How old is English?




Language Creolisation

Language creolisation is the process where a new language is adopted and altered at the same time by a local population. A good example is the modern language of Haiti. This language is based on French, the language of the slave holders, but the former slaves transformed the language so much that a Frenchman can no longer understand it. The language is stuffed with African substrate words. This was not a language evolution. An evolution would have meant that all Haitians spoke French before but that the language has evolved in what is now Haitian. That is not what happened. Language evolution is not what happened in Europe. It supposes that the Europeans first learned how to speak PIE (Proto-Indo-European) and then the local languages evolved, resulting eventually in the various Indo-European languages. No, it did not happen like that.

Creolisation is the key to understand how one language, PIE, could breed (at least) 75 different languages. Understand that I reject language evolution, in this sense that one language can evolve in a different one, as a method to explain how one ancient language could generate so much different languages, more specifically these very different language families. I do not believe that PIE could evolve in a short time into such different language families such as Germanic, Occitan-Roman, Greek, Balto-Slavonic, Hittite, Illyrian, Indo-Iranian, Celtic, Phrygian, Thracian and Tocharian. One of the most important arguments is time span. Ancient Greek evolved in modern Greek over at least 3000 years, but the language was very much Greek from the earliest texts and remained Greek. We have not a single transitional language. I mean: where is the link between these old language families except for PIE? Did PIE suddenly exploded is these language families or were there intermediate languages? We know that there are strong bonds between Old Germanic and Latin, but where is the language from which both evolved. I could call it Germano-Latin. Did such a language exist?

Koptic, the language of the pharaohs evolved over at least 5000 years and remained Koptic. As far as we know, a language remains the same language during the time span that we know it exists, although it evolved. In no region a language evolved into some very different language without external cause. Illyrian was overwhelmed by Slavonic but did not evolve into Slavonic. A real language change is always caused by import of a new one. In all European regions the local language can be traced to the very first import of PIE, unless a new language was imposed. It is not so that Dutch evolved out of Germanic. Dutch is the product of a second creolisation of Germanic, not primarily the result of an evolution. On the other hand is Zuid-Afrikaans an evolution of Dutch. In a similar way can Norwegian, Danish and Swedish be traced to Old Norse. But Old Norse is not an evolution of Germanic: it is a second creolisation. Old High German, Old Low German, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Dutch and Old English creolised at roughly the same time and evolved afterward. It is not so that the Italic languages evolved out of Latin. They emerged at the same time as Latin emerged. Tracing a language back to its source is not a simple task. I propose that creolisation of PIE was the prime factor, followed by language evolution as a secondary cause of diversification.

The classic hypothesis is that PIE evolved into various languages within a very short period: barely a few thousand years. Examples from all over the world show that such a time span is too short. So, another process took place. Example: PIE did not evolve into Latin. PIE arrived in Latium and the locals creolised it into Latin. Actually, it was an already creolised language which arrived in Italy. It was more complicated.
This process was similar in many parts of Italy. These regions influenced each other, streamlining the new language family. I am not pretending that Latin was first, nor that it was last. But we know that Latin, initially a small language from a limited region, would become very important because of political and military events. This means that Italy became latinised: Latin became dominant in Italy. But that evolution is secondary to the first one: the arrival of PIE in Italy. Italian people adopted the new language and changed it. A very similar process happened in Gaul where local aristocracy adopted a sort of Italic language, a mix of Occitan and Latin, as their own language and changed it. Later this 'northern Occitan' evolved into French. Language transition and creolisation in France was slow: it took over 800 years. It was since 823 AD that the French court under king Charles the Bald adopted French as their standard language. Before it had been Old Flemish. By that time only a tiny part of France spoke the new language. French would evolve rather fast until 1694 when the first French dictionary was published. This greatly fixed the language. Subsequent evolution was slower. When a language obtains a standard written version, its evolution is slowed down.

Creolisation happens much faster than language evolution. Languages can evolve over many thousands of years. In general a language changes when technology, technical as well a sociological, evolves. The arrival of agriculture was probably the single most important event of the last 10000 years. No wonder that the language changed so dramatically. But there are exceptions: it is probable that the Basque language did not change much, that the Basque people resisted. However, most of Europe did not resist.

As a consequence can I state that when nothing (or very little) changes, that the language also does not change. The arrival of the Normans and their Normandic French in England had dramatic consequences for Old English, a language which had been stable for several centuries. Old English evolved into Middle English within two to three centuries. The language gap between Old English and Middle English is much wider than between Middle English and modern English. I think that creolisation happens within two up to maximum five centuries. In language history terms, this is lightning speed.

Linguists can apply their rules whenever they want. A word such as 'land' has no reconstructed PIE version on the Continent. The reason is that on the Continent the word is considered to be a pre-Germanic substrate word. The Celtic versions are thought to be loanwords from Germanic. Therefore, a reconstructed PIE version would be senseless. However, In Britain, British etymologists do not hesitate to reconstruct a PIE version (*lendh). They simply apply the rules. I bet that they can do so for all Haitian words too. It is technically possible to reconstruct PIE versions for Haitian words of African origin, have no doubt. That is why a duly reconstructed PIE word can never be a proof of its ancient existence in PIE.

The process of creolisation is as such: PIE was imported in a certain region together with agriculture. According to the original language of the local hunter-gatherers who accepted agriculture, and their attitude toward the new language, the creolisation happened differently.

There are several forms of creolisation:

(1) Forced transition. The new language is not accepted and must be forced upon the locals. In that case the language transition is often doomed to fail. If the transition succeeds, then only a few words of the local language will remain. Examples are Wales, Ireland (English), Egypt (Arab) and Corsica (French) . The main condition for success is oppression and a long colonisation or an annexation. The new language is a copy of the original one. The variant of French in Corsica is a copy of the language in Paris and not the typical south-French variant. Corsica became French in 1773.

(2) Incomplete transition. The new language is accepted but the carriers of the new language cannot stay long enough or are too few. The transition is incomplete. The example here is Haiti, a country which became independent in 1810, way before the French colonizers had time to teach them decent French. The freed Haitians, who came from many African regions, were anyhow compelled to use French as it was the only go-between language they knew.  Many words of the old language(s) subsist. The new language can often no longer be understood by the speakers of the original one.

(3) Impulsive transition. The new language is gladly accepted and the carriers of the new language do stay long enough.  The example is French. Here, the new adepts see no problem in keeping many words of the old language.  Overestimating themselves, they feel free to interpret the new language.  The sound and feel of the old language subsist. The new language is not so 'close' to the original one. French is derived from Latin but sounds very different from Italian. French is also stuffed with Frankish (Germanic) loanwords and a number of Brythonic substrate words.

(4) Illusory transition. This is not a real transition. The example is Spanish. That language is thought to have evolved from Latin, but in reality the (east) Spaniards already spoke a Latin-like language before they became a part of the Roman Empire. Their language was redirected to Latin, not transitioned.

There are no 'natural' language transitions. A language transition always occurs within societies, not individuals. A language transition means that a whole, already structured society, changes its daily language, not that it learns a second language.

We think that proto-Germanic is of the second case. The first creolisation of that language, resulting in an incomplete transition happened in west Hungary. We believe that the local hunter-gatherers were keen in accepting agriculture, and that the language transition went so fast (maybe just a few hundreds years) that many of the local words simply subsisted. Some etymologists estimate that up to 20% of all German words are substrate words.

Creolisation can happen several times on a row with the same language. After proto-proto-Germanic was formed, the language expanded to the west, following the Danube, but also to the southeast, to the coasts of the Adriatic Sea where it underwent a second creolisation, partly from the locals, partly from new PIE farmer-colonists who settled there. There it became proto-Germano-Occitan. From there the language crossed the Adriatic Sea and in Italy, a third creolisation happened into proto-Occitan-Roman. To make it even more complex, the local people in Italy already spoke here and there an other creolised form of PIE which had been imported by boat before and more directly from the Black Sea region. Eventually, in the plain of Latium a dialect developed which would become the language of Rome.

Once a language has established itself in a certain region a sort of standardisation begins. The whole region standardises into one single language. The standardisation goes back to the first sub-region which had accepted the new language. This process is called : language feed-back. At the same time the language 'ripens', developing further its own linguistic logic.
All ancient Greeks could understand each other and they were proud of it.

Later, dialects develop.  On the language borders these dialects become strongly influenced by the language of the other side of the border and so mixed languages occur. At the same time, merchants and travellers bring new objects, notions, gods and words from far away.

What also happened is that language borders moved. One example is Belgium. There the language border still tends to move to the north. An other example is mainland Britain where the language border moved to the west. These movements are very slow and irregular in speed.

Today, we are accustomed to national languages and we tend to think that the past was similar. But no. We are fooled by the fact that written languages became standardised early on. Early Greek had some dialect texts, but classic Greek is pretty uniform. The grammatical standardisation of written languages followed the spread of the alphabet. In the very beginning, there were many alphabets in southern Europe but later only two remained: the Greek and Latin one. The story of Latin is similar: the written language was developed mainly for administrative purposes and its standard was fixed early on. Since then, it hardly changed on paper although the spoken language evolved. Julius Caesar spoke in a different way than what he wrote. Compare it with modern English: would one read aloud what is really on paper, nobody would understand.

But bear also in mind that the text copiers had a strong influence here. They preferred to copy what they could understand.  They were the ones who did not hesitate to 'translate' a text into a language which was more suitable for their commissioner. Old words were replaced by new words. New lines were inserted to bring more 'clarity'. Or to prove the authenticity of one's religion. Texts were adapted to what was political correct.  Through texts, powerful people were flattered. Though texts, the writer could show his grammatical knowledge. That is also how we get the impression that a language such as Latin was spoken without a change for one thousand years.

Indo-European Linguistics

The diversification of the parent language into the attested branches of daughter languages is historically unattested. The timeline of the evolution of the various daughter languages, on the other hand, is mostly undisputed, quite regardless of the question of Indo-European origins. [...]
As the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language broke up, its sound system diverged as well, changing according to various sound laws evidenced in the daughter languages. (Wiki)

Sadly, undisputed, yet completely surrealistic. We no longer believe that the Indo-European languages evolved from the PIE mother language, even its dialects, into the modern daughter languages by internal evolution. The time frame is too narrow for that. Diversification is supposed to have started around 2500 BC or a bit earlier if one believes that "The breakup into the proto-languages of the attested dialects is complete at that moment". So, around 2500 BC dialects are supposed beginning to diversify into separate languages. Then how can the linguists justify their reconstructed PIE words without taking in account these supposed dialects? If a word has its reconstructed PIE ancestor, then to which PIE dialect does it belong?

The idea that dialects are the cause of diversification can not be accepted because we can read the first Koptic/Egyptian hieroglyphs, dating from around 2750 BC. From then on, we can read all hieroglyphs and we note that the language evolved but did not really change. The latest version of Koptic, from around 1750 AD, is still similar. That is actually how Champollion could decipher the hieroglyphs. QED: Egyptians spoke a similar language, over a period of 4500 years, although some evolution took place. Like modern English is similar to Old English.

This implies that we reject the language tree if it suggests that the PIE languages are the product of a steady evolution.
We believe that creolisation is the answer to the mystery of the fast diversification of PIE.