Distinguished Lectures in Humanities: Language Contact and Evolutionary Linguistics: An African(ist)’s and Creolist’s Perspective

10:30 am–12:00 pm
Zoom Webinar

Organizers: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


The discourse in evolutionary linguistics has typically been on the evolution or phylogenetic emergence of language, in the singular, raising the question of whether modern languages can be traced back to one proto-language some 200Kya-100Kya, in early modern Homo sapiens or to several typologically different languages. I invoke the geography of human fossils in Africa to argue against monogenesis, without dismissing the likelihood that language (as an abstraction from diverse languages) must have facilitated successive migrations of Homo sapiens out of Africa to different destinations. I also use the experience of recent colonial and imperial expansions to underscore the role that population movements and language contact must have played in increasing and complexifying diversity that must have originated in the African cradle. I show how the scholarship on the emergence of creoles and in African genetic linguistics can shed light on the successive speciation of languages into the modern state of affairs. Invoking recent findings in genetics, I show how poorly Indo-European genetic linguistics was conceived, starting with the construct of (Proto-)Indo-European and invoking language contact only to account for exceptions. The comparative method alone cannot explain how languages speciate. And it doesn't tell us anything about language losses that can be concomitants of speciation. The picture that emerges is a more complex one that underscores the significance of multi- and inter-disciplinarity in evolutionary linguistics.

Prof. Salikoko S. Mufwene
The Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College
University of Chicago

Salikoko S. Mufwene is the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College at the University of Chicago, where he also serves on the Committee of Evolutionary Biology, the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the Committee on African Studies. His current research is in evolutionary linguistics, which he approaches from an ecological perspective, focused on the phylogenetic emergence of languages and language speciation, especially the emergence of creoles and other forms of the indigenization of European languages in the colonies, as well as language vitality. His books include: The Ecology of Language Evolution (CUP, 2001), Language Evolution: Contact, competition and change (Continuum Press, 2008), Iberian Imperialism and Language Evolution in Latin America (U of Chicago Press, 2014), and Bridging Linguistics and Economics (CUP, 2020). He is the founding editor of Cambridge Approaches to Language Contact.