Creoles, Pidgins and the Evolution of Languages

BY | Salikoko S. Mufwene

SESSION 1: The Legitimate and Illegitimate Offspring of English

The naming practice of new Englishes (technically, all those varieties that have resulted from the English colonial expansion) has to do more with the racial identity of those who speak them than with how these varieties developed and the extent of their structural deviations. It has little to do with how mutually intelligible they are. Here, I pursue some of these questions of "legitimate" and "illegitimate" offspring, descriptions suggested by how we have distinguished between the different varieties, especially regarding their developments. We have typically downplayed the role of contact in the case of "native" Englishes but have routinely invoked it in the case not only of creoles but also of indigenized Englishes.

video video Contact between different racial and ethnic groups has played an important role in the development of languages and, Mufwene argues, race has also determined whether language variants are labeled "legitimate" or "illegitimate".
(2:32 min; download 2.59 MB)

The distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" is also negatively correlated with how much we have learned about the development of "new Englishes". I claim that we know more about the varieties which linguists have presented as "illegitimate offspring" or "children out of wedlock," i.e., creoles and the indigenized varieties, than we do about the "legitimate" or "native" varieties. Among the reasons for this disparity seems to be the following: in the case of indigenized Englishes, curiosity about how and why they deviate from the native varieties has led us to investigate all sorts of ecological factors that can account for their structural peculiarities. In the case of native Englishes, we have downplayed their divergence from British English(es) and the role of contact in their development, assuming that they reflect "normal" evolution according to the single-parent filiation suggested by the tradition in genetic linguistics. My
video Drawing comparisons to the principle of gene recombination in biology, Mufwene explains how language restructuring introduces new elements and repackages old ones.
(2:02 min; download 2.08 MB)
position here is that the same kinds of restructuring processes are involved in the development of both kinds of varieties, subject to varying ecological conditions, in which new dialect and language contacts play an important role. I continue to assume that, although there is no consensus on how creoles have developed, what we have learned in discussing them should help us more adequately approach the development of other English varieties.

I see an undeniable correlation of race of speakers with the distinction presented in the title of this session. The legitimate offspring are roughly those varieties spoken typically by descendants of Europeans around the world, whereas the illegitimate ones are those spoken primarily by populations that have not fully descended from Europeans. Those who are not happy with this dichotomic distinction may also consider distinguishing the offspring of English on a continuum. One of its poles consists of varieties which are spoken typically by descendants of Europeans and whose legitimacy has hardly ever been disputed. The other pole consists of English pidgins and creoles, which have been stipulated as separate languages, despite their speakers' claim that they too speak English. In the middle range come varieties characterized as "non-native" or "indigenized." Below, I show how pernicious this practice is, starting with how the different varieties are named.

An insidious naming tradition
The labeling of nonpidgin and noncreole varieties spoken primarily by non-Europeans tells much of the story. The term non-native is one for disfranchising the relevant varieties as not really legitimate offspring of English, because their norms are set by non-native speakers. Indeed most of the children born to such communities, as in India and Nigeria, inherit the norms set by their second-language-speaker parents, thus making clear that native competence has to do more with norm-preserving than with norm-setting. On the other hand, the term indigenized reflects the struggle for legitimizing them, a stand that is consistent with the position that every dialect has its own set of distinctive features and norms by which a speaker is identified as a typical or nontypical member of the community with which it is associated. Within this medium range of the continuum also fall varieties such as African-American vernacular English (AAVE), whose status has been alternately associated with creoles or with nonstandard dialects of English.

video video Mufwene defines the terms native and non-native English and explains how different pronunciations can create confusion among native and non-native speakers alike.
(2:55 min; download 2.96 MB)

I submit that the main reason for this apparently nonlinguistic classification of offspring of English lies in the tradition of genetic linguistics of assuming only a single parent in the filiation of languages. Accordingly, the speciation of mother languages into daughter languages has been discussed under the assumption that no intercourse was necessary with other languages prior to the production of offspring. The typical explanation for innovative or novel structural features has been internally motivated change. That is, the relevant language has generally not been affected by the peculiarities of the other languages it came in contact with. For instance, Sarah G. Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (authors of Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics, 1988) argue that Old English would have undergone several of the changes that affected it independently of its contact with Old Norse and Norman French. Interestingly, Anthony Kroch, Ann Taylor, and Donald Ringe argue just for the opposite conclusion, consistent with the ecological approach to language evolution advocated here.

Even contact among dialects within the relevant languages seems to have been of no significant explanatory interest in traditional genetic accounts of new native Englishes. Accordingly, the Germanic languages are different among themselves presumably by some accident of patterns of speciation. Contact with other genetically unrelated languages (particularly the Celtic languages in whose territory the Germanic populations were dispersing) can putatively be overlooked, because it apparently did not affect their evolution. Neither does it seem to have mattered at all in this tradition that Proto-Germanic itself must have been internally variable, like Proto-Indo-European. Such internal variation must also have been the case later within West-Germanic and subsequently in the languages which the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons brought to England. Little attention has been paid to contacts which these languages came to have with one another in England. They bear on the emergence of Old English, even if we argue that the influence of Celtic languages on these beginnings of the English language are negligible. It is just strange that Anglicists have generally overlooked the fact that the Celts inhabited England before the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons colonized it and imposed their language varieties. Thus, it is disputable that internally motivated change and ecology-free speciation have explained everything about the evolution of English. Unfortunately, the same tradition has led them to suggest in the development of new, "native" and "non-native," Englishes processual differences which are artificial from a genetic point of view.

SESSION 2: How Language Contact Has Been Downplayed

Cases where it is undeniable that speakers of the mother language came in contact with speakers of other languages which disappeared but left substrate influence on the superseding language have been treated as rather exceptional. Such is the case of the Romance languages, which developed from Vulgar Latin. More often than not, only internally motivated linguistic processes have been invoked to account for the evolution of the mother language into its offspring. Thus little is usually said about the contributions of Celtic languages to the structures of Romance languages.

video video Mufwene describes his view that communication or contact between any two individuals, even among family members, can greatly influence language evolution.
(1:45 min; download 1.79 MB)

Thus, as far as English as spoken by descendants of Europeans is concerned, it has been normal not to discuss whether or not it has been influenced by its Celtic substratum in England. Likewise, experts have seldom addressed the question of why Celtic influence in British varieties of English is confined to those which developed after the Old-English period and why it is perhaps most striking today in those which developed since the seventeenth century (in particular Irish and Scots-Irish Englishes). Other varieties that bear such conspicuous influence are those outside Europe whose developers included speakers of Irish and Scots-Irish Englishes.

According to Michael Montgomery's 1989 article "Exploring the Roots of Appalachian English," Appalachian English is one of these non-British varieties with Celtic influence. Newfoundland vernacular English (NVE) is another where such substrate influence is to be expected, despite linguist Sandra Clarke's capitalization on the Southwestern English sources of some of its grammatical features such as the HABITUAL verbal {S} suffix. She provides no explanation for the usage of be (bees in the third person singular, e.g. "he bees...") before nonverbal predicates for the same grammatical function. I conjecture that perhaps congruence with a similar, though not necessarily identical, pattern in Gaelic influenced this development in NVE.

In the case of Irish and Scots-Irish Englishes, the evidence from research since the 1980s shows that contact with the substratum cannot be denied. Similarities between some (Scots) Irishisms and Gaelic in just those areas that distinguish them from more Germanic varieties of British English make contact a plausible, if not the only, explanation for these divergent evolutionary paths of English. But then one may raise the question of why these new varieties are characterized as "native," despite the influence of Gaelic.

video What do languages and cows have in common? Mufwene explains in his critique of traditional linguistic theories.
(2:16 min; download 2.31 MB)
The main reason is that the communities of those speaking these new varieties as vernaculars consist (almost) entirely of native speakers. To be sure, they must have been indigenizing during some phases of their developments. Given the acknowledged role of contact, one may ask why they are not called creoles, especially their nonstandard varieties. After all, creoles are considered native varieties, at least according to the most traditional and most widely accepted definition of the term creole in linguistics. They are also native according to a characterization little noticed in Robert Hall's 1966 book Pidgin and Creole Languages, namely, they are indigenous to the places where they developed. In this respect, they are like Scots and Irish Englishes, as well as like indigenized Englishes. To be equally subversive, why are creoles called separate languages for that matter? Since "creolization" is not a structural process and most of the features identified as Irish and Scottish are primarily nonstandard and are due to language contact, it requires some innocence not to consider the race and/or geographical location of the speakers an important tacit factor in the naming tradition.

Indigenized or native English?
South Africa is an interesting case, where the English spoken by descendants of Europeans (including Afrikaners) is said to be "native," whereas the varieties spoken by other South Africans are said to be indigenized, reflecting the many-tiered colonial sociopolitical ecology of the country.

Perhaps an interesting exception here is South African Indian vernacular English (SAIE). The reason for not including it among indigenized Englishes is that it is nonstandard and did not develop through the scholastic medium. It is not typically identified as a creole either, though it developed under conditions which may lead some scholars to characterize it as such. It certainly is not considered "native." One reason why, unlike Irish and Scots vernacular Englishes, it does not count as "native" seems to be the following: it counts no people of European descent among its native speakers. Technically, SAIE has "fallen between the cracks," as it fits into none of the ill-conceived categories assumed in accounts of speciation of the English language.

In the same vein, one may want to speculate whether there will ever be a time when, for instance, Indian, Singaporean, and Nigerian Englishes may become native. Shouldn't we rather accept the reality that English is less likely to replace the indigenous lingua francas of these territories than it did in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, because the socioeconomic and political ecologies are not the same? The case of SAIE is a special one, chiefly because the appropriation of English among Indians in South Africa enabled both wider communication among themselves and communication with non-Indians, especially the British colonists who brought them there.

It is also interesting that the varieties identified as "indigenized" are spoken in former exploitation colonies. South Africa was partly a settlement colony, like the territories where creoles have typically developed, and partly an exploitation colony, especially where the British rule is concerned.

Outside the UK, native Englishes are also spoken in former settlement colonies, in which globalizing economic policies have at least endangered the indigenous languages, starting with the Celtic languages in the British Isles. The development of SAIE is associated to some extent with such ecological factors, although these did not obtain in quite the same ways as in the New World. One may argue that SAIE fits among native Englishes but, to my knowledge, no expert has classified it as such. Note also that English creoles are native vernaculars, but not necessarily native Englishes, based on the literature on both creoles and indigenized Englishes. If one had to slavishly follow this misguided tradition, another category would have to be invented for SAIE!

Some may speculate that native Englishes have well-established norms and are associated with some standard. Ironically, indigenized Englishes are in several structural respects no more distant from standard English varieties than native nonstandard vernaculars are. In a way, the educated varieties of indigenized Englishes represent local standards. The question to address is actually whether indigenized Englishes lack norms. I argue that, like expanded pidgins, indigenized Englishes do have stable norms, although these have been established and perpetuated by populations of primarily non-native speakers.

Such realities show that norms are not necessarily developed by native speakers but by a stable population of speakers who use a variety regularly. Norms emerge out of communicative habits of individual speakers. What the habits share, including patterns of variation, form the community's norms, i.e., manners in which a speaker can expect other members of their community to express things. Thus, the "native"/"non-native" distinction as applied to language varieties, rather than to speakers, seems to serve some social ideology more than it sheds any light on language evolution, especially on the speciation that often ensues from it.

SESSION 3: The Development of English in England

North American English varieties are all by-products of language contact. Contact is an important ecological factor in language evolution in general, both in cases where it has produced creoles and in those where it has produced varieties which are identified by other names.

video video Citing ways in which Germanic tribes and Celtic languages may have influenced the development of Old English, Mufwene explores how contact between individuals and communities plays an important role in language evolution.
(3:47 min; download 3.85 MB)

Regarding the spread of English around the world, I maintain that native Englishes, indigenized Englishes, and English pidgins and creoles have all developed by the same kinds of natural restructuring processes. Structural differences among them are due to variation in the ecological conditions which assigned different values to the variables of the language-restructuring equation and thus determined varying outcomes from one case to another. We will now re-examine some of those putatively nonexceptional cases of traditional genetic filiation (identified as "ordinary" or "natural") and show how contact-based explanations also apply to them.

Let us compare the spread of Vulgar Latin and that of the languages of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Vulgar Latin, which was exported to the Celtic-speaking countries of continental Europe west of the Alps, is a name for vernacular Latin, as a nonstandard variety distinct from Classical Latin. The counterpart of nonstandard varieties of European languages today, it was, as the adjective vulgar (from Latin vulgaris) says, the language of the common people, a social classification that certainly also applies well to most of the West Germanics who invaded England in the fifth and sixth centuries and would develop Old
video Mufwene tackles the terms language acquisition and transmission, explaining that languages are not ready-made packages passed from person to person.
(4:31 min; download 4.59 MB)

Interestingly, soldiers were involved in both cases of colonization and language spread. The reason why Vulgar Latin was so influenced by the Celtic substrate and became French, Spanish, and Portuguese (focusing on Western Europe, and depending on where the contact took place) certainly had to do with its appropriation by the colonized Celts.

The above appropriation process and shift to the dominant group's language is not different in kind from what produced creoles and indigenized Englishes. Indeed, Thomason and Kaufman recognize the importance of language shift in both the case of the development of indigenized varieties and that of creoles. Since at first glance one can perceive similarities in the domination of England, France, Spain, and Portugal by foreign powers, the following question arises: Why did England not become a Romance country, like France, Spain, and Portugal? Why did it take up to the seventeenth century before more distinctly Celticized English varieties other than Scots English emerged in Wales and Ireland?

Recall that the Romans left England about the same time they left France, Portugal, and Spain, when the western part of the Roman Empire was collapsing. If one invokes the fact that England was subsequently colonized by the Germanics, one cannot overlook the fact that France (then Gaul) also underwent a period of Frankish (i.e., Germanic) domination, and Iberia (Portugal and Spain) was ruled for a while by the Arabs and Visigoths (also a Germanic tribe). Yet, they would gradually become Romance countries precisely after the Romans had left. (There's also the interesting question of why the Eastern Roman Empire, which lasted longer, did not become Romance.) In any case, it is worth noting that England was invaded in the fifth century. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons settled in England in more or less the same way that the Europeans settled in North America, not mingling with the native populations but pushing them further away from their settlements or killing them--in North America, more by the spread of Old World diseases than in wars. As David Crystal observes in his 1995 book The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, the Germanic invaders called the native Celts "foreigners," the meaning of the term Welsh, and did not mingle with them.

The native Celts seem to have been no more eager to appropriate English in their homeland than the Native Americans wanted to shift to European languages. Changes in socioeconomic conditions led them to do so, several centuries later; and when they did there was substrate influence. The social integration of the Celtic populations in the frontiers of the British Isles, coinciding with the development of potato "plantations" there and the imposition of English as the rulers' language, subsequently produced varieties such as Irish and Scots-Irish Englishes. (The early Anglicization of the Scots, with English hopping over other Celtic populations of northern England in the eleventh century, had to do with an interesting love story. When the English monarchs sought refuge in Scotland from the Norman French invaders, the Scottish king not only married an English princess but also adopted her language for his court.)

Among the reasons why there is no Native American structural influence in North American varieties of English lies in the fact that Native Americans were not integrated in mainstream American society until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, as minorities, and under socioeconomic pressures from the majority. To date, there are still Native Americans who speak English non-natively, while most of their children, who are more fully assimilated to the dominant culture, speak American English natively. Thus the Native American influence on North American English remains lexical. Likewise, the late assimilation of the Native Celts to the Germanic rule in the British Isles also accounts for its apparently limited influence on English in England proper.

The vernacularization of English
Contrary to what some may think, missionaries' attempt to teach Native American children English in boarding schools and thereby spread English among the indigenous populations was no more successful than similar attempts in Africa and Asia. Outside the boarding school, Native American languages, rather than English, served as the vernacular, especially in intimate settings with relatives and friends. English remained an auxiliary language for those who did not have to live in socioeconomic settings where it was useful and proficiency in it enabled them to be competitive. The globalization of the American economy and the involvement of Native American populations are the factors that did the trick, affecting even those left on the reservations.

Likewise, migrant labor, rather than schools (which taught English as a dead language), are largely responsible for the spread and vernacularization of English in Ireland. The informal contexts of language appropriation are correlated with the nonstandard nature of the varieties which the learners then targeted. They account in part for the extent of substrate influence on the structure of Irish English. This is very similar to cases of language shift and appropriation which resulted in the development of varieties identified, for specific sociohistorical reasons, as creoles.

SESSION 4: The Significance of Ethnographic Ecology

Ecology is an important factor that should not be overlooked in accounts of language evolution and speciation. English in some extra-European parts of the world speciated into vernaculars called creoles because it was appropriated by non-Europeans under ethnographic conditions that favored extensive restructuring under substrate influence. Substrate influence was possible especially when those who appropriated the language used it not only to communicate with its original speakers but also, and perhaps mostly, to communicate among themselves.

video video Mufwene explains the concept of language ecology and discusses how environment, socio-economic status, geography and historical circumstances influence language evolution.
(5:44 min; download 5.83 MB)

Whether or not the dominated populations interacted regularly with the dominating populations is a more important ecological factor than the often-invoked low proportion of native speakers of the target relative to the learners--especially in exploitation colonies, where most Natives were not acquiring the colonizer's language. Let us, however, illustrate this point with African-American vernacular English (AAVE).

The development of African-American vernacular English
The creators of AAVE were generally minorities relative to the European populations. AAVE shares many features with White nonstandard vernaculars in North America, because, despite the social reality of discrimination against them, African Americans shared over two hundred years of regular interaction with speakers of those other vernaculars since the early seventeenth century.

With the passage of the Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century, race segregation was institutionalized in the American hinterlands and this factor favored the divergence of White and Black vernaculars. The extent
video Mufwene explains his "heretical" theory, in which people can successfully communicate without using identical linguistic systems.
(4:06 min; download 4.16)
of divergence between the different ethnolects is thus inversely correlated with the degree of interaction between the ethnic groups and the time when segregation was instituted in their evolution. The post-Civil Rights Movements' perpetuation of de facto segregation in American society appears to have favored the preservation of distinct African- and European-American vernaculars, leaving it only to African-American children in integrated residential communities to assimilate White middle class linguistic characteristics.

Segregation as an ethnographic factor undermines claims that AAVE has been converging with white American varieties of English by loss of some "creole basilectal features." The fact that African Americans have developed and preserved a host of other cultural peculiarities supports this counter-observation.

For instance, they have different prayer and religious celebration styles, different music and dance styles, different cooking and catering styles, and different dress styles, which all converge to mark a different ethnic identity. This is not to deny that the sources of some of these features may well be shared with some cultural features of white communities. Nonetheless, some African-American linguistic and nonlinguistic characteristics are different enough to consider them as diverging from the White traditions and having autonomized in ways specific to the ethnic group.

Settlement patterns and language variation
A careful examination of settlement patterns in North America also shows that variation in ethnographic-ecological conditions of the founder population accounts for differences among (nonstandard) dialects of white Americans. According to Bernard Bailyn and David Hackett Fischer, homestead communities of early colonial New England more or less preserved ways of East Anglia, from which the vast majority of them had migrated in conservative and financially self-supporting family units.

Interacting primarily among themselves in the farm communities which they developed, they preserved most of their motherland's speech ways, restructuring them only minimally into a new English variety. One may understand why New England English is assumed to be the American variety that is the closest to British English.

On the other hand, colonies of the Chesapeake Bay (Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania) were settled by fewer family units, consisted of a large proportion of indentured labor (50-75 percent according to one estimate), and were dialectally more heterogeneous. Although a large proportion came from the London area, London was itself a contact setting to which jobless peasants and artisans had migrated from different parts of the British Isles, including the frontier regions of Ireland and Scotland. Part of the indentured labor also came from continental Europe, especially Germany. Competition and selection of structural features produced an English variety different from that of New England and even more different from British dialects, although specific features have been traced to different parts of the United Kingdom.

Communities such as in the Appalachian mountains with larger proportions of Scots-Irish founder populations developed varieties of their own. Linguists J.K. Chambers and Sandra Clarke report similar things about varieties of English in rural Canada, where an Irish element is identifiable.

One may propose similar explanations for the development of Italian English, Jewish English, and the like, assuming a social integration parameter which would favor more divergence from other socially less marked varieties. The varieties spoken by populations that were socially isolated, or excluded, from the mainstream have diverged in significant ways from the varieties considered more "normal," such as educated white middle class English.

Where segregation was implemented in the strongest form, the strengths of factors bearing on feature selection were shifted more dramatically, even if the lexifying input was more or less the same, so that Celtic, or German, or Dutch influence would be stronger in some communities than in others. This is consistent with the interpretation of influence from outside the lexifier as the role which any such language must have played even only in favoring the selection of a particular structural feature over other alternatives in the lexifier itself. Thus, the selections made in the different varieties would not be identical. Where they are now almost identical, such as between AAVE and white American Southern English, rules do not apply in exactly the same ways.

An ecological model for linguistic evolution
There are many more similarities than have been admitted in part of the literature on the subject matter. Such considerations are one more reason for arguing that there are many more similarities in the restructuring processes that produced all these varieties.

The distinction between internally and externally motivated changes sheds no significant light on how restructuring itself proceeds. It provides no rationale for some varieties among the new Englishes to be treated as children out of wedlock. Instead, the ecological model makes it possible to account for differences where they exist, even if these are only statistical. Such differences matter to the extent that they reflect various ways in which competing alternatives may be weighted in different communities, favoring one or another variant.


Salikoko S. Mufwene

Salikoko S. Mufwene is professor and former chair in the department of linguistics, University of Chicago. He has written extensively on the development of creoles, genetic linguistics, and language endangerment. He is editor of Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties (1993), and co-editor of Topics in African Linguistics (with Lioba Moshi, 1993), and African-American English: Structure, History and Use (with John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, 1998). His most recent book, The Ecology of Language Evolution, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.


The text of this seminar is based on chapter 4 of The Ecology of Language Evolution, by Salikoko S. Mufwene, published by Cambridge University Press, copyright Salikoko S. Mufwene, 2001. Video footage was shot in Chicago in December 2001. Copyright 2001, The University Of Chicago.


This major new work explores the development of creoles and other new languages, focusing on the conceptual and methodological issues they raise for genetic linguistics. Written by an internationally renowned linguist, the book discusses the nature and significance of internal and external factors--or ecologies--that bear on the evolution of a language. The book surveys a wide range of examples of changes in the structure, function and vitality of languages, and suggests that similar ecologies have played the same kinds of roles in all cases of language evolution. Drawing on major theories of language formation, macroecology and population genetics, Mufwene proposes a common approach to the development of creoles and other new languages.

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