LINGUIST List 13.1100

Sat Apr 20 2002

Review: Historical Ling; Creoles: Mufwene (2001)

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in.

If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at or Terry Langendoen at


  • Margot van den Berg, Mufwene (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution (2nd review)

    Message 1: Mufwene (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution (2nd review)

    Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2002 15:48:45 +0200
    From: Margot van den Berg <>
    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

    OVERVIEW 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.

    DISCUSSION 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 non-creoles.

    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 nature.

    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 mentioned.

    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 omitted.

    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 �f�-g�d� 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 b�bbi-watra �n�-s�n mother's milk moedermelk 'breast-liquid/water'

    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.

    REFERENCES 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: Winchester

    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. <>;

    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

    ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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: