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Review of  Language Evolution

Reviewer: Lixia Susan Cheng
Book Title: Language Evolution
Book Author: Salikoko S Mufwene
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 19.2952

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

Susan Lixia Cheng, School of English Studies, University of Nottingham & School
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 principles
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 between
languages and viral species and highlight mutual accommodation among individuals
as a prerequisite for emergent communal behavior. This book shows how the
development of language can be illuminated by using the concepts of evolutionary
theory. It provides an interesting reading to anyone working in sociolinguistics
and language contact.

The book collects seven revised versions of previously published articles since
Mufwene (2001) and three new articles (chapters 4, 6 and 13). Altogether there
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; ''Competition,
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 ends
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 evolution':
structural change, language speciation, language birth and language death.
Definitions of the key concepts like 'imperfect replication', 'invisible hand'
and 'globalization' are also summarized here. The assumption of the book is that
the evolutions of communal languages are determined ''not only by the ecologies
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 an
analogy between languages and viral species in the sense that both of them are
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 suggests
''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'', the
author examines the development of the Romance languages and their non-creole
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 claims
that population movements and contacts motivate language diversification:
inter-idiolectal contact favors different variants from the same feature pool
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 comparison
with highway traffic'', chapter 4 compares the dynamics of language evolution
with the flow of traffic in order to show how patterns have emerged through the
'invisible hand' and the role of individual speakers as ''unwitting agents of
change'' (p.59). This comparison originates in Keller (1994) which claims that
the convergence of behaviors is motivated by the particular ecologies to which
the individuals respond. Mufwene argues that like traffic, language evolution
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 own
idiolects. He then claims that the alleged pidgin ancestry of creoles is
questionable, and structural similarities between expanded pidgins and creoles
reflect the fact that they were developed by adults using materials from related
European and substrate languages to meet diverse communicative needs. He also
suggests that creoles should be compared with the nonstandard vernaculars spoken
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 America'',
takes on the race-based prejudice in recent linguistic research. In the analysis
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 also
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 races''

Chapter 7, ''Competition and selection in language evolution'', examines hybridism
in the development of creoles. The author observes that ''individual speakers
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 language
has been influenced by other languages or emerged from the contact of several

Chapter 8, ''Transfer and the substrate hypothesis in creolistics'', addresses
various versions of the substrate hypothesis of which the biggest problem,
Mufwene points out, is methodological, because most of its claims are based on
insufficient evidence. As a population-level phenomenon, substrate influence
results from both the recurrence of xenolectal elements in some idiolects and
their spread within the speech community. Second Language Acquisition research,
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 that
led to the emergence of communal norms in creoles'' (p.159).

In chapter 9, ''Grammaticization in the development of creoles'', Mufwene argues
that grammaticization is one of the restructuring processes that have produced
creoles by way of extending their lexifiers' constructions to new grammatical
functions. The recent evolution of creoles highlights the inventiveness of the
speakers who reuse old patterns to express new meanings. Grammaticization shows
how the emergent typology may help us to understand ''the way the linguistic mind
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 light
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 the
development of creoles and indigenized varieties can clarify the ecological
factors in the evolution of other languages. Speakers interact with each other
and respond to the immediate communicative challenges by using one variety or
another. This interconnectedness enables them to produce similar idiolects which
converge into varieties of a communal language. The author also points out that
some notions like 'creolization', 'indigenization' show the biases toward
non-European populations and their languages which should be Indo-European by
genetic classification.

Looking at the history of colonization and economic globalization, ''Language
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 socioeconomic
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 them
become extinct, so terms like 'killer language', 'linguicide' are misused
because language has no agency in the processes at all. The author also points
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 really
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 and
transportation, and the complexity of its organization, with ''multinational
corporations headquartered mostly in the western world, colonizing Third World
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 reveals'',
examines the development of indigenous languages in South Africa and shows the
clear connection between language spread and economic development. The author
argues that the European languages have not always been the ones affecting
indigenous languages since some indigenous languages have also ''displaced other
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 expense
of others. It is the new socioeconomic world order and the population structures
of settlement colonization that determine what language to adopt to deal with
the changing ecologies.

Chapter 14, ''A case study: The ecology of Gullah's survival'', discusses certain
ecological factors that have made Gullah stay almost the same since the
nineteenth century and free from debasilectalizing ''by assimilation to varieties
of English spoken either by descendants of Europeans or by the educated middle
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 and
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 to
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 between
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). In
this new book, however, he goes one step further to offer a comparison between
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 research.

Second, the empirical support of the book is not exclusively centered on
European exploitation colonies of Africa. In fact, the case studies of creoles
are from many parts of the world and throughout human history. The parallelisms
observed between language evolution in England since its settlement colonization
by the Germanics and that in North America since the European colonization are
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 constellation
of Roman town colonies. The more we know about the evolution of creoles around
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 issue
and more empirical backing is needed to justify it.

There are also some shortcomings which would have been remedied through rigorous
editing, such as the typographical mistake of the word ''sztrong'' (p.123). The
use of acronyms for some terminologies is also chaotic: the abbreviations don't
appear at the first mention of the terms and even when they have been given, in
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), and
strangely this appearance is not shown in the subject index; then the acronym
PLD is mentioned (p.75) but the term is given in full again (p.182). The term
'language bioprogram hypothesis' has the same problem. Another typographical
problem is 'stammbaum' which sometimes appears italicized (as in p.12, 14, 30)
and sometimes not (as in p.109, 201). One may ask if there is some difference
between the two forms. And the structure would be much clearer if the overlap
between some chapters could be reduced, especially in the last part of the book.

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a fascinating book, challenging much
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 approach_.
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, DC:
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.

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