and beginning to form not long after 600CE. Linguists normally don’t label it as a creole, but it has kept the pattern of simplified and regularized grammar relative to its root languages. One marker of this is that unlike most of the area’s Bantu languages, Swahili has no tonal system – a feature contact pidgins invariably drop.

The Indonesian archipelago is rife with dozens of trade creoles formed by contact among different Austronesian languages and others (including Chinese and Sanskrit). National Indonesian and Malay are themselves well understood to be old trade creoles, though in the normal way of such things the “creole” label is seldom applied.

A conquest creole is a case like Middle English where an incoming military elite forms a contact pidgin with the natives that displaces the native “pure” language. I have previously noted that this seems to fit what happened to middle Anglo-Saxon in the Danelaw beginning 150 years earlier. If there was a still earlier creolization event mixing Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, Middle Anglo-Sazion too would have been a conquest creole.

A thing to look for in conquest creoles is the formation of a creole continuum in which the language of the invaders is the acrolect, a relatively less modified version of the indigenous language is the basilect, and individuals routinely code-switch from lower to higher forms and vice-versa without recognizing that this involves not just a change in vocabulary but substantial morphological shifts as well. I don’t think you get this in trade creoles, where social relationships along the contact front are more horizontal.

Another example, helpfully demonstrating multiple creolizations in a language’s back story in case we are tempted to think of English as unique, is Maltese – grammar from Arabic conquerors, vocabulary from Romance-speaking subjects. Recently (last 150 years) “old” Maltese has been largely replaced by an Anglo-Maltese creole.

Next, the camp creole. This is a creole formed from a pidgin invented as a military command language in a multilingual empire.

The best known of these is Hindi/Urdu, the latter name for which literally means “camp language” (it’s related to Mongol “ordu” and the derived English word “horde”). It originated as a military pidgin formed by contact among a largish group of related North Indian languages around the 7th century CE (so, about as old as Swahili).

I tripped over a minority theory of the origin of modern German a while back. The usual story about this is that it’s the language of Luther’s Bible, but apparently some experts think it is more properly viewed as having originated more recently as a military pidgin in Frederick the Great’s Prussia. At the time there were different so-called “dialects” of German that were quite mutually unintelligible, so this theory makes functional sense.

My source even proposed that this is why modern German tends to verb-final order in sentences – as a way of making command verbs more prominent.

The label “creole” is, as you are probably expecting by now, not generally applied to either Hindi or Modern German. In the case of Hindi, though, it fits the generally accepted interpretation of the language’s history. And I’m betting the military-pidgin account of modern German hasn’t gotten quite the attention it deserves.

Our fourth variety is the court creole. This is like a camp creole, but instead of arising from a military pidgin it develops among the ruling elite in the capital of a multi-lingual empire. Because once your polity gets past a certain size you need to recruit administrators, servants, concubines and whatnot from places where the language isn’t yours, and they then have the same contact problem as a military camp.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem that don’t involve spinning up a new language. You might be able to actually impose your language on the natives; the Romans were pretty effective at this. You might be able to adapt a camp creole that your armies already speak; this is how Hindustani became a court language with a literary tradition. But if all else fails, your capital is going to grow its own creole because it has to.

The type example I had in mind for “court creole” when I began writing was Mandarin Chinese, but there was the problem that it’s tonal, a feature normally lost during pidginization. On the other hand, Wikipedia says straight up that Mandarin arose during the Ming dynasty “as a practical measure, to circumvent the mutual unintelligibility of the varieties of Chinese”, which certainly sounds like my court-creole notion in action.

The standard account describes Mandarin as a “koine”, which is elsewhere defined as a contact language arising among mutually intelligible varieties – and thus without undergoing drastic complexity reduction through a pidginization phase. That would remove the mystery about the retention of tonality.

But something is off here. We actually know that mutual unintelligibility was a problem at the time; one Emperor put a complaint on record that he couldn’t understand the speech of certain provincial officials, and founded language academies to attack the problem. This doesn’t really sound like the conventional koine-formation story.

We might be running up against an edge case for the “koine” and “creole” categories where it’s difficult to know which applies. Or linguists might be exhibiting their usual flinch about using the label “creole” outside of a dandies-and-octoroons situation. It’s difficult to know and I am certainly too ignorant of historical Chinese linguistics to justify a strong opinion.

What I think we can propose is that the specialists ought to take a fresh look at the period sources and see if they can detect any traces of what looks like pidginization (with its characteristic loss of grammatical complexity) in the period when Mandarin was forming.

What we can say without dispute is that like English and Malay (but, to be fair, unlike Swahili) modern Mandarin has retained a lot of pidgin-like traits commonly found in creoles – SVO analytic grammar, simple phonology, a spoken form easily acquired by adults from other language groups (even as its written form is infamously difficult).

Which brings us to the end of my speculation. I wish I had an unambiguous example of a court creole to lay down, but just this brief survey should make clear that creolization events have been both more common and far more important than you’d think from the linguistics textbooks.

Even the oldest attested human language may have been a creole. There are structural and lexical indications in Sumerian that it may have fused from a couple of rather dissimilar languages spoken still earlier in the Fertile Crescent!

So, hey, academic linguists, stop being such prudes about language hybridization, eh? It’s limiting your vision.

68 thoughts on “Four modes of creole formation

  1. I traveled in Indonesia a couple decades ago, and I think what we’re seeing with “official” Indonesian (and probably also with Mandarin) is what happens when a government is involved with the formation of a a creole (or koine.) In both cases the grammar and syntax doesn’t get created organically, but is instead mediated to some degree by bureaucrats with various concerns which may be either ideological or practical. For example, “Does the language handle numbers in a fashion which easily relates to mathematical instruction?” or “What vocabulary do we need to add if we’re going to teach welding?”

    The end state of Bahasa Indonesia is a language which is very easy to speak badly, (except where my accent happened to coincide with the local accent, in which case my grasp of the language was praised… weird) and hard to speak or write in formally. Tenses don’t really exist; the past and future are discussed by rather careful implication, but the structure of prefixes and suffixes is needlessly complicated, perhaps in deliberate imitation of what romance languages do with Latinate prefixes. In retrospect I wish I’d gotten some formal instruction in the language, but its very easy to pick up the informal version.

  2. It seems to me that the reason tonality gets lost in pidgin formation is because it generally can’t convey information across the language barrier. If you don’t know that the tones of syllables changes the meaning of the word, you’re going to think that your interlocutor is using the same word for wildly different concepts. Likewise, even if you manage to pick up on the importance of the tones, it will be hard to replicate those tones if you haven’t grown up doing so. Those pidgins that strip out tonality will generally do a better job at enabling communication than the ones that don’t and so will survive. All of that changes if the source languages have similar tonal systems. Speakers know to listen for them and how to reproduce those sounds. Stripping out tonality wouldn’t make the pidgin significantly easier to learn and use in that case. So, if the source languages for Mandarin shared a similar tonal system, that would explain the retention of tonality.

    • >It seems to me that the reason tonality gets lost in pidgin formation is because it generally can’t convey information across the language barrier.

      Plausible. The same would be true for any speech feature that is difficult to recognize, such as complex inflexional or agglutinative constructions.

      >So, if the source languages for Mandarin shared a similar tonal system, that would explain the retention of tonality.

      The possibility occurred to me, yes.

  3. “Pidgin/creole formation has still got an associative whiff about it of dandies keeping octoroon mistresses that’s a bit unseemly.”

    I think you were joking, but my impression is that pidgin and creole have connotations of the language of people who will always be poor because they can’t learn the respectable language.

    It’s like the status issues you describe for conquest creoles.

    As for Mandarin being tonal, perhaps tonality is difficult for adults to learn (thank you, Empires of the Word), but it doesn’t get lost if all the languages contributing to the creole already have tonality. Did all the languages from the region now called China have tonality? Is it possible to find out?

    • >I think you were joking, but my impression is that pidgin and creole have connotations of the language of people who will always be poor because they can’t learn the respectable language.

      I wasn’t more than half joking, but your account is also plausible.

      >Did all the languages from the region now called China have tonality? Is it possible to find out?

      A lot of linguists think Old Chinese was not tonal, and that the tone systems in Middle Chinese derived from deletions of different classes of syllabic endings. (There are some dialects of Swedish and one of Dutch in which this process is happening now, resulting in some minimal word pairs with only tonal distinctions.)

      Again, I’m not an expert in historical Chinese linguistics, but my impression is that all the Middle Chinese “dialects” (really quite divergent languages) that anyone knows about developed tonality. On the other hand, their tone systems took off in a dozen different directions, so it’s not clear that pidgins formed among them would naturally have found common tonal habits to retain.

  4. As a French speaker, I encountered a recently-formed creole when I stayed in Reunion Island (near Madagascar, not far from Diego Garcia for you Navy types).

    The island was settled in the 16th century. It previous inhabitants were dodos (no indigenous tribes). So why did a creole emerge? The settlers were originally French landless farmers that the Compagnie des Indes lured with 40-acre-and-a-mule promises. These farmers often spoke a regional patois and welcomed a simplified French. Since Reunionese creole is littered with old maritime vocabulary, it is obvious the language was originally formed by sailors.

    Later, African slaves were imported, which compounded the need for a creole. Additionally, the poor farmers brought by the Compagnie struggled to repay their debts. They often become indentured servants, less valuable than slaves. Many escaped their work camps and took refuge in quasi-inaccessible mountains. Their children grew up speaking creole, which fixated the language.

    It is an interesting study for a linguist because it happened recently and is relatively well documented.

  5. > it will be hard to replicate those tones if you haven’t grown up doing so.

    It is hard to *hear* those tones if you haven’t grown up doing so. German and French have odd (to Amerglish speakers) sounds that those of us in flyover country have trouble hearing.

  6. What’s keeping you from submitting a paper to an apt journal? Do you expect to be rejected outright because you lack membership in their tribe, do you find the work too exacting to the point of disinterest, or something else?

    • >What’s keeping you from submitting a paper to an apt journal?

      Lack of time to polish it into properly ritualized academic language with sourcing, mostly. Plus a suspicion that it would bounce because I lack the proper union card.

  7. The creolization of Anglo-Saxon with Old Norse is even more interesting. The two languages were mutually-intelligible enough at a low level that no one in either group had an incentive to really learn the other, even those who had extensive contact with the outgroup. The result was that people just simplified their speech among their own kind. The Story of English has a great hypothetical of an Anglo-Saxon and a Dane bartering for horses: the basic meaning was clear, but grammatical forms like the dual didn’t come across, and hence eventually effaced.

    The creolization of French and English is fascinating, too, really a double-creolization itself. The first was in the centuries after the Conquest, when English grammar lost a good deal of its complexity. The second happened much later, and gave English most of its French vocabulary.
    By the time of the Hundred Years’ War, French had become rarer among the upper classes, which increased its prestige (many of those who did know it knew it as a second language). Aspiring social climbers peppered their speech with French words to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, and the effect naturally trickled downward. This all happened over just a few decades at the end of the 14th century, and marked the beginning of the shift to Modern English.

    • >The result was that people just simplified their speech among their own kind.

      That sounds a lot like koineization, a process first observed smoothing out difference in similar dialects of Greek.

      So where the Norse grip was strongest you’d probably have an initial acrolect/basilect continuum with an unusually short span, and the ends of the continuum being pulled together by koineization in a way you wouldn’t see if the root languages were more divergent.

      I could see the whole diglossic mess slumping into a fairly uniform creole over as little as two to three generations – a short enough time for a long-lived observer to see most of it.

  8. “>What’s keeping you from submitting a paper to an apt journal? ”

    A knowledge of the literature? Nothing discussed here is news to me, and I am not even in the field.

    I think the OP makes the distinction between “Language” and “Creole” too black and white. You find the same mechanism everywhere where there are a lot of new language users who have learned the language as a second language. These new language users will reduce syntactical and morphological complexity as these are more difficult to master than simple words+SVO order. Also, I do not think that the syntax of the parent languages survives the bottle neck of the pidgin and creolization. Pidgins and Creoles are just extreme endpoints where the new speakers did not master the parent language in any meaningful sense.

    Two nice “recent” examples of (partial) creoles are Yiddish in (Eastern) Europe and Afrikaans in South Africa. Afrikaans originated as the language of white Dutch settlers and “Colored” South Africans (mixed race). Afrikaans is a partial creole that has still a very high mutual intelligibility with Dutch (and Flemish). But it has the characteristic reduction in morphology and syntax.

    And English? It is closest to modern day Frisian with 45% Germanic words, 45% French and 10% Latin and Greek. The English syntax is nothing like that of either of these languages. What more do you need to label it a creole?

  9. Mandarin may be tonal, but I find it way easier to pronounce. I live in a heavily Chinese city, and even they seem to agree, going from Cantonese or other tonal language to Mandarin, is much easier than going from Mandarin to Cantonese. So, I suspect Mandarin is much LESS tonal than the norm. But when I listen to Mandarin speakers, I don’t hear tone at all, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference when I pronounce it.

  10. It has been said Frisians can open up Beowulf in the original old English and read it with as little difficulty as we can read King James English. (For anyone of IQ over 115, the brain makes the leap from Modern to King James English in 2 minutes)

  11. > There is still – at least it seems to me, as an amateur but careful observer – a tendency in academia to want to banish pidgin and creole formation to the periphery, denying that these can be central features of the history of “great” languages.

    > What happens if, instead of admitting there’s been language hybridization and applying the label “creole” only when forced and the contact event was recent, we think of creolization as a language-formation process that is historically normal under certain circumstances, and go looking for examples and recurring patterns?

    I think a lot of the reason that creolization tends to be ignored when the contact event isn’t recent is that the further back the contact event was, the less likely we are to have information on the nature, or even the existence, of the subsumed language. English’s status as a contact language isn’t much disputed, because we have good records of all three progenitor languages and a good literary record of what English looked like at various phases throughout the transition.

    The Germanic substrate hypothesis, on the other hand, which postulates that proto-Germanic was a contact language between pre-Germanic Indoeuropean and some unknown native language of Northern Europe, has been rejected because Indo-European roots have been found for many of the supposedly unique Germanic vocabulary elements it was supposed to explain, but also because, I suspect, the fact that we don’t have any information on the substrate language and that PGmc was pre-literate at the time leaves scant evidence for the theory even if all those vocabulary items can’t be traced back to known PIE vocabulary.

  12. This has nothing to do with programming or computers. And is a damn interesting ‘waste’ of time. Even the digressions and detours here, are a learning experience.

    I have read various articles about the growth of the English language, including how English does not borrow words, it mugs someone for them and they end up meaning something entirely different in english, than in french or german or whatever. Some time ago I read a longish article about how English ‘grew’. It put forward an interesting point about one structure in English which very few other languages possess: the definite article (Breton, Cornish, Gaelic). The author noted that Celtic languages/dialects use the definite artlcle. The usage seems to have first appeared in writing during the last years of the 14th century, when “English” became a written language in its own right (in parallel to the existing court Latin, used for ‘official’ purposes). The spoken version of English used definite articles, resulting in their appearance in written Middle English, without any pre-existing evidence of usage in written form.

    The ‘creole’ version for derivation of English is an interesting vieiwpoint for how we got to where we are.

    Hhmm: “45% Germanic words, 45% French and 10% Latin and Greek.” I would suspect that the last statistic understates things greatly if you drill down the etymology of many Gemnan and French words. Many might recognize that Mandamus is a latin word, Not many would understand that ignorant, stupid and idiot, are all derived from latin (and came into ‘English’ by way of court latin) and became “English” in their own right. Each describes a state of knowledge, about which the courts have always been interested. (Sorry did not intend to provide a compendium of descriptions of politicians.) Intend, provide, compendium, description: from Latin, politicians: from Greek.

  13. >At the time there were different so-called “dialects” of German that were quite mutually unintelligible, so this theory makes functional sense.

    This is the case even today. I’ve worked a lot with Germans, and I often say that Germans don’t even exist. At least I never met one. Instead, I met many Bayern, Schwaben and the proverbial Saupreissen (pig Prussians) as they say in Bavaria. Oberboarisch, spoken in the German Alps, is only intelligible with Sächsisch (North German) because they all watch the same TV.

    As to Mandarin, it’s tonal, but less tonal than e.g. Cantonese, as I hear. The latter has six tones as opposed to Mandarin’s four.

    • >I’ve worked a lot with Germans, and I often say that Germans don’t even exist.

      This doesn’t seem to be the German view of the matter, however. A significant number of Germans actually have the “national” dialect (which I’ve heard identified with the speech of the area around Hanover) as a birth tongue. Others are diglossic with the national dialect as the acrolect. My understanding is that while 60 years ago you could still hit significant mutual-intelligibility problems, it is now quite unlikely that any two random Germans would be unable to communicate in the acrolect.

  14. Taking the observation that a language is a dialect with an army, a lot of German dialects could have been described as separate languages two hundred years ago. For that matter, mutual intelligibility between Received Standard English and Scots is high, but Scots is considered a separate language for historical reasons.

  15. >>> “This has nothing to do with programming or computers. And is a damn interesting ‘waste’ of time.”

    Computer languages evolve to jettison complexity all the time. Consider the simplicity of a modern language like Ruby as compared to the baroque weirdness of older languages with their gigantic infrastructure of curly braces, regular braces, parenthesis and semi-colons. Ruby evolved from Smalltalk, ADA, Lisp, Eiffel and Perl and it jettisoned many complexities along the way by a process similar to that Eric describes in his top post.

  16. A possible example of a “court creole” would be Persian Imperial Aramaic, though I don’t know whether enough survived in that dialect or other contemporary Aramaic dialects to prove any particular point.

  17. I wonder how you’d classify French itself then. In the middle ages it was the original “lingua franca” used by all sorts of western Europeans in the general area of current (northern) France/Belgium and it is quite distinct from other Latin languages such as Italian or Spanish in terms of pronounciation. I suspect it’s a creole of Frankish (and then possibly norman/viking) overlords and gaulish peasants

    • > I suspect [French] a creole of Frankish (and then possibly norman/viking) overlords and gaulish peasants

      Nope, it’s basically descended from the language of Roman military colonists speaking Vulgar Latin. Celtic elements are minimal and mostly found in placenames. There’s Germanic vocabulary that might have come in through Frankish, but little morphological influence.

      One minorly interesting point is that if you crunch numbers on lexical and morphological change, French is the most innovative of the major Romance languages – or, equivalently, has out the most distance between itself and Vulgar Latin.

  18. A subclass of court creole is nursemaid creole. Legend has it that when Conan Meriadoc was sent with his army contingent to western peninsular Armorica in 383, he ordered that the tongues of the local women be cut out so that they would not corrupt the Brythonic language(s).

    If this story be correct, why the urgency? If it’s a retrospective invention, what real-life experiences inspired it?

    Revisiting the sources, I think it quite possible that the British mostly defeated the Anglo-Saxons on the fields of battle, but caused their own language irreparable harm by employing Saxon nursemaids. In the myth, Hengist and Horsa are eventually defeated, but Vortigern has married Rowena.

    Early supposed AS leaders have suspiciously Brythonic names: Cerdic and his son Cynric are perhaps the best-known, but the historic Penda, king of Mercia, allegedly a “pagan Angle”, has a Welsh name.

    Other early and middle AS names look like hybrids of Brythonic and Germanic, such as Ceolwulf, and I have doubts about the historic authenticity of the “Wulf” element. Late Danish sources name Wulfhilda, daughter of Æthelred the Unrede, but she didn’t spell her name that way: she, or her scribe, wrote “Wolgyth”. Several locales in the vicinity of her properties have the prefix “Wal-” meaning “British”. And what is the etymology of “Wal”? Is it an old Germanic word meaning, or having come to mean, “foreigner” (even though it’s universally used in places where the Celtic speakers are the longest standing natives)? Or does it come from the Celtic word “Wal” meaning “Victory”, as in medievally attested formations such as “Riwallon” and early ones such as “Cadwalladr” – also a popular name among “Saxon” kings.

    Germanicists prefer to interpret Bretwalda has “Broad-wielder”, but it more sensibly means “Brit(ain/on) Victor”, whether a victor over the British or a Briton who has won the victory.

    Early sources, both British and Anglo-Saxon, speak less of a Germanic deluge and more of power struggles among the British in which Angles, Saxons, Picts, Irish and others were involved on one side and/or the other. This is what Gildas writes of as Britain’s “ruin”.

    Mercia often allied with Welsh princes, even as late as 1069 against the Normans in the “exceptionally bloody” and close-fought battle of Stafford.

    An oddity of Mercia is that its royal dynasties frequently arose from female lines; often man would become king by marrying the eldest daughter of the preceding royal couple. Patrilineal Wessex thought ill of this arrangement, and in its records called the Queens of Mercia “Ladies”. Nonetheless, the last four direct rulers of Mercia inherited as mother-to-daughter, until Edward the Elder deposed his sister Ælfwynn.

    The OED fancies that the core of English is continental Anglo-Saxon: it leaps to the nearest-seeming attested or reconstructed Germanic word as next-of-kin. Where none of that sort is found, it supposes French, Latin or Greek origins.

    Yet I have found that several common English words have clear Brythonic roots, sometimes in an unchanged form.

    Here is a list I threw together quickly:

    Mum, Dad – are any English words more core than these?
    Gammy (leg)
    (Mr) Bean (Cornish for small)
    Ooze
    Cwm (sometimes spelt Coomb or Coombe)
    Goff (smith)
    Duff (black)
    Wild
    Iron
    Yoke
    Throng
    Brock (badger)
    Mare
    Marshal
    Pretty
    Crag
    Tor
    Cam (crooked, meandering)
    Tweed (means “people”)

  19. @Dyspeptic Curmudgeon:

    > The spoken version of English used definite articles, resulting in their appearance in written Middle English, without any pre-existing evidence of usage in written form.

    Not entirely true: the demonstrative pronoun in Germanic languages does double duty as a definite article, and was used as such in Old English. What happened in the transition to Middle English was that the case and gender distinctions on the demonstrative pronoun were lost and two of the old forms survived with different meanings, one is our demonstrative pronoun, “that”, the other is our definite article, “the”.

    @esr
    > A significant number of Germans actually have the “national” dialect (which I’ve heard identified with the speech of the area around Hanover) as a birth tongue.

    I’ve heard that identification as well, but the native speech of the Hannover area is definitely a Low German dialect (I visited some distant relatives in the village my family came from, and one of the ladies in the village spoke to me and the relative I was staying with in Hochdeutsch, and her 80-90-something mother in the local dialect, and there wasn’t a trace of the Second Germanic Sound Shift anywhere).

    I think what it really is is that urban Hannover speaks, and has a reputation for, a fairly pure grammar-school Hochdeutsch, but that’s a transplant in the area. I’m not sure of all the details, historically or linguistically, but modern Hochdeutsch clearly had its origins in a time when Bavaria and Austria were dominant. Berlin and Hannover both are close enough to the sea and far enough from the Alps that the local basilects won’t have the Second Germanic Sound Shift (though in Berlin the local basilect has been obliterated by the fact that it’s the political center of Germany), which Hochdeutsch very clearly has.

    @Geoffrey:
    > Other early and middle AS names look like hybrids of Brythonic and Germanic, such as Ceolwulf,

    Where’s the Brythonic element? “Ceol-” is clearly Germanic, “eo” is the Old English reflex of proto-Germanic “eu”, and is a high confidence marker that a given word or root is Germanic in origin and that the time and place it comes from is that of the Anglo-Saxons.

    > Yet I have found that several common English words have clear Brythonic roots, sometimes in an unchanged form.

    Similarity to a celtic root is not enough. We must be certain that the similarity to a celtic root is not the result of the common descent of Germanic and Celtic from Indo-European.

    “Cwm” is a fairly recent Welsh borrowing, thus the spelling. It’s hardly core English vocabulary, and that applies to much of the list.

    “Wild” is attested in continental Germanic languages.

    “Iron” is known to have a celtic origin, but from Gaulish, not insular celtic, it came to English by descent from Germanic.

  20. I don’t know if this anecdote will offer any new insight into the topic, but I grew up in the Midwest and my first job was in Louisiana. Two weeks after arriving in Baton Rouge, I got invited to a Cajun wedding in Cut Off, Louisiana (deep in Bayou Country). The wedding lasted three days non-stop and nobody was speaking anything like standard English. As the weekend progressed, and near-continuous drinking of alcohol occurred, my mind gradually acquired an ability to interpret what was being said and I found that I could communicate reasonably well using a few new words (mostly verbs I think) and lots of hand gestures. Motivation was strong due to the festivities, and I managed well enough to get laid.

    Moral of the story, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

  21. @Geoffrey:

    Accidentally tapped submit while trying to scroll, so to continue:

    “Yoke” is *clearly* Germanic. Grimm’s law carries PIE /g/ to Germanic /k/, and we have Latin “jugem” and English “yoke”. If yoke were of Brythonic origin, it would be something like “yow”. If it were a continental Celtic borrowing like iron, it might be something like “yog”.

    “Throng” has cognates in continental Germanic, and I’m not aware of any ancient Celtic languages that had “ng”.

    “Mare” is related to OE mearh, which has a fricative where the Celtic terms have a stop (k). Grimm’s Law again tells us that this is either common descent from a PIE root, or a borrowing from some other language into late PIE, before PGmc split off. Interestingly, the apparent PIE root *markos only has descendants in Celtic and Germanic, which raises the second possibility, but they’re fairly closely related families anyways, so they may just preserve a form that was lost in the other IE languages.

    “Crag” is known to be a Celtic borrowing.

    “Tweed” is from Scots, and appears to be a merger of “tweel” (from English “twill”, of Germanic origin), and the name of the river Tweed, nearby which a fair amount of tweed fabric was produced. The Scottish Gaelic name of the river is “Abhainn Thuaidh”, which, from Irish Gaelic would appear to be “North River”, although Scottish Gaelic does not appear to have any word “Thuaidh”, and north is “tuath”, homophonous with the word for “people”. So Goidelic origin, not Brythonic, but close enough.

    Just as a fun note the word “Deutsch”, and the name of Tolkien’s character Theoden (Tolkien used Old English for the language of the Rohirrim) are both reflexes of a Germanic root that goes back to the same PIE root as “tuath (people)”.

  22. I suggest: Ceol is an assimilated variant of Coel, as in Coel Hen. Occurs in modern English as Col and Colin.

    Wild: I recognise that PIE gave rise to similar words by different paths: same root, different roots. An English word may have different histories depending on where it is spoken. My concern is to present alternatives to the received wisdom of PIE to PG to LG to continental AS to early insular AS through middle AS and late AS as if other influences, however venerable, local or persistent made no contribution.

    This of course cuts both ways: for example, there are Saxon contributions to the Welsh language.

    These influences were extensive as well as intensive: there were Saxons in Bayeux as well as in Saxony and southern Britain, and Britons often mingled (happily or not) with Gauls, Latins, Alans, Visigoths, Saxons, Franks, Suebi and Vikings on the continent.

    Tangentially, I wonder how the I1 males of the Norse countries came to speak Germanic languages? Is there truly no trace of pre-IE vocabulary there? And why do the predominantly R1b Basque males speak a non-IE language. Tuscany is mostly R1b too – were the Etruscans?

    Evidently, Y chromosomes are a poor correlate with language vectors, unless by geographical accident.

    We speak of mother tongues, presumably for good reason. But is there significant correlation between mitochondrial DNA and spoken language?

  23. Fascinating topic. I submit that Celtic languages may be more diverse than Grimm and co acknowledge.

    The early 1800 censuses reveal no Tweed families in the Tweed valley, only Tweedie. The Scots Tweeds were strongly concentrated in Ayrshire.

    But there most Tweeds lived further south: in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and about 20% lived in London.

    There is a Tweed River in Leicestershire. IIRC, the Anglo-Saxons called it the Bare Wella (Boar Stream), hence the name of the village of Barwell. I have been unable to identify when or by whom this floss was named the Tweed. However, it may be significant that this region had a succession of lords of Breton ethnicity, as the Tweed surname was heavily concentrated in former Breton manors, especially those of the Honour of Richmond (1066-1660 or so), which for much of its history was held by the Dukes of Brittany or their close kin. Ayrshire too was settled heavily by Bretons, but in the early 1100s, at the behest of King David I of Scotland.

    The House of Rohan is a renowned aristocratic, ecclesiastic and financial dynasty from Rohan in Brittany. Nearby Josselin castle is named after St Joss, the patron saint of pilgrims who looks very much like Gandalf.

    Theoden gets his name from three kings of Bavaria, who were among the ancestors of Charlemagne. The Frankish emperor had some Breton ancestry also, though you wouldn’t know it from his regalia.

  24. Interesting connections between Brythonic and Germanic. I read recently that the native British language was actually a 4th branch of the Germanic languages, so maybe we should be looking more closely at the creolization of Gaelic with this “4th branch” original English.

    Also, on the topic of the definite article: not only does German use eine as a definite article, Greek and Hebrew use their respective words for “one” as a definite article. Found some examples of that in the Bible, so such usage goes back at least 2000 years.

  25. Iceland was settled by Norsemen and a bunch of Irish. How much creolization happened to Icelandic? Do Icelanders have a definite article? The Belgae tribe were Germanic, and present on both sides of the English Channel.

  26. While Standard German is more similar to the southern high German dialects than to the northern low German ones it is spoken as a first language by a higher fraction in the north of Germany than in the south. Hence why people from Hannover having a reputation of speaking perfect Standard German even though the local dialect is a low German one.

    Re Standard German being of military origin: Most German dialects are much softer than Standard German, so this seems plausible from this angle.

    • >Hence why people from Hannover having a reputation of speaking perfect Standard German even though the local dialect is a low German one.

      I was unsurprised when I first heard of this reputation, because Hannover’s geographic situation is favorable for the role. Sitting where the North German plain meets the South German hills would have improved its chances, well before modern standard Hochdeutsch, of developing a transitional dialect intelligible to both regions and thus well positioned to spread as a national speech.

  27. As an Englishman who has lived in Munich for twenty years I can offer a couple of possibly relevant observations.

    I learned and speak a noticeably (so I’m told) southern-influenced version of standard high German, and yet on my rare visits to the north I find northerners speaking hochdeutsch considerably easier to understand than most southerners. They have a very clear and precise diction that one could interpret as an adaptation to being understood by native speakers of other dialects.

    (I understand Bavarian reasonably well, although one only really hears it up in the mountains and not in town. I can’t speak it.)

    > My source even proposed that this is why modern German tends to verb-final order in sentences – as a way of making command verbs more prominent.

    “By the left, quick march”. Colloquial spoken German is noticeably less SOV than the formal version.

    Also, my English. Most of the English I speak these days is not with native speakers of my own native dialect and I’ve noticed that this has a strong simplifying and standardising influence on how I phrase things. (Not to mention little creeping signs of German word order in my writing)

    • >“By the left, quick march”. Colloquial spoken German is noticeably less SOV than the formal version.

      Very interesting. Suggests to me that colloquial hochdeutsch is drifting away from its military-pidgin origins under the influence of the persistent substrate dialects, while formal hochdeutsch retains more of the original functional slant.

    • >[North German Hochdeutsch speakers] have a very clear and precise diction that one could interpret as an adaptation to being understood by native speakers of other dialects.

      There’s a parallel phenomenon in American English. The national standard “broadcast news” accent features the same crispness of diction that I too have noticed in North Germans. I think it’s the same functional adaptation, and in both cases is contributory to the dialect establishing itself as a “neutral” national standard.

  28. We spent a sabbatical year in Zurich, and the distinction between Swiss German and Hochdeutsch was a point of local pride, with one of the local papers devoting regular space to local columns. One day on the Sächsitram we heard a German tourist grumbling to her friend, “That is not a language, it is a disease of the throat (“Halskrankheit”).

    At ETH colloquia, the social conversations were entirely in Swiss German, and the formal parts in German (actually, more commonly English, but that’s a different issue) and Swiss friends said the public schools were that way too; the bell rings, and everybody switches to Hochdeutsch.

    Perhaps a model worth following for American schools with a large number of students who speak AAVE outside of school. There’s no stigma to speaking Schwiizerdütsch, on the contrary.

    • >At ETH colloquia, the social conversations were entirely in Swiss German, and the formal parts in German (actually, more commonly English, but that’s a different issue)

      More commonly in English, confirmed. I was a speaker there once. I don’t think the use of English was a courtesy to me; it felt like a sensible adaptation to Switzerland being quadrilingual and that’s if you don’t count the minor mountain languages like Rumansch.

      That’s the conference at which I learned just how much like my mother’s Zuricher ancestors I look. I freaking disappear in a crowd of Swiss Germans, and the Zurichers noticed this.

  29. Great observation about English being a creole!

    I’m sure you be attacked by linguists angry they hadn’t made that point.

    I read an article a while ago which explained that, grammatically, English has more in common with Danish than any other language, Can’t find it now, of course, but this articke explains how that could be true:

    “Two thousand years ago, the English language and the Danish language were the same language. Since then they have drifted apart, moved towards each other and drifted apart again.

    “…Certainly English had imported a large number of words from Norse, but it had also imported elements of grammar and syntax….

    ” …this ready intermixing was facilitated by the fact that the Norse and English languages were so close that they may have been mutually intelligible.”

    http://www.englishproject.org/resources/english-language-and-danish-language

  30. Tuck: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did after all, come from what is now Denmark. And the Frisians settled in England for a while, while they waited for their land to rise back up from the sea.

  31. Another creole for you: llanita – a language spoken in Gibraltar which is an interesting mix of British English, Andalusian Spanish and some minority languages.

  32. @Geoffrey:
    > My concern is to present alternatives to the received wisdom of PIE to PG to LG to continental AS to early insular AS through middle AS and late AS as if other influences, however venerable, local or persistent made no contribution.

    There are plenty of Celtic words that are known and acknowledged to have made it into English at various points in its history. But when a suggested borrowing has to fit with the known phonological histories of both the source and borrowing languages. With “Ceol”, for instance you take a similarity in spelling between Modern Welsh and Old English, and assume that the Old English word must have come from the Welsh. But in Old Welsh “Coel” was “Coil”, so the neat symmetry of spelling isn’t there in the languages as they existed at the time the borrowing would have taken place. There is no shift in the history of Old English changing “oi” to “io” or “eo”, so the change would have had to be in Welsh, but then the modern Welsh form would have to be “Ciol” or “Ceol”. Furthermore, “c” before front vowels in Old English was pronounced /t?/ (“ch” in Modern English orthography), and /eo/ was one of the sounds that became modern “ea”, so if “Ceol” descended from Old Welsh “Coil”, then “Col” and “Colin” would appear in Modern English as “Cheal” and “Chealin”. As it is, the forms of those names that we *do* see in English tell us that they were indeed borrowed in the Old English period (if they had been borrowed later, then English would have had /oi/ at the time of borrowing and we’d have something like “Coylin” instead of “Colin”), but that they were borrowed as “Col” and “Colin”, not as “Ceol” as you suggest.

  33. @Emmanuel Rylke:
    > Most German dialects are much softer than Standard German, so this seems plausible from this angle.

    The harshness of Standard German, however, is very much overrated. Outside of Hitler speeches and Wehrmacht drill seargents in war movies, I find it to actually be less gutteral than French (which fully pronounces its uvular R in final position, whereas German elides it).

    • >The harshness of Standard German, however, is very much overrated.

      I disagree. German phonology is dominated by consonant clusters quite a bit harsher sounding than French when fully pronounced. What you’re hearing is, as Emmanuel Rylke (a native speaker) and I have been trying to tell you, is that casual German softens and elides a lot of that stuff. Formal Hochdeutsch doesn’t.

  34. I think one aspect of creoles that you haven’t considered, at least as far as academics are concerned, is that they seem to be seen as temporary. Some texts I’ve read on the subject either imply, or flat up state that eventually a creole gets reabsorbed into one of the parent tongues.

    Creoles seem to be treated as “lesser,” not just because there’s classism going on but also probably because they haven’t proven themselves in the wild yet. If a pidgin is the embryo of a language, then a creole is the newborn infant. There’s a certain period of time where that infant has a higher probability of, well, dying.

    Louisiana Creole, for example, just might go that way. Historically it was seen as low class compared to English or all the different varieties of French, (go poke around on Wikipedia about linguistics in Louisiana; it’s an utter mess,) that are being spoken down there so no one really tried to pass it on in favor of going for bilingual schooling and whatnot. Whether or not it will actually die or not? Who knows? Likely it will if no one puts forward any effort to save it; apparently most of the language preservation efforts in the area are on the variants of French and not the creole.

    Tok Pisin, on the other hand is rather fascinating. It got a dictionary and grammar in 1971, and only got named in 1981. I can’t even find any rough dates on when it developed, but it formed in German New Guinea, which was only formed in 1884. Even if we’re astonishingly generous, Tok Pisin isn’t even 125 years old, 100 or less is more likely. That’s incredibly young for a language, but it’s filled a critical need in its area. It’s an official tongue of Paupau New Guinea, and it’s being taught in schools.

    Right now it’s given this abysmal tag of “creole language” like linguists can’t quite bring themselves to get over the fact that it hasn’t even been around as long as modern linguistic studies. It’s almost like Tok Pisin is in its teenage years. It’s survived infancy and childhood, and now it’s now growing rapidly. Barring any other upheavals in the area looks like it could have a chance at becoming the top dog. But it’s not nearly as prevalent among older speakers. Once you’ve got all living generations speaking it at birth at a relatively stable percentage, then I suspect linguists might wake up enough to say “hey, this isn’t a creole anymore. It’s really established itself.” Well, no. After it’s done that for 50-100 years then the academics might pull the stick out; they can get rather ossified about things.

    So why did English and Tok Pisin thrive while Louisiana Creole is dying? I suspect it’s because the situations for England and Paupau New Guinea are more similar than they first appear.

    Louisiana had only two major languages. English and French. But the French culture was fragmented into multiple variations of the language. This weakens the position of the French tongue. The English speaking culture came out on top with the Louisiana Purchase. If America had been hostile to the french language and culture and deliberately tried to stamp it out, it’s likely that the impact of the french language in Louisiana would be little more than an accent at this point.

    English and Tok Pisin were formed in cauldrons of linguistic uncertainty. Tok Pisin is clearly in the ascendant, but at 100 years in it’s still not dominant. Even at 150 years it may not be completely stable (or as stable as a language ever gets.)

    We haven’t studied languages long enough to know how long it takes before they become less plastic. But 150 years isn’t unreasonable for a time frame. And English was hit with multiple creoles each separated by that time frame or so. Add in dialect differences in different areas and you’ve got something not too different than what’s going on with Tok Pisin. Loads of competing languages that all have to mesh together.

    It has been said that “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” I would be very surprised if it didn’t teach Tok Pisin to be just as flexible about other language’s concepts of “property” and “propriety.”

    That said, PNG is an absolute linguistic stew right now. Its third official language, Hiri Motu, was also a simplified trade language which is slowly losing ground to Tok Pisin. It’s possible some new creole will pop up that supplants them all over time.

  35. > Formal Hochdeutsch doesn’t.

    It doesn’t elide, but it doesn’t come across to me as harsh either. Enunciated to a fault, yes, but not harsh. I’m thinking stuff like train and train station announcements in the Berlin and Brandenburg area.

    Then again, the bit of French that I most recall coming across as harsh was at a similar level of formality and enunciation: a flight safety video on Air France.

  36. This article at phys.org might be of interest:
    ‘Steppe migrant thugs pacified by Stone Age farming women’
    April 4, 2017
    https://phys.org/news/2017-04-steppe-migrant-thugs-pacified-stone.html
    Among other things, it is relevant to an observation by Jon Brase above, 2017-04-02 at 16:07:17.
    ‘The Yamnaya brought the Indo-European languages into Bronze Age Europe, but as herders, they did not have words for crops or cultivation, unlike the Neolithic farmers. As the Corded Ware Culture developed it adopted words related to farming from the indigenous Neolithic people, which they were admixing with. Guus Kroonen, a historical linguist, was able to demonstrate that these new words did not belong to the original Indo-European languages. Therefore it was possible to conclude that the Neolithic people were not speaking an Indo-European language, as did the Yamnaya migrants. Thus, the process of genetic and cultural admixture was accompanied by a process of language admixture, creating the foundations for later Germanic languages, termed Proto-Germanic.’

  37. “Louisiana had only two major languages. English and French. But the French culture was fragmented into multiple variations of the language. This weakens the position of the French tongue. The English speaking culture came out on top with the Louisiana Purchase. If America had been hostile to the french language and culture and deliberately tried to stamp it out, it’s likely that the impact of the french language in Louisiana would be little more than an accent at this point.”

    This is incomplete. Louisiana developed from three languages – English, French, and Spanish. This is why the New Orleans area has such a distinction between “creole” and “cajun”. The Spanish influence in the Florida parishes has faded quite a bit, but it shows through in a number of respects. “Louisiana” is a very recent politically, and may be even younger historically as the variations across the state are significant.

    I saw this while attending LSMSA, a state-wide residential high school open only to residents of the state (so less confounding of non-natives). We could pretty precisely pick out what region of the state someone came from, save in a few cases – mine being one. The consensus that formed was that I essentially had no accent (I do, of course – those from distinctly out of state notice it easily), but that I was probably the closest in the school to Midwestern TV Anchor standard – a result of living in a small town not near a larger town, but near a military base.

    I find it odd that “cities” are less fractal than I might expect – a “village” of 100 people (Longville, as a specific) is very different from a “town” of a 1000 (Merryville), with more possibly emergent changes as the population gets into the 10K range (DeRidder), 100K range (Lake Charles metro area) and 1M range (New Orleans metro area, Houston metro area).

  38. My understanding of French is that it is a “camp/court/trade koine” of many romance conquest creoles from all over France. Parisians dropped any attempt at intonation, and the last syllable of every romance word. By contrast, Catalan sounds like a much “purer” romance creole.

    As for Sumerian being a conquest creole—have you read Paul Rosenberg’s great “Production vs Plunder”?

    • >As for Sumerian being a conquest creole—have you read Paul Rosenberg’s great “Production vs Plunder”?

      I have not.

      Not enough is known about pre-Sumerian cultures in the region to even guess which kind of creole it was.

    • >My understanding of French is that it is a “camp/court/trade koine” of many romance conquest creoles from all over France.

      The label “creole” should not be applied here. There’s no evidence of pidgin formation preceding the emergence of the court dialect.

      As a related point, mutual intelligibility in the French dialect area (and especially north of the oc/oil line) seems to have been pretty high, certainly compared to dialects of German or Italian. Thus, the French court dialect is probably best understood as a koine drawn from mostly langue d’oil with some langue d’oc inclusions.

  39. 0. Even before the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to Britain, they lived at the crossroads of the North and Baltic Seas, where Jutland opposes the Scandanavian peninsula a short distance away. They were already being heavily influenced by contact with so many other linguistic groups due to the relative ease of travel by sea along those bodies of water.

    1. John McWhorter makes an excellent case that Old English was creolized by the subjugated Britons trying to use Gaelic metaphors and overwhelming the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes by sheer numbers. English has metaphors that no other Germanic language has due to this influence.

    2. Danelaw undoubtedly reinforced earlier influence from North Germanic languages and contributed to English losing some of its grammatical complexity (even as it added vocabulary from these various sources).

    3. The Battle of Hastings placed Norman French in the special position of being the language of royalty and nobility. English has countless ideas that can be expressed either in Anglo-Saxon “crude”, literally low-class terms, or the French-inspired sophisticated, refined, literally high-class equivalents.

    4+. As the British Empire grew to span the globe, it increasingly brought English into contact with ever more languages. As British influence faded, and was replaced with American servicemen and entertainment, this has continued.

    We tend to think of creolization as something that happens to a colonized language, but in the case of English, it too was creolized by constantly absorbing influences from people whose first language was something else. Now that English is the lingua franca (heh) of the world, the overwhelming majority of English speakers are non-native. English will continue to experience this process, simplifying grammar and enriching vocabulary.

    If I ever write my Great Science Fiction Novel, I will casually allude to the fact that every human knows Glish (backronymed into General Language for Inter-Stellar Humanity), the leanest, meanest grammar possible, (even pronouns will probably not be declined anymore, “be” will no longer require conjugation, nor in most cases expression, with a nod to AAVE and other dialects in which, for example, “Where Willie?” and “He gone” are perfectly understandable sentences) with vocabulary that will have assimilated something from pretty much every language spoken by a non-trivial number of people.

    There will still be people whose first language is English, who will speak and write the older form of the language, but they’ll seem like SCA members today. Like the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, they’ll be outnumbered by the billions of others who get along just fine speaking Glish.

  40. > The label “creole” should not be applied here.

    I think the distinction between a pidgin=>creole and a koine is not awfully helpful in understanding the evolution of English. Languages and dialects rub up against one another, causing simplification of grammar and expansion of vocabulary. Whether the result is a creole or a koine doesn’t really matter that much.

    French seems to be more cohesive than German or Italian mostly because France became a country much earlier than Germany, Austria, or Italy did, and therefore has had more time to standardize. It also has Académie française, of which no analogue exists in those other areas, despite the “Alles im Ordnung!” stereotype of Germans. (They can’t even agree on the name for Saturday.)

  41. Well, god forbid we should read what Chomsky has to say on the topic. Even though he’s far smarter than all of the people here put together, yes inculding esr, let’s ignore him because we don’t like his political views. FFS. Far better to post some idiotic views you thought up in half an hour while having a shower.

  42. Peter Schrijver’s “Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages” is a good overview of, well, contact in Germanic languages. Aside from the pretty typical contact speculations about English, it explains the High German Consonant Shift as a Late Roman accent in Frankish, with a neat, highly suggestive parallel in Langobardian. Blew my mind first time I read it.

    He also gives a basic overview of his more speculative contact explanation behind Proto-Germanic that I personally find quite convincing, but well, the data’s a lot shittier, so there’s only so much you can do. His other work on Celtic is neat too.

    (German has gone through many contacts, most caused by bureaucracy of one form or another, but the verb-final claim seems bizarre. Just read really any Central or Upper German sources on Wikisource and go back in time, assuming, well, that you can read German. I recommend anything about Turks, sorcerers and lazy maids, which is a lot, and neither pretentious nor (trying to be) Latin. “How to run a club” is even better, but it doesn’t go as far back, unfortunately.)

  43. Somewhat unrelatedly, I often read older German texts to explore language change and to expand my personal bubble of intelligibility back in time, and then I stumble over some off-hand remarks, like this one from Luther’s commentary on Genesis (an English translation):

    Concerning the disappearing of birds I have no certain knowledge. For it is not very likely that they retire into regions farther south. Indeed the miracle concerning swallows is known by experience, that they lie as dead in the waters during the winter, and revive at the approach of summer; which fact is indeed a great similitude and proof of our resurrection. For these are operations of the divine Majesty truly wonderful. Hence we see them, but we understand them not. And my belief is that although a single swallow may appear unseasonably, now and then, I doubt however whether it ever can be the case, such swallow is restored from its death-like state by God himself.

    And like, huh.

  44. Yet again, you’ve provided that subtle but significant z-axis shift that clarifies a lot of oddness down in flatland.

    I agree. Now that you’ve stated it this way.

    I’ve always said English is a mongrel language (not least to learn to spell, in another sense of mongrel), but this aspect of taking on/being driven by a fundamental need for simplicity arising from a fundamental need to communicate, I feel adds something significant.

    I would add, in the sense of adding gilt to steel, or perhaps just polishing it in spots:
    * 1066 was very much icing on the much older cake. Almost irrelevant in fundamental cultural terms, albeit very obvious in the superficies. E.g., the introduction of French as the Court language, initially, and its survival centuries later as the (legal) brit Courts language.

    * “Ever since philologists started reconstructing the history of the Indo-European language group in the 1800s, linguists have loved nice tidy evolutionary tree structures. Crosslinks that mess up that picture, like sprachbunds or creole formations, are not loved. There is still – at least it seems to me, as an amateur but careful observer – a tendency in academia to want to banish pidgin and creole formation to the periphery, denying that these can be central features of the history of “great” languages.”
    –> Teleology stimmt!!

    * Tangent [English grammar]: “never end a sentence with a preposition” — I have not yet found any example of an English sentence ending in a preposition. English has multi-part verbs –the “prepositions” almost clitics in an older sense– same as modern German. Example: I can put a cup on the shelf. I can put on a shirt. I can put upon an acquaintance. I can put up a shelf. (I can put up a friend for the weekend.) I can put up with a shelf I don’t like.
    Only the first “preposition” there is a preposition. All the other instances of nominal prepositions are actually part of a quite different verb. There’s a fundamental difference in meaning between installing a shelf and tolerating a shelf. Let alone placing a shelf somewhere. Let alone giving it somewhere to sleep for the weekend.
    Hence the humour value in Churchill’s famous line, playing on people’s ur-understanding of genuine grammar: “You just ended a sentence with a preposition, up with which I will not put.”
    An even passing awareness of German grammar, similarly descended from the earlier joint language(s), will make this point re multi-part verbs, especially separable vs inseparable (hence Churchill’s joke), blindingly obvious. (My favourite is the German flip from “buy” to “sell”, by adding what would-be English-grammarians would describe as a preposition.) (That’s inseparable, btw. So ‘Ich kauft ihr Auto ver’ might work as a wtf joke.)

    Fowler’s attempt to re-define the usage of ‘which’ vs ‘that’ is similarly hysterically and histrionically wrong when compared to normal english usage. Look at first principles, and how they still shine forth in common usage, and it all works. Look at Fowler, and it Fwails.

    * English, creole, mix of languages: I would say you’re actually under-estimating it. I spent 20yrs there as a durty furriner and this sort of topic is intensely interesting to me (actual progression/track of culture), and living in Engerland gives you lots of opportunities to buy&read original sources written hundreds of years ago, for virtually £0, and go and compare it with the current (very local) cultures. Quick example: even in the early 19C, the word for “eggs” was “eggs” in London and “eyern” ~50 miles east in Kent. (Source of some slapstickesque humour in “Three Men In A Boat”, iirc.) “Celts” invaded the british isles many times, since “celt” is actually just a style of pottery: many wildly different crews therein. Each had different languages. England still had different languages _commonly_ in use up until about the middle of the 19C. And that’s not including the dense dialects which never got accorded formal language status. (“Eyern”? Inside the M25??) There were at least 3 major “Celtic” invasions prior to Claudius’s successful invasion, then another from Ireland (any red-headed Scot is Irish derived), each of which regarded the predecessors as aliens. And that’s on top of the Picts. Who regarded _themselves_ as successful invaders of the natives. Who according to the Picts regarded _themselves_ as fighting and conquering the owners of the land. Which Pictish “legend” said were still fighting those they’d taken the land from…

    * Tangential note triggered by above para, re speed of flux: “got”. Most of modern USA would say “have gotten”. That’s correct english, as of 18C. When its major influx of early settlers left Britain. Britain since has regressed, grammar-wise. Hell, in the last 50 years, it’s regressed vocabulary-wise. For example, progressively between the early 50s and early 80s, the word “pants” shifted from meaning “pants” to meaning “underpants”. They’ve similarly lost the use of the word “ground” (vs “floor”), meaning “flat fundamental surface of the earth locally, in an outdoor setting”. They use “floor” for the outdoors too. Even if they’re standing in a forest.
    Oh, wait.

    * “My source even proposed that this is why modern German tends to verb-final order in sentences – as a way of making command verbs more prominent.”:
    The classic (very successful) general’s quote: “Getrennt marschieren, zusammen kampfen.”
    (the ‘a’ there in ‘kampfen’ should have an umlaut but i’m not using a mac to get easy access to that character)

  45. Confusers to the core argument:
    * Mandarin:
    despite the current mythology, China during its successful periods was the subject of conquistadors. Mongols, mostly. Actual territorial China was an explosion of languages — western traders just on the south coast needed _at least_ 6 interpreters to manage less than a thousand miles. And that’s just the merely coastal cultures. Try Yunnan or Oolong — very different cultures (the Yunnanese round-forts are like literally nothing else on earth!) (Had an example just 2 days ago. Bought chinese broccoli in garlic from a Chinese restaurant. Menu said “Cailin” (same as the local thai grocer spells it, with “chinese broccoli” written underneath (in an unknown mysterious other-worldly language known only to hermetic scholars of abstruse etc)). Waitress very carefully wrote “gailin”. And corrected my pronunciation when I asked “Cailin?” Stand in south China and ask (through the coughing) how the locals pronounce their city — good luck finding much overlap with the official language. Despite what the would-be Han (they were only ever a very small subset of “China”) tell you, Mandarin is far from being a standard Chinese language.)
    Multi mess re the tonal aspect, as regards the ‘trade’ vs ‘camp’ vs ‘court’ vs ‘conquest’ factors. Contrariwise, the intense mythology of superiority (failed in every explicit test) combined with that culture’s deliberate tactic of elitism by exclusion (which is the fundamental form of what most cultures regard as elitism) meant that adopting an existing mechanism of status-improvement/status-declaration was extremely important.
    As such, and given that that (Chinese) culture is not “normal” globally –aggressively declared so by its current core-continent constituents– the theory’s prediction in this culture is muddled by exogenous factors.

    * Hindi/Urdu: “camp language”
    Whoops! Hello sailor!
    I mean (sorry, too much exposure to English cliches):
    Hindi/Urdu is a possible factor underlying (and spoiling) all the above theorem.
    Since the bulk of mainstream modern languages are Hindoeuropean influenced or descended (including Hindi), is it possible that the “Creole” tendency (SVO etc) actually stems from _its_ patterns rather than an underlying human nature?

  46. Actually I’ve read Polish linguist arguing that German is creole, an ancient creole to that. There is supposedly ancient semitic (!) substrate in German. Maybe a sign of older population of farmers from middle east, who were conquered by Indoeuropeans?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *