book review: Language Evolution

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 30 13:55:50 UTC 2008

 Language Evolution

Announced at
AUTHOR: Mufwene, Salikoko S.
Language Evolution: Contact, Competition and Change
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2008

Susan Lixia Cheng, School of English Studies, University of Nottingham &
of Foreign Languages Studies, Dalian University of Technology

Examining the development of creoles in many parts of the world, Salikoko S.

Mufwene in this book offers unconventional insights into fundamental
of language contact and language change. He questions traditional linguistic

notions like 'system', 'transmission' and adopts biological concepts such as

'ecology', 'competition and selection' to illustrate the similarities
languages and viral species and highlight mutual accommodation among
as a prerequisite for emergent communal behavior. This book shows how the
development of language can be illuminated by using the concepts of
theory. It provides an interesting reading to anyone working in
and language contact.

The book collects seven revised versions of previously published articles
Mufwene (2001) and three new articles (chapters 4, 6 and 13). Altogether
are fourteen chapters divided into three parts: ''Population dynamics and
language evolution'' (Part 1, chapters 2-6), which introduces the
assumptions of
language evolution and the approaches to the study of creoles;
selection, and the development of creoles'' (Part 2, chapters 7-10), which
investigates the mechanisms of structural change in creoles and explores the

similarities and differences in the evolutions of creoles and indigenized
varieties of European languages; ''Globalization and language vitality''
(Part 3,
chapters 11-14), which focuses on globalization and language vitality, and
with a case study of the resilience of Gullah.

In chapter 1, ''Prologue'', the author gives an introduction to the main
topics of
the book, four of which are directly linked to the term 'language
structural change, language speciation, language birth and language death.
Definitions of the key concepts like 'imperfect replication', 'invisible
and 'globalization' are also summarized here. The assumption of the book is
the evolutions of communal languages are determined ''not only by the
in which they are practiced but also by some of their ontogenetic properties

that make them different from biological species'' (p.2).

Chapter 2, ''Language evolution: The population genetics way'', puts forward
analogy between languages and viral species in the sense that both of them
parasitic, depending on their hosts' activities and patterns of social
interaction. But unlike viruses which start life with a fully structured
genotype by gene recombination, idiolects develop as individuals learn to
produce increasingly complex utterances with the features copied with
modification. When explaining why a biological approach is adopted, Mufwene
claims that this comparative study between languages and viral species
''linguistics and biology can very well inspire each other in addressing
evolutionary issues'' (p.28).

In chapter 3, ''Population movements and contacts in language evolution'',
author examines the development of the Romance languages and their
offspring in Europe and observes that there are the same kinds of shift and
restructuring process as in the evolution of the Romance creoles. He thus
that population movements and contacts motivate language diversification:
inter-idiolectal contact favors different variants from the same feature
and thereby changes the balance of power among competing variants. He also
suggests that the distinction between changes induced by contact and those
independent of contact (cf. Thomason 2001) is misleading because contact is
ubiquitous and it motivates both internal and external change.

Titled ''How population-wide patterns emerge in language evolution: A
with highway traffic'', chapter 4 compares the dynamics of language
with the flow of traffic in order to show how patterns have emerged through
'invisible hand' and the role of individual speakers as ''unwitting agents
change'' (p.59). This comparison originates in Keller (1994) which claims
the convergence of behaviors is motivated by the particular ecologies to
the individuals respond. Mufwene argues that like traffic, language
reflects the cumulative actions of individual speakers and the focus on
individuals makes it possible to explain the relationship between population

contact and language varieties.

In chapter 5, ''What do creoles and pidgins tell us about the evolution of
language?'', Mufwene argues that children are not the innovators of new
structures though they do adopt some of the adults' innovations into their
idiolects. He then claims that the alleged pidgin ancestry of creoles is
questionable, and structural similarities between expanded pidgins and
reflect the fact that they were developed by adults using materials from
European and substrate languages to meet diverse communicative needs. He
suggests that creoles should be compared with the nonstandard vernaculars
by the European indentured servants with whom non-European labor interacted
regularly, but not with the standard varieties of European languages.

Chapter 6, ''Race, racialism, and the study of language evolution in
takes on the race-based prejudice in recent linguistic research. In the
of race and ethnicity in American history, Mufwene argues that race and
segregation can explain the differences between the evolution of creoles and

that of their non-creole kin spoken by populations of European descent. He
claims that the reason why African Americans have not been involved in the
Northern Cities Vowel Shift (cf. Labov 2001) is that ''race barriers have
prevented them from socializing (regularly) with European Americans and have

discouraged them from identifying linguistically with members of other

Chapter 7, ''Competition and selection in language evolution'', examines
in the development of creoles. The author observes that ''individual
contribute variably to the communal pool from which the learner draws the
materials for his/her idiolect'' (p.132) to adapt to different ecological
situations, so competition and selection are inherent in the dynamics of
language evolution. He also claims that contact is everywhere and each
has been influenced by other languages or emerged from the contact of

Chapter 8, ''Transfer and the substrate hypothesis in creolistics'',
various versions of the substrate hypothesis of which the biggest problem,
Mufwene points out, is methodological, because most of its claims are based
insufficient evidence. As a population-level phenomenon, substrate influence

results from both the recurrence of xenolectal elements in some idiolects
their spread within the speech community. Second Language Acquisition
in his view, cannot offer much information about the influence of substrate
elements on the development of creoles since it ''offers nothing that can be

compared to the inter-idiolectal mechanisms of competition and selection
led to the emergence of communal norms in creoles'' (p.159).

In chapter 9, ''Grammaticization in the development of creoles'', Mufwene
that grammaticization is one of the restructuring processes that have
creoles by way of extending their lexifiers' constructions to new
functions. The recent evolution of creoles highlights the inventiveness of
speakers who reuse old patterns to express new meanings. Grammaticization
how the emergent typology may help us to understand ''the way the linguistic
guides structural exaptations to meet the varying communicative needs of
speakers'' (p.178). He also argues that grammaticization need not be
unilinear or
rectilinear, and the investigation of the development of creoles can shed
on the study of grammaticization.

With the title ''Multilingualism, 'creolization', and indigenization'',
chapter 10
focuses on societal multilingualism to show that a better understanding of
development of creoles and indigenized varieties can clarify the ecological
factors in the evolution of other languages. Speakers interact with each
and respond to the immediate communicative challenges by using one variety
another. This interconnectedness enables them to produce similar idiolects
converge into varieties of a communal language. The author also points out
some notions like 'creolization', 'indigenization' show the biases toward
non-European populations and their languages which should be Indo-European
genetic classification.

Looking at the history of colonization and economic globalization,
birth and death'' (chapter 11) discusses the idea that language loss and
speciation are byproducts of colonization, population movement and language
contact. Language birth and death often occur under the similar
conditions. The real agents of the two processes are speakers who select
particular languages and allow them to thrive, and give up others to let
become extinct, so terms like 'killer language', 'linguicide' are misused
because language has no agency in the processes at all. The author also
out that there is no way to revitalize some languages and even political
institutions cannot control the factors that have weakened their vitality.

In chapter 12, ''Globalization and the myth of killer languages: What's
going on?'', the author argues that colonization brings about both
interconnectedness in a complex system and vitality of languages. The recent

form of globalization differs from the earlier in the speed of communication
transportation, and the complexity of its organization, with ''multinational

corporations headquartered mostly in the western world, colonizing Third
nations without ruling them politically'' (p.251). He claims again that it
is the
speakers who have opted to speak another language, which leads to the
endangerment of their indigenous languages.

Chapter 13, ''Myths of globalization: What African demolinguistics
examines the development of indigenous languages in South Africa and shows
clear connection between language spread and economic development. The
argues that the European languages have not always been the ones affecting
indigenous languages since some indigenous languages have also ''displaced
indigenous languages especially when they share vernacular functions for the

same populations'' (p.270). Spatial and societal multilingualism do not
necessarily create the situations where one language must prevail at the
of others. It is the new socioeconomic world order and the population
of settlement colonization that determine what language to adopt to deal
the changing ecologies.

Chapter 14, ''A case study: The ecology of Gullah's survival'', discusses
ecological factors that have made Gullah stay almost the same since the
nineteenth century and free from debasilectalizing ''by assimilation to
of English spoken either by descendants of Europeans or by the educated
class'' (p.273). The author argues that Gullah is not endangered by
'decreolization' but by the ecological factors. The sense of linguistic and
ethnic identity has led to the maintenance of Gullah's structural features
the economic factors determine how much longer it will be spoken.

The major contribution of the book under consideration is twofold. First, it

represents a welcome attempt to relate linguistics to biology, thus helping
cast new light on our quest to attain a better understanding of how language

really works. The analogy between languages and species originated in its
predecessor, Mufwene (2001), in which the author criticizes the traditional
analogy between a language and an organism and puts forward another one
languages and species, and he added in the conclusion ''a language is more
like a
bacterial, Lamarckian species than like an organism'' (Mufwene 2001: 207).
this new book, however, he goes one step further to offer a comparison
language and viral species, both of which share some properties which are
extremely informative for understanding evolution in both biology and
linguistics. From all these we can see that the author is continuously
trying to
refine his interpretation of language evolution and language contact, which
undoubtedly makes significant contributions to the current linguistic

Second, the empirical support of the book is not exclusively centered on
European exploitation colonies of Africa. In fact, the case studies of
are from many parts of the world and throughout human history. The
observed between language evolution in England since its settlement
by the Germanics and that in North America since the European colonization
thought-provoking in that they make us question the so-called
''unnaturalness'' of
creoles. So are the similarities found between former European exploitation
colonies of Asia and Africa, and southwestern Europe as a former
of Roman town colonies. The more we know about the evolution of creoles
the world through this book, the more questionable we find some fundamental
assumptions of creoles and language change. However, we cannot deny that
creolization of Middle English (cf. Fennell 2001) is still a controversial
and more empirical backing is needed to justify it.

There are also some shortcomings which would have been remedied through
editing, such as the typographical mistake of the word ''sztrong'' (p.123).
use of acronyms for some terminologies is also chaotic: the abbreviations
appear at the first mention of the terms and even when they have been given,
the following part of the book the terms are written out in full again. For
example, the term 'primary linguistic data' first appears in full (p.18),
strangely this appearance is not shown in the subject index; then the
PLD is mentioned (p.75) but the term is given in full again (p.182). The
'language bioprogram hypothesis' has the same problem. Another typographical

problem is 'stammbaum' which sometimes appears italicized (as in p.12, 14,
and sometimes not (as in p.109, 201). One may ask if there is some
between the two forms. And the structure would be much clearer if the
between some chapters could be reduced, especially in the last part of the

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a fascinating book, challenging
received wisdom and packed with innovative analysis of some traditional
linguistic issues. It is a must-read especially for those interested in the
study of creoles and language contact.

Fennell, Barbara A. (2001) _A History of English: A sociolinguistic
Oxford: Blackwell.

Keller, Rudi. (1994) _On Language Change: The invisible hand in language_.
London: Routledge.

Labov, William. (2001) _Principles of Linguistic Change: Social factors_.
Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Mufwene, Salikoko S. (2001) _The Ecology of Language Evolution_. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Thomason, Sarah G. (2001) _Language Contact: An introduction_. Washington,
Georgetown University Press.

Susan Lixia Cheng holds a PhD in English Language and Linguistics and is an
associate professor at Dalian University of Technology, China. She is doing
one-year postdoctoral research in the University of Nottingham in 2008. Her
current research interests include language change, grammaticalization,
historical linguistics and English history.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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