The Most Unusual Creole of All: A Sociolinguistic Study
Cecil Roderick Bull and Trevor Nigel Ochs,
Research Fellows in Historical English Dialectology,
Institute for Advanced Research, University of Prince Edward Island
Among the few scholars interested in the social history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the detailed study of academic English in the humanities has been rather avoided with a disdainful shudder. While not seen as such a career-killing move as specializing in mid-20th concert music by tenured composers, it is viewed as at best a quaint taste for the quaint-tasted, like an interest in quaternions, and more often as a symptom of underlying disorders, like an interest in the Cambridge Platonists. Nevertheless, there still remains a hell of a lot of it around, so, just as Joseph Strayer plowed through long-neglected old financial documents to study the development of the modern state, so we should consider the possibility that something might be learned from making it the object, rather than the medium, of study.
This we have undertaken over the past decade with striking results. Contemporary critics were not kind to the medium, charging that it was an over-articulated, hyper-faddish, unnatural language use that was meant to obscure rather than illuminate its subject and that served the same purpose as Classical Chinese, Medieval Latin, and Mayan and Aztec writing—a marker of elite status of a particular ideological bent meant to intimidate, denigrate, and ultimately oppress the 95% of the population lacking the inherited or state-pilfered wealth to support the negotium necessary to learn to use it fluently. While this is demonstrably true, it ignores several distinctive features of the medium that make it a unique case for linguists.
The first special feature of fin de siècle or ancien régime academic English in the humanities is that unlike Classical Chinese, Latin, or any other high-register varieties in a diglossic situation, it was never at any time the first language or mother tongue of anybody. In this respect it shares some similarities with Church Latin in medieval Italy, but from a historical point of view this is misleading, for Church Latin and Medieval Italian dialects may be seen as different descendants of an earlier spoken language. In fact, the roots of academic English in the humanities are not in spoken English at all, but rather derive from quasi-English translations of French critical theorists and German idealistic philosophers: That is, it was a non-natural offshoot of English used to render non-natural offshoots of French and German. While this was the native language of no one, it did serve as a cross-cultural medium of communication between speakers from different linguistic backgrounds: That is, it constituted a pidgin current among soi-disant intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s.
However, where pidgins almost universally show a marked simplification of grammar compared to their substrates, the same is not true of academic pidgin, which was only simplistic in its practitioners’ treatment of intellectual history, rival movements, and other disciplines. Indeed, at this stage we may speak of different pidgins localized in individual disciplines or subdisciplines, but with the movement known as “interdisciplinarianism,” these pidgins were quickly leveled by extensive borrowing in the context of a mind-bogglingly vast imperial project by which the practitioners of the assorted pidgins colonized other disciplines and departments around the world in an inordinately successful hegemonic program (ably disguised by projecting the same project onto any discipline, intellectual viewpoint, or criticism that stood in its way) serving to capture control of the teat of the state and the minds of the young.
With the expansion of the rapidly-consolidating pidgins to universities around the world, it quickly became a lingua franca for academics speaking hundreds of different native languages, and while it was most closely associated with academics who (according to contemporary accounts) could sometimes be heard to use some form of English outside the ivory tower, occasionally with something approaching fluency, it was the medium of expression for all of them within the ivory tower and in all formal writings, with little discernible variation in fluency of use by nationality. Thus, by the late 1990s the various pidgins had developed into a fairly uniform creole, which we call Critical-Social Academic English-Based Creole or CSAEBC.
Fortunately for linguists, the process of creolization can be documented in detail through citation indexes. First, the various pidgins were rapidly leveled by interdisciplinarianism, in which scholars not fully socialized in the field or trained in its terminology borrowed terms from other disciplines for the usual sociolinguistic reasons of covert prestige: Just as borrowing phrases from hip hop provided melanin-, attention-, and maturity-deficient middle class idlers with the covert prestige of the streets and the fake gloss of truly lived life rather like pre-abused blue jeans, so repeating the mantras of literary criticism allowed folklorists and educational theorists to pass themselves off as literate and critical. The spread of various terms and turns of phrase sanctified by the latest idols and idlers in critical thought can be charted with standard sociolinguistic techniques.
A detailed study has been provided by our colleague Aurélie-Adrienne Antonine Lucie Poireau-Lauch, who obtained unparalleled access to the old editing files of several major university presses, journals, and academic translation services. As the academic world expanded to include speakers from all around the world, most of them not native English speakers, the substrate language was modified by learner errors and translator errors accepted by the community at large in addition to the latest buzzwords of the grands patrons and propagated for peer ratification. The spread of innovations can be observed by clicking the “Show changes” button of the authors’ files and correlating them with changes in the accepted usage files of later papers. The great majority of the corpus studied showed only one sentence or phrase per paragraph in error, and post hoc study showed that the influence of a paper was directly proportional to the number of sentences per paragraph showing changes from the preceding theoretical generation—the term used for the various stages of the development of theoretical approaches and mutual influences of various fields, usually on the order of 18 months. (Note that despite the claims of practitioners that all the fields were distinct pebbles in the mural of human thought that only with heroic, superhuman effort could be wrested from the dead hands of the powers that be—a religious conception in which the founding deities were constantly shamed and attacked, and their putative directives internalized as taboos to be fought—it was found that in every instance theoretical innovations in one field were adopted and adapted by all the other fields with a relaxation time of approximately 5 months, thus providing roughly a year before the next wave of theoretical innovations would begin propagation.)
As a result, by the mid-21st century CSAEBC had become mutually unintelligible with any variety of its English substrate and, like Chinese characters in Qing-dynasty China, constituted a substantial barrier to entry that allowed a mandarin class to self-select and exclude outsiders while maintaining a firm hand on the levers of funding. Besides the unusual feature of a creole developing to perform this time-honored, widely attested social function, rather than an earlier form of the language like Church Latin or Middle Chinese, the development of the creole was driven, not by simplification of the grammar and vocabulary, but rather an ever-increasing baroqueness of expression that served to hint at or suggest meanings without being amenable to rigorous logical analysis. The refractoriness of sense combined with the drive to make the language as abstruse as possible to make the creole unique in language history, for it marks a combination of language as a tool intended to bridge cultural gulfs with language as an instrument of exclusion and social control of outsiders, of the Other, and constitutes the first successful hegemony of an elite lingua franca.
It is hard to say on balance whether there are any unfortunate results from the creole collapsing and disappearing with the collapse of the society that gave rise to it due to the unfortunate tendency of governments actually to enact its destructive and corrupting economic policies: Confiscation of the entirety of the means of production to support the expansion of the Internet and virtual reality to every office and home in the world combined with the expansion of college education to 95% of the population, leading to the rise of an economically parasitical overclass constituting 80% of the population, much of that otherwise unemployable and devoted to an ideal of gentlemanly leisure without any ideal of a gentleman. However, just as there are a few scholars trained in Tangut script and the history of the Xixia Kingdom, so there will probably be a few scholars in every generation who will specialize in CSAEBC despite the pity and suspicion with which they will properly be viewed.