13.1100, Review: Historical Ling; Creoles: Mufwene (2001)

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-13-1100. Sat Apr 20 2002. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 13.1100, Review: Historical Ling; Creoles: Mufwene (2001)

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Date:  Thu, 18 Apr 2002 15:48:45 +0200
From:  Margot van den Berg <margotvandenberg at hum.uva.nl>
Subject:  Mufwene (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution (2nd review)

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Thu, 18 Apr 2002 15:48:45 +0200
From:  Margot van den Berg <margotvandenberg at hum.uva.nl>
Subject:  Mufwene (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution (2nd review)

Mufwene, Salikoko S. (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution.
Cambridge University Press, xviii+255pp, hardback ISBN
0-521-79138-3, $59.95, Cambridge Approaches to Language Contact

Margot van den Berg, Department of Theoretical Linguistics,
Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication,
Universiteit van Amsterdam

In the 1990s, Salikoko S. Mufwene (SSM) wrote several
essays on the development of creole vernaculars in relation
to language evolution in general. In this book, five of
these essays (chapters 2-6) are revised and bundled
together in chronological order to reflect SSM's evolution
in thinking over the development in creoles; the nature and
significance of language-contact ecology in determining
their structure; "whether or not similar ecologies have not
played the same kinds of roles in the changes as have
traditionally concerned genetic linguists" (p. xi); and
whether or not creoles are genetically related to their
lexifier. Other topics touched upon are language
diversification, language endangerment and the extent to
which biology (in particular population genetics) can
contribute to better understanding of language evolution.

The illustrations include a schematic overview of
restructuring into koines, creoles and other varieties and
several maps of Africa representing some historical regions
and major language groups, European colonial languages in
the 1950s, Nilotic migrations, labour migrations, Sub-
Saharan populations before the Bantu dispersal etc. A
subject index and author index are included. The book is
intended as to bring to notice SSM's research program on
language evolution for an audience of scholars of diverse
persuasions and backgrounds, among them creolists,
linguists and non-linguists.

Since a clear and detailed outline of the book has recently
been published by Nicoletta Puddu on Linguist List, I will
only highlight below what I consider to be SSM's important
and interesting points and arguments and comment upon them.
For a summary of each chapter I refer the reader to Puddus
posting (Linguist List 13.33).

According to SSM, linguists have regarded creoles
epistemologically special only because of the way they have
been doing linguistics. However, creoles are no less
natural than non-creoles, because they have developed by
the same restructuring processes that mark the evolution of

What is a restructuring process? Restructuring causes
a reorganization of the mechanical system of a language
and/or of the pragmatic principles regulating its use
following competition-and-selection processes.
Restructuring processes operate upon competing features
(semantic, phonological, pragmatic) associated with
grammatical functions in a pool to which every speaker
contributes features (plus grammatical functions) of his or
her idiolect. The outcome of these restructuring processes
represent variation in ways particular (combinations of)
features were selected into the emergent varieties,
according to principles such as markedness.

Markedness principles are not determined by Universal
grammar, but rather by several factors, which give
selective advantage to one or another of the competing
forms or structures. These factors include frequency,
saliency, regularity and transparency: The more common or
frequent, the more salient, more regular, or more
transparent alternatives were favored over the less common
or frequent, the less salient, the less regular or opaque
alternatives in the feature pool.

The restructuring process is also influenced by
internal and external ecological factors; "The former
pertains to the coexistence of features in a language
variety, whereas the latter subsumes, in our case, the
contact of a linguistic system with another and the general
ethnographic context in which it is used" (p. 30). The
allocation of factors to internal or external ecology also
depends on the focus of the researcher.

The main principle in the development of creoles,
however, is the Founder principle. This principle is used
"to explain how structural features of creoles have been
predetermined to a large extent (though not exclusively!)
by characteristics of the vernaculars spoken by the
populations that founded the colonies in which they
developed" (p. 29). It helps to define the pool of
competing features from which a subset is selected into the
creoles system.

Restructuring operates similarly to, but not identically
with, genetic recombination, in which the parental
chromosomes are broken and reassembled. The difference
between the two processes is that while the transmission of
genes occurs in a parent-to-offspring model, language
transmission spreads horizontally and it is 'variably
polyploidic, without a limit on the number of individuals
or groups that can pass features on to a speakers'
idiolect' (p. 12). This perspective differs from that of
other linguistics working on pidgins, creoles and other
contact varieties who assume a parent-to-offspring model.
In other words, they regard the development of these new
varieties mostly as a process of primary language
acquisition with locally born children being the main
creators. While in the past attempts have been made to set
apart creoles from non-creoles (and other contact-induced
language varieties such as pidgins, expanded pidgins,
koines, etc.) based on (1) lexical and/or grammatical
features and pragmatic principles, or (2) the
sociohistorical context in which they arose (for example,
plantation economy), and admittedly failed, not many
counter arguments have been presented to incapacitate the
criterion of the break in language transmission in a
parent-to-offspring model (but see DeGraff 1999, 2001,
etc.). Therefore, SSM's proposal is certainly worth
investigating, even though the proposal is presented in the
form of several essays and it is mostly 'programmatic' in

SSM presents several examples of language birth, language
change and even language death that could be accounted for
in terms of the restructuring model outlined above, among
them the development of Afro-American Englishes (AAE, used
sometimes as a container for both Gullah and African-
American vernacular English) and White American English
Vernaculars (WAEVs). Both are outcomes of language contact,
and, thus, they are outputs of the same restructuring
"equation" in which the following variables figure: "[T]he
nature of the diverse dialects of English brought over by
the British colonists, the coexistence of English speakers
in the colonies with speakers of other languages, the
demographic proportions of the language varieties in
contact during the critical development of new English
varieties, the kinds of social contacts between the
different social and ethnic groups during the formative
stage of the new varieties, the structural features of the
varieties that were actually in contact, the rate of
immigrations after the (original) formative stages, the
origins of the new immigrants, their social status (which
may be correlated with prestige or lack thereof), their
proportions relative to the preceding populations, and the
patterns of integration within the extant populations" (p.
82-83). This list of variables or ecological factors is not
exhaustive, although it already gives a detailed impression
of the enormous complexity of factors that are assumed to
operate upon the restructuring process. Differences among
AAE and WAEV can be accounted for by assigning different
values to these variables; "the more variables differ in
their values, the more cross-systematic variation in the
outputs of the restructuring is undergone by the lexifier"
(p. 83). I must say that this attempt to capture all these
interactive factors affecting language development within a
particular ethnographic ecology sounds promising.

At this point, I just wonder whether it is possible to
obtain all the information necessary from the historical
sources to fill in the variables outlined above. Which
conclusions may we draw if there are too many blanks in
the equation? I also wonder whether the Founding principle
and the markedness principles in combination with the
ecological factors mentioned above, can fully account for
the structure of the newly emerging language variety, or
whether we need to call upon other factors, such as those
governing substrate influence, in addition to the ones just

SSM argues throughout the book that pidgins, creoles,
koines and other contact-induced varieties do not form a
different class of languages: "The structural differences
between creoles and their noncreole kin which have misled
linguists into attributing different genetic status to them
do not amount to differences in the evolutionary processes
that produced them. Yet the evolutionary processes are what
account and should matter for language speciation" (p. 19).

So far, so good. Pidgins, creoles, koines etc. are just as
natural as other varieties because they are all subject to
restructuring. It is not clear to me how this relates to
SSM's other main point: Creoles are dialects of their
lexifiers. SSM claims that several if not all of the deeply
entrenched features of the creoles' structures originate in
the founder populations' linguistic peculiarities (p. 67)
i.e. the non-standard, often non-native, metropolitan
varieties in combination with newly emerging colonial
dialects spoken by the first settlers. Substrate influence
in the formation of creoles is limited to the selection of
those substrate features that converge with variants in the
lexifier. Without convergence, they would have been

This emphasis on the lexifier in the formation of
creoles can be partly explained as a result of the salient
influence it had on the vocabulary of the new creole
variety, partly in terms of the Founding Principle. The
first settlers, mostly indentured servants in their
original countries, ran small farms with only a few slaves,
often living in the same house and working on the same
land. Thus, the contacts between the colonists and the
slaves were initially regular and intimate, as a result of
which the slaves spoke English, albeit the same non-
standard varieties of the proletarian European colonists
(p. 88). While the colony developed towards a plantation-
based economy, the population increased because of the
import of slaves. These 'new' slaves targeted the variety
of the 'old' slaves, but because of irregular and less
intimate contact with the European colonists due to
segregation, the restructuring did not yield a 100% match
between the variety of the old slaves and the new slaves
(note that the match can not be 100% because of the
principle of imperfect replication in restructuring), and
basilectalization was on its way. The segregation of the
African slaves maximized the role of African languages in
shaping, for example, AAE, especially during the rapid
population replacement trend of the eighteenth century. On
the other hand, the segregation lessened the influence of
African languages on WAEVs.

A clear example of the lexifier's influence on the emerging
creole is its vocabulary. In the case of Sranan, for
example, 77,1 % of its content words and 72,0 % of the
function words that are on the Swadesh wordlist (Smith
1987) are derived from English. Portuguese and Dutch have
also contributed (3,7% and 1,4%; 17,6% and 15,0%
respectively). Number 56 on this list is the word for foot,
futu; the word for leg (number 88) is also futu (18th
century Sranan). A small survey of dictionaries on standard
English and its non-standard varieties (slang is also
included) either spoken in England or in the
Americas/Canada/Australia, or on ships ('Sea slang of the
20th century' (W. Granville 1949)) yielded no match. I
also consulted historical sources. The English Dialect
Dictionary by Joseph Wright (1889, 1902) has no record of
foot meaning 'leg'. This is also true for several
dictionaries on Middle English. Foot is a foot, leg is a
leg. The only construction that comes closest to the word
for foot also meaning leg dates from 1425 (!): It is an
anatomical description of the body, intended for doctors
and the like. It says 'the grete foote or the grete legge',
describing the leg (see also the Oxford English Dictionary
Online). Note that it needs the adjective to specify the
correct body part (leg), without the adjective it only
refers to the foot.

Can we explain how English 'foot' restructured into
Sranan futu 'foot, leg'? In terms of SSM's model, there are
two options: Either 'foot' already meant both foot and leg
in the vernacular of the first settlers and their slaves,
or 'foot' was restructured after the homestead phase during
basilectalization. The first option does not seem plausible
(see above). The second option entails that the slaves in
the homestead phase spoke the same sort of English as the
early colonists. Thus, they must have used two different
words to denote these body parts, the process of
restructuring English foot and deleting the word for leg
must have set off after the homestead phase, i.e. after
1700. The earliest recording of Sranan futu 'foot, leg' is
Van Dyk's language manual (c. 1765, Arends & Perl 1995), as
far as I know. Apparently, homestead phase foot and leg did
not make it, despite the Founding Principle. Why? Because
they were restructured by speakers who used the same form
to refer to both the foot and the leg in their native
mother tongue (i.e. various West African languages).

However, this answer is ruled out by SSM: The creoles did
not use the principles of their ancestral languages to
shape the new language (p. 24); "the principles used were
often, if not typically, extensions of models available in
the lexifier (Chaudenson 1989, 1992) and were consistent
with patterns in any of the other languages it came in
contact with" (p. 54). Another observation on words for
body parts in 18th century Sranan is that while the
lexifiers Dutch and English use a simplex form, the Sranan
form is complex, like at least one its substrates, Gungbe:

(1)    Sranan        Gungbe      English        Dutch
       bakka-futu    àfò-gódó    heel           hiel
       'back-foot'   'back-foot'

Note that while all four languages have complex forms for
body parts, the Sranan compounds often follow the Gbe
pattern (2) (Van den Berg & Aboh, 2001).

(2)    Sranan        Gungbe      English        Dutch
       bóbbi-watra   ànó-sìn     mother's milk  moedermelk

It is obvious that the examples presented above are not the
only examples of structural substrate influence that put
the lexifier's influence on the emerging variety in another
perspective (see for example Bakker 1992, Muysken 1981,
Muysken & Smith 1990, Bruyn 1995, Migge 1998, Lefebvre 1998
etc.). These studies show that there are examples in
creoles that cannot be explained in terms of convergence of
lexifier and substrate. These examples bear on SSM's
assumption that the Founding Principle, markedness,
convergence and the ecological factors mentioned above
cannot fully account for the emergence and evolution of a
new variety. Another selective principle may be needed, to
explain why and how certain features are restructured in
the direction of the substrate while others stay close to
the lexifier.

Arends, Jacques & Matthias Perl (1995) Early Suriname
Creole Texts: A Collection of 18th-century Sranan and
Saramaccan Documents. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert;
Madrid: Iberoamericana [Bibliotheca Ibero-Americana, vol. 49]

Bakker, Peter (1992) "A Language of Our Own": The Genesis
of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian
Metis. Amsterdam: Drukkerij Universiteit van Amsterdam
[dissertation Universiteit van Amsterdam]

DeGraff, Michel (eds.) (1999) Language Creation and
Language Change: Creolization, Diachrony and Development.
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press

DeGraff, Michel (2001) On the origin of Creoles: A
Cartesian critique of Neo-Darwinian linguistics.
Linguistic Typology 5.2/3, 213-310

Granville, Wilfred (1949) Sea Slang of the Twentieth
Century: Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Yachtsmen etc. London:

Muysken, Pieter (1981) Halfway between Quechua and
Spanish: the case for Relexification. In Highfield, Arnold
& Albert Valdman, Historicity and Variation in Creole
studies. Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers

Muysken, Pieter & Norval Smith (1990) Question words in
pidgin and creole languages. Linguistics 28 (1990), 883-903.

Smith, Norval (1987) The genesis of the Creole Languages of
Suriname. [dissertation Universiteit van Amsterdam]

Joseph Wright (1898-1905) (ed.) The English Dialect
Dictionary: being the complete Vocabulary of all dialect
words still in use, or known to have been in use during the
last 200 years: founded on the publications of the English
Dialect Society. London: Frowde; New York: Putnam's Sons

Bruyn, Adrienne (1995) Grammaticalization in Creoles: The
Development of Determiners and Relative Clauses in Sranan.
Amsterdam: IFOTT (Studies in language and language use; 21)
[dissertation of the Universiteit van Amsterdam]

Migge, Bettina (1998) Substrate Influence in the Formation
of the Surinamese Plantation Creole: A Consideration of
Sociohistorical Data and Linguistic Data from Nduyka and Gbe.
Columbus: Ohio State University, Department of
Linguistics [Ohio State dissertations in Linguistics]

Lefebvre, Claire (1998) Creole Genesis and the Acquisition
of Grammar: The Case of Haitian Creole. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press

Puddu, Nicoletta (2002) Review of The Ecology of Language
Evolution, by Salikoko S. Mufwene.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson
and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson
and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in
progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford
University Press. <http://oed.com>

Van den Berg, Margot & Enoch Aboh (2001) Derivation and
compounding in two morphologically "poor" languages. Paper
presented at the Morfologiedagen, 13-14 December 2001 in
Utrecht, The Netherlands

Margot van den Berg is a PhD-student working on the
reconstruction of 18th century Sranan, a Surinamese Creole
language, at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Her project is
part of the research program 'A trans-Atlantic Sprachbund?
The structural relationships between the Gbe languages of
Ghana/Benin and the Surinamese Creoles' in which Enoch
Aboh, James Essegbey and Adrienne Bruyn participate under
supervision of Pieter Muysken and Norval Smith. Her other
research interests include the evolution of language;
animal communication and human language; language contact
and variation. If you want to learn more about the project,
the research program or her, please visit her website:


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