LINGUIST List 13.33

Tue Jan 8 2002

Review: Mufwene, The Ecology of Language

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  1. NICOLETTA PUDDU, Review of Mufwene: The Ecology of Language Evolution

Message 1: Review of Mufwene: The Ecology of Language Evolution

Date: Tue, 08 Jan 2002 10:52:23 +0000
Subject: Review of Mufwene: The Ecology of Language Evolution

Mufwene, Salikoko S. (2001) The Ecology of Language
Evolution. Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN 0-
521-79138-3, xviii+255pp, GBP 40.00, Cambridge Approaches
to Language Contact.

Reviewed by Nicoletta Puddu, Department of Linguistics,
University of Pavia

This book proposes an approach to Creole linguistics and,
more in general, to language evolution in an "ecological"
perspective. It includes some essays of the author yet
published in different fora (chapters 2 to 6) regarding
the relationship between Creole vernaculars and language
evolution. Chapters 1, 7 and 8 are, on the contrary,
unpublished studies, which "try to bridge topics on the
development of Creoles with issues in genetic linguistics
and language endangerment". Consequently this book is
intended not only for specialists in Creole linguistics,
but for those who are interested in sociolinguistics and,
generally, in the dynamics of language change.

Chapter 1: Introduction
The introduction spells out the theoretical framework of
the author. Mufwene gives his own definition of "Communal
language", "Pidgin", "Creole", "Koin�" and "Expanded
Pidgin" and shows that language contact was important in
restructuring processes which produced both Creoles and
koin�s. He explains his idea of "Language Evolution" and
compares language to a "Parasitic species", in contrast
with the idea of language as an "organism" as it was
traditionally considered since the beginning of the 19th
century. Finally he argues that ecology, as "the decisive
factor that rolls the dice over the competition" (Gould
1993) must be invoked to understand restructuring of
languages, but also aspects of language vitality.

Chapter 2: The Founder Principle in the development of
The author introduces the "Founder Principle", which is
one of the most important principles for the development
the development of Creoles (see also Mufwene 1993: 198).
He claims that "structural features of Creoles have been
predetermined to a large extent (though not exclusively!)
by characteristics of the vernaculars spoken by the
population that founded the colonies in which they
developed". Mufwene explains the choice of features
competing with each other as a natural adaptation in
changing ecological conditions. He uses terms modelled on
genetics (e.g. "feature pool" comparable to "gene pool",
"system reorganization" comparable to "genetic
He criticizes both the substratist hypothesis, which
connects Creoles' features mainly to the languages of the
African Slaves, and the Universalist hypothesis, which
compares the rules for the creation of Creoles with first
or second language acquisition principles. To explain the
development of Creoles he proposes a "complementary
hypothesis" mainly based on the "Founder principle"(see
also Baker and Corne 1986, Baker 1993 and Hancock 1986).
He provides both ethnographic and linguistic evidences for
this principle.
The author points out that the lexifiers of the Creoles
were not standard varieties, but the vernaculars of low-
ranking employees. Moreover, they were not monolithic, but
restructured varieties, possibly arisen in metropolitan
port cities. Some features, which were not present in the
standard varieties, existed in the lexifiers. In
colloquial English, for example, one finds a type of
"Serial-like constructions", such as "Let's go get the
book", which also occurs in some Bantu Languages, (more
precisely in some varieties of Kikongo and in Kituba).
Therefore, the ecological situation favoured the choice of
this kind of construction in Creoles.
Mufwene claims that Creoles "developed gradually into
plantation economic systems" and not "abruptly" in one
generation, as is traditionally argued. He also gives a
detailed history of the colonies, distinguishing between
"the homestead phase" and "the agricultural-economy
phase", and so between first, second and third-generation

Chapter 3: The development of America Englishes: factoring
contact in and the social bias out

Mufwene assumes that koin�ization played an important role
in the development of White American English vernaculars
(WAEVs). In his opinion WAEVs developed by the same
restructuring processes which led to the Creole genesis.
He also claims that Afro American Vernacular English
(AAVE) and WAEVs are outcomes of the same language and
developed in the same way through language contact. WAEVs
developed by competition of features of different English
varieties, but also of non English varieties, mainly the
other European varieties, but also, in an "unknown
quantity" Native American languages. He criticizes
traditional approaches to the genesis of AAEVE: 1) the
"Creole origin hypothesis", 2) the hypothesis that AAVE
was a South-eastern phenomenon which spread northwards and
westwards, 3) the hypothesis that it was an archaic
retention of what was spoken by low class Europeans, 4)
the hypothesis that it was an archaic colonial English
which low-class Europeans had abandoned. He proposes an
approach based on models of population genetics using the
notion of mixing and blending inheritance

Chapter 4: The legitimate and illegitimate offspring of
The author claims that there is a social bias in the
distinction between the labels "new English", i.e. the
vernaculars developed in English colonies, and others
varieties of English. He claims that this distinction has
to do with the "autonomization" of speakers, that is "the
ability of speakers to develop norms that are community
based rather than imposed by speakers of other varieties
of the lexifier" (106). In his opinion the criterion in
using the label "New English" is not that of mutual
intelligibility, but the racial identity of the speakers.
He underlies that the history of English, even in the
British Isles, has been characterized by contacts, mixing
and competition of features.
Mufwene concludes by saying: "It is pernicious to continue
suggesting in our scholarship that some new Englishes are
legitimate offspring of an earlier stage of English and
that some 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."

Chapter 5: What research on development of Creoles can
contribute to genetic linguistics
The main assumption in this chapter is that heterogeneity
and hybridity are the normal characteristics of languages.
Therefore, the author rejects the idea that Creoles are
aberrations because they do not fit in Schuchardt's
Stammbaum. He also claims that there is no reason to
regard changes in Creoles any different from changes in
other languages. He proposes an "Uniformitarian principle"
(see also Labov 1994), which can account for both Creoles
and new varieties of other languages. He states that
Creoles neither developed more rapidly than other
languages nor were created by children; rather, they
developed by the same competition-and-selection process of
the other vernaculars. They were not lexified by standard
varieties. However, the role of the lexifier was important
in the selection of Creoles' structural features, but some
of the features were selected also on the basis of the
substratum language. He stresses again the fact that the
the sociohistorical context accounts for an important
proportion of creoles' structure. We must take into
account: a) the populations which were present in the
contact setting, b) the typological features of the
languages they spoke c) how much the lexifier was
heterogenous d) the patterns of interaction between the
ethnic and social groups e) how all these factors varied
from one stage of colonization to another.
The author defines "Creolization" as "a social process by
which vernaculars associated with particular social
groups, typically descendants of non Europeans in
exogenous colonial settings, were disfranchised from other
colonial varieties that developed around the same time but
are related primarily to descendants of Europeans". This
means that the author denies the existence of any
"special" restructuring process of creolization. Only
phenomena of language contact are recognised, such as the
ones which led to the development of Romance languages
from Latin and to the evolution from Old to Middle

Chapter 6: Language contact, evolution, and death: How
ecology rolls the dice

In chapter 6 the approach to language evolution in
ecological terms is made more systematic. The author
discusses the notion of "evolution", which is not
interpreted as a progress (see Gould 1993), but as "the
long-term changes undergone by a language (variety) over a
period of time. He claims that "linguistic evolution
proceeds by natural selection from among the competing
alternatives made available by the idiolects of individual
speakers, which vary among them [...]"(146). He provides
several good pieces of evidence to consider a language as
a parasitic species, rather than an organism. He shows how
it can be useful to use an ecological perspective both
"external" and "internal" and both "structural" and "not
structural", to explain why a language comes to be
endangered, restructured or why it comes to acquire some
features rather than others.

Chapter 7: Past and recent population movements in Africa:
their impact on its linguistic landscape

The perspective of language ecology is here applied to
Africa's linguistic situation. The author aims to prove
that the ecological perspective explains not only why a
given language undergoes to determinate changes: it also
sheds light upon its vitality. Mufwene tries to give a
general idea of how the "present linguistic landscape of
Africa came about, toward its linguistic and ethnographic
history". In a retrogressive approach, he analyses the
linguistic effects of European colonization, that led to
groups of new language varieties in Africa: the varieties
lexified by European languages (both "inidigenized" such
as Black South Africans and "native", such as the South
African English) and the varieties lexified by African
Languages (as Sango, Kituba and Lingala). Then he goes
back to precolonial Africa from the Nilotic migration
southwards to the Arabian colonization (with their
"communalist" language, see Mazrui and Mazrui 1998). The
author points out again, the significance of patterns of
interaction among the populations at specific points in
time, and the nature of contact. And he underlines again
how the ecological perspective may be helpful in
understanding problems of language endangerment and
language change.

Chapter 8: Conclusions: The big picture
In this chapter the author puts the results of his
investigation and his main assumptions into a coherent
-	Both development of Creoles and language evolution
must be seen from a population genetics perspective,
the language being considered as a Lamarckian
parasitic species;
-	Language vitality and endangerment are aspects of
language evolution and therefore their analysis from
an ecological perspective can be useful;
-	Integration and segregation are fundamental features
of language evolution;
-	Differences in colonization styles can account for
different results in language evolution;
-	There are internal and external factors that bear on
language evolution and they apply concurrently in all
cases of language evolution.

The language ecology perspective is undoubtedly very
interesting and stimulating and helps to eliminate
entrenched bias in the studies of language evolution.
Sociohistorical factors, which are too often forgotten or
levelled in Creole linguistics are here assigned the right
relevance. On the other hand historical linguists can get
useful inputs by using this approach. The author provides
us very detailed data, both linguistic, historical and
ethnographical, thus giving us a clear and comprehensive
picture. He is also able to capture similarities between
the linguistic and the biological "ecosystem", creating a
strong theoretical framework, which may be useful for
general linguists too.
However it must be remembered that recent studies on
language acquisition (see, among others Veronique 1999)
show interesting contacts between Creole grammars and the
"Interlanguage" of language learners. If we assume that
the processes which languages undergo in change are
similar it is possible to assume also that language
acquisition principles are similar. Cognitive principles,
finally may account for language change, not only in
Creoles, but in all cases of language contact.
To sum up the Mufwene's book is a very good opportunity to
reconsider methods in language change study and to build
complex models for interpretation of the linguistic


Baker, Philip and Corne, Chris (1986). Universals,
substrata and the Indian Ocean Creoles, in Muysken and
Smith N. (1986).

Baker, Philip (1993) Assessing the Africa contribution to
French-based Creole. In Mufwene 1993a: 123-55.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1993). Eight little piggies:
reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Hanckoc (1986). The domestic hypothesis, diffusion and
componentiality: an account of Atlantic Anglophone Creole
origins. In Muysken and Smith (1986): 71-102.

Labov, W. (1994) Principles of linguistic change: internal
factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lang, J�rgen & Neumann-Holzschuh (hrsg.)(1999).- Reanaylse
und Grammatikaliesierung in den romanischen Sprachen.-
T�bingen, Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Mazrui, Ali and Alamin Mazrui (1998). The power of Babel:
language in the African experience. Oxford: James
Currey/Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mufwene, S. S. (Ed.) (1993). Africanisms in Afro-American
language varieties. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia

M�hlh�usler, P (1986). Pidgin and Creole Linguistics.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Revised edition 1997. London:
university of Westminster Press.

Muysken, Pieter and Norval Smith (1986). Universals versus
substrata in creole genesis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Romaine, Suzanne (1988). Pidgin and creole languages. New
York: Longman.

Veronique, Daniel (1999) L'�mergence de cat�gories
grammaticales dans les langues cr�oles: grammaticalisation
et r�analyse. In :Lang, J�rgen & Neumann-Holzschuh
(hrsg.): pp. 187-209.

Nicoletta Puddu is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the
Department of Linguistics, University of Pavia, Italy. Her
research interests include Indo-european linguistics,
linguistic typology and multidisciplinary studies, in
particular the comparison between genetic and linguistic
data related to the history of population.
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