Speech competition

To understand how language changes, Salikoko Mufwene looks to principles from ancient history, economics, and The Origin of Species.

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

Photography by Dan Dry

Despite mastering English, French, and three Bantu languages, linguist Salikoko Mufwene, PhD’79, wasn’t necessarily considered a language expert at home. “My daughter just didn’t listen to me regarding English grammar and pronunciation,” he admits. Immigrating to the United States as an adult, Mufwene grew up speaking Kiyansi and Kituba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “She would occasionally tell me, ‘Maybe in Africa you say it that way, but here, this is what we say.’”

Photo: Worms

She may not have realized it, but by ignoring her father’s accented English, Mufwene’s daughter reinforced his view of how language evolves. In his 2008 book, Language Evolution: Contact, Competition and Change (Continuum International Publishing Group), he investigates the ways people adapt speech to their surroundings. “They choose on a day-by-day basis what language is more practical or advantageous for them to speak in a particular situation,” says Mufwene, the Frank J. McLoraine distinguished service professor in linguistics. It could mean an immigrant switching to English for a job interview or a teenager using friends’ slang. For children, it means imitating peers over parents.

“Every individual is just doing something that is beneficial to him or her,” emphasizes Mufwene, who holds a joint appointment in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and whose ecological approach to language evolution  challenges long-standing linguistic ideas. Just as diverse organisms comprise a given species, he explains, variations of words and sounds comprise a language. Consider, for instance, the English word “either,” whose first syllable might be pronounced with an emphasis on the e (“ee-ther”) or the i (“eye-ther”). Speakers living in the same geographic region tend to drift in one direction or the other based on what the majority does. Like Mufwene’s daughter, children are particularly quick to imitate the locals and push alternatives further to the periphery.

Linguistically, an invisible hand is at work, Mufwene says. “Nobody has consulted with anybody else,” but as people make choices about how they speak, the population gravitates toward similarity in pronunciation, meaning, and grammar. A communal norm emerges “in the same way that patterns emerge out of chaos. The variants that we hear the most are the variants we try to reproduce.”

As in biological evolution, ecology helps determine which pronunciations and languages thrive or fade. Cities, for example, “are among the places where minority languages just die,” says Mufwene. Unlike rural settings where speakers of different languages often remain isolated from each other, allowing them to preserve their ethnic language, cities bring speakers of minority and majority languages into frequent contact. Immigrants to the United States who use English at work often end up speaking it at home too, in part because their children feel pressured to sound like their classmates. By the next generation, the kids often drop the minority tongue—and their parents’ accented English—entirely. 

Contact between groups can also lead to new languages. Ecological pressures influenced the emergence of creole languages in U.S. slave-plantation colonies, says Mufwene, whose research over the past three decades on Gullah and Jamaican Creole has been among his most significant work. Developed in insular, coastal territories along the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean, creoles—vernaculars evolved from variants of French, English, Portuguese, and Dutch during the 18th and 19th centuries—demonstrate how interaction between groups can produce new language varieties over time. In the 17th century, the early days of plantation settlements, European masters and African slaves had regular interaction. With little opportunity to speak their own ethnic language—a slave might be the only non-European in the homestead or speak a different native tongue from the other blacks present—Africans learned to speak their masters’ languages, which were already diverging from their metropolitan European counterparts.

As large plantations segregated African slaves and European colonists in the early 18th century, new varieties of these altered European vernaculars evolved among the slaves. By then slaves made up roughly 80 to 90 percent of some plantations’ occupants. With limited access to whites and a constant influx of new slave labor from Africa, says Mufwene, they created an English more heavily influenced by African languages. In Gullah, a creole that emerged in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the English phrase Jean had to come developed into Jean bin fuh because of those influences.

While linguists have traditionally marginalized such creoles, treating the products of mixed languages as “children out of wedlock” with no connection to their European predecessors, Mufwene says, he sees them as models for how language evolution works. Just as slaves interacted with Europeans and with each other to produce new vernaculars, contact between Celtic peoples and Romans led to Latin’s diversification into the Romance languages. American varieties of English have likewise been influenced by interactions between groups of speakers, says Mufwene.

For example, before institutionalized segregation, which arose in the late 19th century through Jim Crow laws, 50 to 75 percent of white Southerners fell into the lower class, along with former slaves. Because these groups lived side by side, they developed similar ways of speaking—accents and phrases that persist to this day. “If you didn’t grow up in the South,” says Mufwene, who also studies African American English and taught at the University of Georgia for ten years, “you may often not be able to tell whether a white person or a black person is speaking unless you see them.”

Regardless of its past, a language never stops evolving. “We think we speak the same language, but the language that we speak is not a static thing,” says Mufwene. “It’s in a continual state of flux.” As English spreads internationally, for example, it continues to break into different varieties, with indigenized versions emerging in places such as India, Nigeria, and other former British colonies in Africa and Asia.

He compares the linguistic process to drivers in highway traffic. While guidelines exist—slower cars keep right, use a blinker when changing lanes—drivers are free to determine their own speeds and how best to navigate the road. Cars must adjust to each other’s movements just as speakers align themselves with others during everyday conversations. A driver or speaker might miscalculate another’s actions, but generally the population zooms along. We may not all have the same destination, says Mufwene, but “we are all moving forward.”

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