August 14, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 20

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    Mufwene introduces novel approach to study of language, looking at linguistic evolution

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

       Salikoko Mufwene

    When he was 16, Salikoko Mufwene was expelled from his boarding school, a seminary in the Congo, for insubordination after continually disputing ideas that didn’t make sense to him. At his next school, he often was kicked out of classes for challenging his teacher’s explanations of facts.

    This pattern didn’t stop. Mufwene, the Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics and the College, has spent much of the past 30 years of his academic career challenging orthodoxies in linguistics. Predictably, his latest book raises questions about widely accepted beliefs in the field and introduces novel approaches to linguistic study.

    Language Evolution: Contact, Competition and Change is, in many ways, Mufwene’s most ambitious book to date. Pulling from fields as disparate as biology (especially virology) and economics, and using analogies from ancient history and highway traffic, it’s a book that aims at nothing short of illuminating the fundamental principles of language evolution—language birth, language death, language speciation, the future of languages. At the heart of the book is Mufwene’s idea that language evolution can be explained through an ecological model.

    “With great force and clarity, Mufwene shows how the structure and history of language may be illuminated by using the core concepts of evolutionary theory, such as social dynamics and competition and selection among variants,” said William S-Y. Wang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

    Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been following Mufwene’s work for almost 20 years, calls the book a “must-read for anyone seriously interested in questions of language change and language evolution, and courageous enough to challenge their views against a fresh perspective.”

    Mufwene’s interest in the ecological model of language evolution began in the 1980s while he was beginning his path-breaking research on Creole languages. Internationally renowned for his study of Creoles such as Gullah and Jamaican Creole, as well as for his work on African American Vernacular English and Bantu contact languages, Mufwene had focused on examining their morphosyntactic and semantic characteristics. But as his research on language contact progressed, he became increasingly interested in their development and looking at them in the way, he said, “population geneticists approach speciation as the emergence of new species.”

    This earlier work on the ecological model of language evolution, including his books, The Ecology of Language Evolution and Créoles, écologie sociale, évolution linguistique, “was just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

    In Language Evolution, Mufwene refines and expands his position that languages are species-like. In the second chapter, Mufwene, who has co-taught “Biological and Cultural Evolution,” with William Wimsatt, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor in Philosophy and the College, explains his rationale for reviving a biological approach to language evolution that linguistic theorists abandoned in the 20th century.

    Throughout the book, he uses principles from ecology, such as population movement, contact and hybridism, to explain how languages evolve. Terms found in evolutionary biology—variation, feature competition, selection, selective advantage, founder principle and adaptation—are common in his work. Using specific case studies, he carefully demonstrates how the external ecology of a language drives its evolution. Mufwene also compares the mechanism that spread languages to a model from virology. “A language changes like a flu epidemic. The change doesn’t go necessarily from door to door. It’s a gradual and cumulative restructuring process of transmission and acquisition determined largely by who one has interacted with.”

    The biological sciences are certainly not the only field Mufwene has mined for new approaches to understanding language change. He also pulls from the social sciences, invoking the “Invisible Hand,” like in economics, to explain linguistic evolution at the population level. Using an example of highway traffic, Mufwene explains how individuals pursuing personal, and occasionally conflicting interests, nonetheless produce convergent behavioral patterns. “Individual speakers do not plan to change their communal language during their communicative acts,” Mufwene explains. “They don’t consult with each other on how to say things, yet similar patterns emerge. The Invisible Hand, he said, works within a population of speakers, creating new, convergent patterns among individuals, driving some variants out, sometimes producing new ones and generating new forms or structures.”

    Another key achievement of Language Evolution, said DeGraff, also a Creolist, is that it furthers Mufwene’s challenge to a set of beliefs that DeGraff has characterized as “Creole exceptionalism.” Many linguists today still argue that one major difference between Creole and non-Creole languages is that the latter evolved gradually, whereas the former were created catastrophically, said DeGraff.

    “What Mufwene does is to forcefully argue that well-documented facts related to the formation of Creole languages should actually teach us fundamental insights about the evolution of non-Creole languages such as English and the Romance languages. Much like Creole languages, English and the Romance languages, emerged in situations of language contact. With meticulous detail, Mufwene debunks core aspects of the position that the development of these languages is fundamentally distinct from that of Creole languages.”

    While Mufwene developed much of the book from ideas articulated in previously published papers, he added two new chapters on globalization and language vitality. One of these is In Chapter 12, “Globalization and the myth of killer languages,” in which he offers a counterpoint to much of the prevailing linguistic thought.

    Much has been written about the concept of McDonaldization and Americanization of the world, he writes, claiming that English threatens linguistic and cultural diversity. While Mufwene agrees that this is true for much of the world, he points out that globalization also has left many parts of the world “out of the circuit.” Globalization has created inequities that bear on the differential vitality of languages, he said.

    “English is far from functioning as the vernacular of many parts of the world,” he said. In Kinshasa, the capital of his native Congo, for instance, there is little economic incentive to learn English as a vernacular. There, the official language, French, is threatened not by English, but by Lingala, a contact-based Bantu language that has become increasingly popular. Many linguists focus on worldwide trends, which spread English as a lingua franca but don’t recognize the dynamics of the local ecology of a language. “Language evolution is driven primarily by the interplay of local ecological factors, which are largely socio-economic,” he said.

    Mufwene, who spent much of the summer doing field research in South Africa, said he is planning two new books: one on globalization and language, and another about the evolution of linguistic diversity in mankind.

    “It’s a logical progression,” said Mufwene’s colleague Victor Friedman, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Linguistics and Slavic Languages. “He’s moved from the specific to the ever more general. And he’s one of the leaders in proposing to think about Creoles as socio-historical phenomena.”

    Mufwene believes that research on language contact in Creole and Pidgin studies will continue to have a growing impact on historical linguistics and linguistic theory. “The little we know about Creoles invites us to reopen the books on language evolution,” he said. “It’s just the beginning. I have a lot of questions people are not asking. I may not answer many of them, but I know they must be addressed.”