The Ecology of Language Evolution

Salikoko S. Mufwene

Cambridge University Press 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
In The Ecology of Language Evolution Mufwene starts with creoles, in particular Atlantic creoles, but extends to language evolution quite generally. His central thesis is that the restructuring processes that produced creoles are not fundamentally different to those involved in "ordinary" language change — and that ideas from creole linguistics can be applied more broadly. As an integral part of his argument, he develops a general model for language evolution which draws heavily on parallels to biological evolution: languages are analagous to species and population thinking is critical. He also emphasizes the importance of language contact and its ecological context, both linguistic (the features of the contact languages) and socioeconomic.

Unlike some "bioprogram" creolists, Mufwene sees no abrupt discontinuity in the development of creoles, but rather "normal, uninterrupted language transmission", with "a continuous trajectory from the lexifier to specific creoles". He highlights the role of the Founder Principle, the disproportionate influence of the populations which founded colonies or arrived early in them, and of their languages. It is significant that the lexifiers involved were often non-standard varieties of European languages, sometimes koines themselves. Key socioeconomic factors are the differences between first-generation or second-generation colonies, and the presence, and timing, of a shift from a homestead to a plantation economy, with attendant basilectilization. When it comes to morphosyntax, "there are scant features of creoles that did not have (partial) models in the language varieties present in the contact settings", either in the lexifier or in substrate languages. The role of a bioprogram or universal grammar is then in regulating how elements from different languages are "selected and recombined".

Mufwene takes a provocative look at White American English Vernaculars (WAEVs), African American English (AAE), and Gullah, asking why WAEVs are not considered creoles. The differences between these varieties are a result of different histories, not different kinds of processes: "Virtually the same language-contact equation and the same selection principles applied in the formation of WAEVs and AAE". (Though I feel it's somewhat jumping the gun to be worrying about whether the "equation" involved is non-linear or not.)

Similarly, some "new Englishes" are insidiously stigmatized as "non-native" or "indigenised". Both the "single parent" tradition of genetic linguistics and the criterion of mutual intelligibility have been used to disenfranchise some varieties of English.

"It is pernicious to continue suggesting in our scholarship that some new Englishes are legitimate offspring of an earlier stage of English and that others are illegitimate ones. The processes that produced them all are of the same kind, although the changes that apply are not the same in all cases."
To illustrate this Mufwene considers aspects of the history of English in Britain: the extent of Celtic substrate influence and how Old English fares under a mutual intelligibility criterion. Other examples come, again, from American English varieties.

In chapter five Mufwene tackles some misconceptions about creoles of relevance to genetic linguistics. Whether English or the Romance languages should be called creoles or not is moot: what is clear is that contact played similar roles in their histories. "What we should now do is focus on how much light socioeconomic history can shed onto genetic linguistics."

Biological parallels are deployed throughout The Ecology of Language Evolution, but chapter six presents them in detail. The central idea in Mufwene's approach is that languages are like biological species, with individual dialects or idiolects analagous to individual organisms. To be more specific, languages are like parasitic species, where the host is the biological human species, individuals in which can be "infected" by multiple idiolects. The analogues of genes are linguistic features and their inheritance is obviously Lamarckian, with horizontal transmission. This perspective leads naturally leads to an emphasis on variation within populations, with change happening through competition and selection at the level of features and idiolects. And the "ecological" context includes both the presence of other languages and the socioeconomic environment.

Overall Mufwene handles this very well: his is the most insightful attempt to draw parallels between linguistic and biological evolution I have seen. There is the occasional glitch — he confuses gene reassortment with blending inheritance, his use of "polyploidic" doesn't have any relation to the biological use, and at one point he contrasts mutations with "natural adaptation" — but these are minor, isolated mistakes which in no way affect the general argument. My bigger concern is that the biological parallels are purely ontological, at the level of the entities involved and their connections, and that not a single bit of actual theory is transferred from population genetics. Given this, it might have been better to use biology for inspiration but to avoid biological terminology that is likely only to confuse linguists.

In chapter seven Mufwene applies his ideas to the linguistics of population movements in Africa. He begins with European colonization and then, working backwards, surveys the Nilotic migrations southwards, Arabian colonization of North Africa, and the Bantu expansion. The differences between creoles, pidgins, and indigenised lingua francas are not essential, but the product of different histories: which varieties were involved in contact, whether contact was integrative and assimilating or non-integrative, whether transmission was oral or scholastic, and whether colonies were based on settlement, exploitation, or trade. The major threat to indigenous languages comes not from indigenised European languages but from African lingua francas such as Swahili.

In a concluding chapter Mufwene reiterates some key points. The driving force in language change is the differential reproduction of features, driven by "variation in a population of interacting individuals". The same ecological factors that drive language change account for language vitality or extinction. And integration and segregation are key parts of the language contact ecology, with socioeconomics more influential than ethnicity.

This summary fails to do justice to Mufwene's many detailed analyses of specific language features. He is sometimes quite technical, but he is writing for his fellow linguists quite broadly, not for narrow specialists, and should be approachable by anyone with a basic background in linguistics. Five of the chapters of The Ecology of Language Evolution are based on previously published articles and despite reworking there's still a little untidy repetition. But the material is fascinating, the treatment is never obscure or dull, and anyone curious about languages and their histories should find plenty to enjoy.

June 2003

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- details at Cambridge University Press
Related reviews:
- John Holm - An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles
- books about linguistics
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T The Ecology of Language Evolution
%Y Cambridge Approaches to Language Contact
%A Mufwene, Salikoko S.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2001
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521794757
%P xviii,255pp