lrc wordmark

International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Evolutionary or Historical Linguistics? What’s in a Name?



Salikoko Mufwene


The term evolutionary linguistics has spread rapidly in linguistics since it was first innovated apparently by James W. Minett & William S-Y. Wang in 2005. It has even become part of the name of a conference series on language evolution, viz., the International Conference in Evolutionary Linguistics (CIEL), whose latest meeting was at Indiana University at Bloomington in August 2016. However, like that of its model, evolutionary biology, the meaning of the term has evolved beyond the concerns with phylogenetic emergence only, with evolution still interpreted as ‘(process of) change associated with unfaithful transmission or reproduction’. Concerned almost exclusively with the phylogenetic emergence of language, biolinguists such as Berwick & Chomsky (2011, 2016) have focused on the genetic underpinnings of the emergence of Language in mankind and the nature of the faculty of language, assuming a saltatory switch from no Language to Language. On the other hand, gradualists such as Croft (2008) and Mufwene (2013) have extended the term both to phylogenetic emergence and to various aspects of language change (see also Croft 2000), while McMahon & McMahon (2012) would rather restrict its application to the former only.

Arguing that evolutionary biology is about more than phylogeny, Mufwene (2001, 2008), for example, has extended evolutionary linguistics to the study of speciation in modern languages (including the emergence of creoles) and of the vitality of modern languages (including language endangerment and loss). He argues that the same ecological factors that account for structural change, especially those associated with population movements, language contact, and changing population structures, also drive language shift and the speciation of the prevailing language.

Thus, in a broad sense, historical linguistics has been made part of evolutionary linguistics, in an approach that invokes the specific socioeconomic ecologies in which speakers evolve as actuators of change. This approach makes it critical to address the actuation question (Weinreich et al. 1968, McMahon 1994, Labov 2001, Mufwene 2014), while showing that the same communicative activities that drive structural change under specific ecological pressures also drive language speciation and affect differentially the vitality of languages. One particular question that arises is why historical or genetic linguists have shown such little interest in the current preoccupation with language endangerment and loss, when one may expect them to be better placed to provide historical perspectives on the subject matter? I will answer the question in my presentation. Meanwhile, I submit that traditional historical linguistics as part of evolutionary linguistics is enriched by the explanatory ambitions and the broader scope of concerns of the latter. Worth considering is also whether the traditional transformational description of change as A à B cannot be replaced by a variational, competition-and-change-selection-based account, viz., B prevailed over A under specific ecological conditions, as suggested by Darwinian, variational evolution and supported by facts in genetic creolistics.


Berwick, Robert C. & Noam Chomsky. 2011. The biolinguistic program: The current state of its development. In The biolinguistic enterprise: New perspectives on the evolution and nature of the human language faculty, ed. by Anna Maria di Sciullo & Cedric Boeckx, 19–41. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berwick, Robert C. & Noam Chomsky. 2016. Why only us: Language and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Croft, William. 2000. Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach. London: Longman.

Croft, William. 2008. Evolutionary linguistics. Annual Review of Anthropology 37.219–234.

Labov, William. 2001. Principles of linguistic change: Social factors. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

McMahon, April. 1994. Understanding language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McMahon, April & Robert McMahon. 2012. Evolutionary linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Minett, James W. & William S-Y. Wang, eds. 2005. Language acquisition, change and emergence: Essays in evolutionary linguistics. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press.

Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2001. The ecology of language evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2008. Language evolution: contact competition, and change. London: Continuum Press.

Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2014. Language ecology, language evolution, and the actuation question. In Language contact and change: Grammatical structure encounters the fluidity of language, ed. by Tor Afarli & Brit Maelhum, 13–35. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov, & Marvin I. Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In Directions for historical linguistics: A symposium, ed. by Winfred P. Lehman & Yakov Malkiel, 97–195. Austin: University of Texas Press.

  •   Map
  • Linguistics Research Center

    University of Texas at Austin
    PCL 5.556
    Mailcode S5490
    Austin, Texas 78712