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What African Linguistics Can Contribute to Evolutionary Linguistics
Salikoko S. Mufwene
52-67 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


Evolutionary linguistics has been used in recent years, by analogy to evolutionary biology, in reference to scholarship on the phylogenetic emergence of language, on language birth and death (as with the sustainability of ecosystems in macroecology) and thus on language vitality and language speciation, and on ecological motivation of language change (as in sociohistorical linguistics). My concern with what the emergence of creoles can teach us about language speciation/diversification, and with the impacts of colonization and globalization on language vitality, have led me to this scholarship, as I sought inspiration from macroecology in my attempt to understand how ecology rolls the dice in evolution. It occurred to me that the contribution of genetic creolistics to evolutionary linguistics is in fact comparable to the role played by African linguistics in helping the practice of linguistics improve, especially in the areas of genetic linguistics (with the comparative method and genetic classifications), phonology and morphology (with new data that justified paradigm shifts), grammaticization, the sociology of language, and the ethnography of communication (all of which expanded linguistics). In the history of the scholarship on the evolution of language, Africa has often been invoked for various reasons, including as the cradle of mankind, the homeland of the late Homo sapiens before their dispersal worldwide, and apparently of earlier forms of communication more complex than animal communication. It has been claimed in that history that some primitive forms of linguistic communication could be found, alternately, in the putative simplicity of the isolating morphosyntax of some languages, or in the alleged supercomplexity of agglutination in the Bantu languages (analogized to holophrastic/holistic communication), or in the reliance on tones (misinterpreted as reminiscent of primeval vocalizations that preceded speech). All these misguided views were entertained in a (pre)colonial worldview that saw standard varieties of European languages as more evolved than all others. I submit that the central role that African linguistics has played in language typology can help shed light on why we may be speaking more accurately of the evolution of languages, in the plural, thus in defense of polygenesis, rather than of the evolution of language in the singular. Using data from African languages, I will defend my position from the point of view of language as communicative technology.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Linguistic Interfaces in African Languages
edited by lanik la Orie and Karen W. Sanders
Table of contents
Printed edition: $320.00