- Michel DeGraff, MIT

 Reprinted from The Carrier Pidgin, Vol. 29, 2001
 c/o Florida International University, DM 453, Miami, FL 33199

As the title of this "Focus Article" suggests, its goal is to celebrate the transformative journey of a dear colleague and the still-evolving ecology of this transformation. Perhaps a better term is restructuring: the exceptional, ‘abnormal’ even, restructuring—through competition and selection—of Salikoko Mufwene (hereafter, Sali), from boarding-school pupil in the Congo to creolist extraordinaire and Full Professor and, until recently, Chair of Linguistics at the University of Chicago.

In meditating over this academic trajectory, I will unavoidably recapitulate the immense debt—personal and intellectual—that I, as a Creole speaker and as a linguist, owe to Sali.

Caveat lector: I won’t even try to assume ‘measured tone’, ‘emotional distance’ and ‘intellectual objectivity’ while I focus my lens on Sali. Measure, distance and objectivity seem impossible, and perhaps irrelevant, when writing about a scholar and a friend whose first impression was terrifying and whose lasting impression has been a constant inspiration.

Why "terrifying" you may be asking? Well, I met Sali when I gave my very first presentation at the Society for Pidgin & Creole Linguistics (SPCL), at the meeting of the Linguistic Society of America held in Chicago in January 1991. This is also when I first encountered Sali’s formidable intellect and academic persona.

Back then, I was still a shy and insecure graduate student, asking questions like "Is Haitian Creole a pro-drop language?". This was the topic of my talk, after which Sali immediately stood up and started to interrogate me—my first SPCL interrogation ever, and to-date the longest I’ve ever had to endure after a talk. Sali launched a full-front attack with heavy-duty artillery—this is how I perceived his reaction then and still recall now. He fired a long salvo of piercing and intricate questions, followed by pointed references to languages whose names I couldn’t even parse. Then he concluded with a battery of comments and suggestions for future and better research, including a few dissertation topics, articles, monographs, etc. My assaulted mind went dead.

This ‘assault’ was long ago, and my mind has since resuscitated—although I’ve seen Sali perform similar feats in many other occasions. What I then saw as warfare I now recognize as Sali’s trademark when he constructively tries to rescue colleagues from embarrassing errors.

Soon after that January 1991 encounter, Sali generously sent me a welcome assortment of offprints of his, including a paper related to the very topic I had addressed in my SPCL presentation. Since then, conversations with Sali, be they in real-time, on-line or through our publications, are precious food for thought. From that SPCL meeting onward, Sali’s continuous, supportive and enriching camaraderie has been a true blessing in my own intellectual life. I particularly welcome the dis-agreements, which always bring new light.

One case in point: I had, until recently, erroneously assumed, along with many other creolists, that Haitian linguist Suzanne Sylvain, author of the 1936 classic Le Créole Haïtien: Morphologie et Syntaxe, was in the main a hardline substratist/relexificationist. But now Sali has convincingly cast Suzanne Sylvain as a forerunner of the Complementary Hypothesis. As Sali sums it up in his The Ecology of Language Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Sylvain "provides several connections between features of Haitian Creole with those of several nonstandard French dialects, aside from the much appreciated connections proposed with African languages". Sali’s evaluation of Sylvain’s 1936 book is more accurate than her being labeled a strict relexificationist.

Upon re-reading Sylvain with Sali’s caveats in mind, I now realize that her position is indeed more nuanced and observationally more adequate than the sort of strict-relexification proposals that have been en vogue since Lucien Adam’s 19th-century Hybridologie Linguistique , a spectacular instance of race-based and quasi-Darwinian creolistics.

Take Sylvain’s 1936 analysis of the Haitian verb and—in modern terms—its extended projections in the clause. Sylvain, long before Morris Goodman and Robert Chaudenson, had already suggested that the bulk of Haitian Creole’s preverbal tense-mood-aspect markers finds its etymological ancestry in the verbal periphrases manifested in (earlier stages of) regional and non-literary varieties of French. Similar observations were made in the 19th century by (e.g.) J.J. Thomas, Addison Van Name and Charles Baissac about other French-lexicon Creoles. As noted by Sali, these etymological links between verbal periphrases in the lexifier and preverbal markers in the Creole instantiate grammaticalization paths that obtain in a variety of diachronic scenarios, beyond ‘creolization’. At any rate, Haitian pre-verbal markers as analyzed by Sylvain would make it difficult to maintain, like strict relexificationists still do (often with great violence to the data), that Haitian Creole is sensu stricto "an Ewe tongue with a French lexicon". The later characterization is Sylvain’s best-known quip, her "unfortunate last sentence" which, as Sali has reminded us, actually contradicts the painstaking details of her HC-French-Ewe triangulation.

Sali’s intellectual intuitions are fueled by his eclecticism, his enlisting of the most diverse sources (e.g., from the literature on population genetics, macro-ecology, complexity theory, and globalization, where he learned about multiple causation and non-(uni)linear evolution) and his recognizing due merit even in works that the majority would overlook or mis-represent (witness the Sylvain’s case discussed above).

What I have sketched so far is only a glimpse of how Sali’s essays keep pushing us into climbing multiple "mountains of truth"—to use a Nietzschean phrase. This is the "constantly inspiring" part of my afore-mentioned conversion experience—from terrified to inspired.

Another confession: Having been overwhelmed by terror then inspiration, I now feel defeated by the challenge of writing a "Focus Article" on a scholar whose broad, eclectic and complex intellectual frame I cannot begin to comprehend or convey in a snapshot. So, in what follows, instead of focusing on Sali’s work per se, I have chosen to look for a glimmer of the inner life underlying the ideas—the soul of Sali! No small task either, but here I can enlist help, through one more exchange with the man himself, in the form of a conversation on his life and research.

In "breaking bread" with Sali, I leave our theoretical dis-agreements aside—these are readily available from a comparison of our publications; see (e.g.) the anthology I edited, Language Creation & Language Change (MIT Press, 1999). Instead I begin by reflecting on certain epistemological and sociological aspects of his scientific quests, then I weave some of these reflections into a conversation, a meditation, on various loosely-connected topics, in creolistics and beyond. Like all meditations, this one does not try to answer all the questions it contemplates.

Let me preface this collaborative meditation—if I can call it that—by openly acknowledging, once again, Sali’s key influence on some of my own recent take on the empirical and theoretical bases of Creole studies. More generally, my questions below are motivated more by the similarities than by the dis-similarities that I see between Sali and my respective paths through life and through linguistics. Together we meditate on our so-called Third World diasporic status, on our concerns about identity (trans)formation in given socio-economic ecologies and on how these ‘real-life’ concerns relate to, and inform, our intellectual approaches to language contact and language change/creation (aka language evolution).

Let me stress that Sali’s tenacious criticism of what I’ve called "Creole Exceptionalism" stands tall among the publications—some of them going back to the 17th-century, like Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode —that have deepened my conviction that this dogma is the most profound and most debilitating fallacy of our field.

My use of the term "Creole Exceptionalism" refers to the age-old orthodoxy that Creole languages constitute a well-delineated and exceptional language type. This orthodoxy opposes Creole languages to non-Creole languages, in terms of historical development (diachrony) and contemporary structures (synchrony): Creole languages are claimed to emerge "non-genetically" through some "abnormal" break in transmission that is exclusive to Creole genesis. Creoles are thus viewed as linguistic orphans—or as "illegitimate offspring" or "children out of wedlock", in Sali’s words. In contra-distinction, non-Creole languages are (implicitly or explicitly) claimed as "legitimate offspring" that emerge "genetically" via "normal" transmission.

As Sali, myself and others have discussed elsewhere, Creole Exceptionalism is a miserable sociological-cum-scientific fallacy. At the same time, the (normal?) transmission of this dogma through centuries of creolistics should not be surprising. As I see it, the attractiveness and robustness of Creole Exceptionalism may even be considered a banal correlate of the twin (post)colonial history of Creole speakers and Creole studies.

In this vein, Creole Exceptionalism would be just one of the many epistemological dualisms entailed by Europe’s "normative gaze" (Cornel West’s phrase), a gaze fixated on a "Science of Man" with race theory as cornerstone. Throughout (post)colonial history, any egalitarian stance on the diachrony or synchrony of Creole languages was, and could only be, a Foucauldian "un-thinkable", given the mindset of the Founders of Creole studies and given the philosophical and psychological bases, and the economic and political goals, of Europe’s mission civilisatrice.

Extrapolating Sali’s version of the "Founder Principle" from his Creole-development theory to the history of Creole studies may well explain the normal transmission of Creole Exceptionalism. In turn, this extrapolation forces me to reflect on Sali’s own biography (see Chaudenson’s companion "Focus Article" in this issue) and how it may relate to his current positions vis-à-vis Creole Exceptionalism and other foundational issues in our field.

This seems a good point to start the conversation:

On creolistics as the (un)making of myths about the (ex-)colonies

MICHEL: Growing up in Haiti I went to a school run by a French religious order of catholic brothers: Les Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne. The brothers’ meta-linguistic attitudes were brutally creolophobe and passionately francophile. Actually, at that time, they, like many among the Haitian elites, seemed to despise most cultural phenomena that were not of (un-ambiguous) European pedigree, from linguistic to religious practice. Not very "Christian", it seems to me.

From that experience, and from what I’ve discovered and read since, I’ve come to a rather pessimistic conclusion: certain modes of (mis-)education in neo-colonial societies often turn students, along with their professors, into conformist and pseudo-elitist non-thinkers—uncritical consumers of pre-established myths, obsequious and self-serving upholders of that European "normative gaze". And you won’t be surprised that I take "neo-colonial" to apply beyond the Caribbean and Africa and to even include some sectors of the North American and European intelligentsia.

Since you yourself grew up in the Congo toward the end of Belgian rule, you too may have received a thoroughly colonial and religion-based education. As compared to my own, your education in Belgian Africa was perhaps even closer to the self-alienating indoctrination famously dissected by Frantz Fanon. Yet, you are among the most reflexive and most critical creolists I can think of. You often refer jocularly to your positions as "heresies".

Over the years, you have consistently refused to accept any orthodoxy for granted:

You were among the very first to question the traditional correlation of Creole continua with so-called decreolization.

As early as your 1986 article in Etudes Créoles, titled "Les langues créoles peuvent-elles être définies sans allusion à leur histoire?" ("Can Creole languages be defined without reference to their history?"), you have demystified traditional attempts to define Creoles as a group by their structural features.

On page 1 of your book The Ecology of Language Evolution, you boldly claim, in Uniformitarian fashion, that "Creoles have developed by the same restructuring processes that mark the evolutions of non-Creole languages".

Elsewhere in the same book you state that one of your goals is "to prevent creolistics from being a consumer subdiscipline which espouses gratuitously, without questions asked, some still unjustified working assumptions and theoretical models accepted in other subdisciplines of linguistics" (page xiv).

You won’t be surprised, then, that in a forthcoming essay of mine I give you thanks for your "always ‘heretical’ inspiration".

Now, what (if anything) did your childhood and education in (post)colonial Africa contribute to your later intellectual interests and, in particular, to your "heretical" approaches to language-contact phenomena and language-evolution theories? More specifically, what aspects of your growing up in the (post-)colonial Congo may have prevented you from falling, later on, in the all-too-seductive trap of (post-)colonial Creole Exceptionalism?

SALI: It is true that the Belgian colonial school system in the Congo was set up primarily to train colonial auxiliaries, who typically perpetuated a view of Africa, or the Third World in general, from a non-indigenous perspective. However, many of us who grew up during the transition from the colonial rule to political independence—or more accurately economic neo-colonialism—learned to question, not only pre-independence European rule, but also its post-independence replacements.

I left home early, at the age of 12, for the boarding school, likely to be easily influenced by older kids. My parents constantly advised me to be critical and not to be a sheepish follower of bigger kids. What they didn’t anticipate is that I would also take pride in questioning authority.

Four years later, I was expelled from the junior seminary—my first boarding school—for "insubordination" (as it was formulated in my dismissal letter). I just disputed things that did not make sense to me.

At the next boarding school, I was sometimes chastised, if not altogether dismissed, from some class sessions for challenging my teachers’ confusing explanations of some facts. My teachers then were Belgians who could not make it at home and had a chance in the ex-colony as "technical assistants". Sounds familiar?

During my time in college, I had to control myself, wait until I earned my Licence and got access to graduate education in order to better nurture my critical thinking. Aside from the fact that I was learning a lot of interesting things, including the discovery of linguistics through English philology, the reason for this transitional conformism is that the university system was more competitive than high-school and its selection process more peremptory. While we were all funded by the State, only a small fraction—not more than 50%—of those who began university could finish the four-year program. Yet, the beginning class represented the cream of the crop—at best, the top 5%—from the high-school system of the time.

This is one story in my past that makes me believe in luck as a necessary factor for success, in addition to all other qualifications.

On biography, geography and bibliography

MICHEL: Well, Sali, "I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it" (that’s not me, but Jefferson). Then again, the composer Berlioz also said, "The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck".

So, let’s say you have both talent and luck. Plus you do work very, very hard, don’t you? No need to answer that. The answer is in your biography and in your bibliography.

On the topic of biography-cum-bibliography: Abstracting away from the amazing thematic diversity of your research, one can detect a remarkable consistency in your bibliography, a thread of Ariadne, or a few such threads, if you will. What’s also remarkable—to me, in particular, as a creolist who hails from Haiti—is the extent to which your research themes seem to consistently track, mainly via language and linguistics, questions of identity (trans)formation in the context of the African Diaspora.

Some of the core questions raised in your research seem singularly connected to the theme of exile, which you and I also face on a regular basis, in the context of our personal and intellectual questioning of origins and homelands, either geographical, linguistic and/or mythical.

Let me illustrate with a couple of titles taken from your prolific bibliography: "How African is Gullah, and why?" (1987) and "The ecology of Gullah’s survival" (1997). Compare these actual titles with the following biographical titles that I’ve made up, tongue (firmly planted) in cheek but not in a totally frivolous way: "How African is Sali’s life in America, and why?" and "The ecology of Sali’s survival in Africa then in America".

Levity aside, can you identify any of your various scientific quests that may be related in some significant fashion to deeply personal aspects of your life, be they emotional, spiritual, socio-economic, ideological, etc.?

But, before you answer, let me clarify a bit:

One can—of course, with hindsights and with imagination, lots of it!—link the above (real and fictional) titles to aspects of your biography-cum-geography. One could creatively link these titles to your, or any immigrant’s, adapting to new ‘ecologies’ while trying to preserve cultural roots and avoid various sorts of imagined and all-too-real extinction.

Understanding that this dialogue is neither confession, nor post-modern literary criticism, one could nevertheless ask of Sali what Sali asked of Gullah and its (original) speakers: How is identity defined and/or transformed in exile? Or: How African is Sali in America?

SALI: Starting my professional career in Jamaica after graduating from the University of Chicago was a blessing, though it did not feel that way at the time. I realized how many brilliant minds there are in Third World countries, especially among students, who either will never get an academic voice or won’t even have opportunities to fulfill their intellectual dreams. That’s part of the burden of being a minority scholar, viz., having to speak not just to express one’s own views but also those shared with other less privileged thinkers who have no access to the platform that one has reached, especially regarding unproven and puzzling assumptions about their languages and cultures.

Working with senior colleagues like Mervyn Alleyne and Dennis Craig, and with my peer Hubert Devonish, helped me pay more attention to the linguistic and political realities around me. Interactions with these Caribbean colleagues made me more interested in Creoles. None of these scholars can be considered a conformist. None of them expected me to agree fully with them, either. So, as you see, little could have been more nurturing than such a setting for a heretical mind.

I went to Jamaica as a theoretical linguist and left it fascinated by the myriads of challenges that the study of Creoles present to general linguistics. The more I know about Creoles (strictly, those lexified by European languages), the more questionable I find several assumptions about them, and the more I believe creolistics should contribute in return to general linguistics.

I suggested in my book The Ecology of Language Evolution that creolistics has been a consumer discipline: the instances are all too rare where basic assumptions in general linguistics are questioned because of facts observed about Creoles. For instance, one could ask what makes them, or perhaps what does not make them, peculiar regarding speech continuum, non-monolithic grammatical structures (or ‘co-existent systems’ in the way William Labov prefers to discuss this aspect of African-American English), and genetic classifications.

Speech continua are everywhere, regardless of whether you focus on regional or social variation. The boundaries posited by dialectologists are conveniences for academic discourse. Recent work by William Kretzschmar (University of Georgia) and Dennis Preston (Michigan State University) reveals that it is naive to reify those boundaries. Also, the stratification of lects into basilect, mesolect, and acrolect could apply anywhere.

Regarding non-monolithic systems, there are, in normal Creole speech, overlaps and frequent alternations between structures preserved intact from the lexifier (a set-theory union of nonstandard varieties) and innovations. The latter are what the debate on the development of Creoles has preferred to focus on. (That’s part of the bias that has overemphasized divergence over inheritance and has precluded Creoles from serving as windows into the earlier stages of their colonial lexifiers.) However, rule overlap is true of non-Creole systems too. They dispute Antoine Meillet’s slogan that "la langue est un système où tout se tient" or Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that the components of a language are integrated like pieces of a mosaic. If one must apply that Saussurean metaphor, reality reveals language to be a sloppy mosaic in which the pieces are far from being mutually delineating but overlap almost everywhere. (This is part of what produces the kind of variation so central to Labovian linguistics.)

Regarding genetic classification, it is high time the kind of external history brought to bear in discussions of the development of Creoles were applied to the evolution of other languages. The distinction becomes more and more artificial and fades away. Some have claimed that the comparative method cannot apply to Creoles, hence they cannot be classified genetically. That’s an a-prioristic conclusion, especially given an embarrassing practice that has compared Creoles with standard varieties that had little to do with their development. The more we seem to grasp about the complexity of the development of Creoles, the more I believe the books should be reopened regarding certain positions in genetic linguistics and regarding the explanatory significance of Stammbaums. Those trees show the end results of processes not fully accounted for. Genetic creolistics is crying out loud for the missing explanation.

When I started my career in Jamaica, the dominant trend worldwide was to discuss Creoles as aberrations or deviations of some sort, as languages that still needed to be dignified as "normal". Even today, some creolists still characterize Creoles as "unnatural" or "irregular". Unfortunately, and as you yourself have been documenting, misconceptions about Creoles have not changed much since the 19th century.

Not having been trained in creolistics, I felt odd trying to analyze Creoles according to the standard training I had received in general linguistics (especially regarding the semantics of time reference) and figuring out how to enrich the theoretical framework I was using. Yet I saw no sound alternative to this uniform approach. One blessing in my life is that Caribbean scholars paid attention to what I was doing, while the rest of the world hardly cared, including those who had trained me in Chicago. Perhaps I should not be that unfair. Some of my former professors did see the value of my scholarship and eventually brought me back to Chicago.

In any case, the fact that the scholars the closest to the Creoles that interested me did not think I was insane was reassuring enough for me. Today, I also feel that more attention should be paid to Third World scholars who evolve in places where Creoles are spoken. For instance, the papers of Yves Dejean that you have shared with some of us pointedly expose some unjustified assumptions about Creole communities and about the coexistence of Creoles and their acrolects.

Oops! This "acrolect" is a term I too should use with caution. Not too long ago I read an insightful paper by a junior Jamaican scholar who questions the colonial way in which the term has been defined, based on a foreign standard. The author perceptively questions whether it can be defined structurally, especially on a predefined battery of features dictated by a foreign norm (a "normative gaze" from the outside?). She then goes on to reveal embarrassing inconsistencies in our scholarly practice. I hope the journal to which the paper was submitted will adequately appreciate the value of this paper inspired by local sociolinguistic facts observed by a local scholar.

You ask: "How African is Sali in America?". It is difficult to answer that question.
When I returned home in the Congo in 1984, even members of my own family thought I was not fully African any more. Of course, I was not and am not—except in my phenotype, of course. I have been both deculturated from my background and acculturated to other ecologies since I left home.

Besides, I could not help noticing that the Africa I saw in 1984 was no longer the one I had frozen in my memories. There is no static African culture any more than there is any static culture anywhere on this planet. This is one of the misunderstandings in the literature on language endangerment, where scholars forget that members of a population make their culture as they evolve from day to day.

I also know that I am not fully Americanized. I am just an instance of culture contact in North America, absorbing a new culture against the backdrop of an Africa I brought with me in the 1970s, eclectic in my behavior as in my thinking.

You can see the kind of experience and attitude that must have contributed to my "feature pool" theoretical idea and the centrality of the behaviors of individuals in my model of language evolution. This model is not driven only by my familiarity with the literature on population genetics.

I am a world citizen with a strong and nostalgic attachment to part of the Africa in which I grew up, and with aspects of the West that I have selected into my present personality. The ecology of my survival lies in that eclecticism, being adaptive to new living conditions and not losing a sense of who I am—better yet, of what I do not want to be.

In exile, in a new setting, the balancing act in the give-and-take game of life is difficult, though easier when one can live without the impositions of self-conscious behavior. The evolution of one’s personality is in some ways like language evolution, by competition and selection, which take place largely without engaging one’s own awareness.

On symbolic markets and personal investments in Creole studies and in Creole communities

MICHEL: I remember reading somewhere that identity may be less about who we are than about who we feel we aren’t or (made to feel) we can’t be. But, don’t worry, I won’t ask you who is it you don’t want to be like!

Here’s one other question about the (implicit) biography in your bibliography. As I’ve promised myself, I do want to glimpse at the essence of the mind behind the ideas.

Besides accident of history and geography (vis-à-vis, e.g., your fieldwork on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica and Gullah in South Carolina), are there any particular salient events—any isolatable turning points—that have attracted or prodded you from one research topic or one theoretical framework to the next?

Here I am thinking about the title of one of your recent articles on (dis)similarities between creolization and language acquisition acquisition: "Hints from Tazie"—Tazie being your teen-age daughter born in the USA. This is one of the titles that may suggest that for you the personal is never too far from the intellectual. In your internal and external ecologies, the private and the public are perhaps not binary oppositions, but overlapping regions in a continuum. Of course, you should feel free to (re)draw the line as you see fit for this conversation.

Let’s take another topic, perhaps more germane to questions of identity, migration, transformation and extinction, namely your interest in language endangerment. This interest is not so recent. Witness your 1991 article "Some reasons why Gullah is not dying yet" (1991). More recently, you revisit the topic in your book on The Ecology of Language Evolution. There you further articulate your account of language evolution by competition and selection, subject to factors defined by specific ecologies, toward an understanding of how the socio-economic activities of a population influence the fates of their languages.

From your answer above, one could reasonably speculate that your approach to language evolution is ultimately connected to a wider probe about personal transformation (via, e.g., migration, career moves and investments in symbolic markets à la Bourdieu). One could also speculate about the metaphysical implications of your work vis-à-vis the intrinsic impermanence of individuated cultural phenomena, personal relationships, life and so on.

I realize that this line of questioning puts me far out on a new-age limb. Do not hesitate to bring me back on earth—or in line. Better yet, just ignore anything you don’t want to discuss.

SALI: Oh, dear! you have been asking me tough questions! I have not spent much time putting my life in perspective. I think that typically I have reacted to explanations that I consider implausible or downright outrageous while working with others that I find adequate. The state of the art in creolistics in the early 1980s is really what brought me to the field.

I am grateful that some common threads have emerged in the ways I have approached issues and that I could integrate some of the discussions in a book. For the longest, I considered myself primarily a critic of the scholarship. But it is now more obvious to myself that I have been doing more than just critiquing what others have done. I have actually outlined a research program of my own.

Originally I was interested in morphosyntactic characteristics of Creoles. The trigger was really some dissatisfaction with the state of the art in the early 1980s. Then I was appalled by the unnecessarily special explanations proposed for the development of Creoles—what you’ve been calling "Creole Exceptionalism" in your own recent work. Since I was not trained in creolistics and thus started without a global view of the field, I basically have continued to react with consternation to some of the accounts I have read.

The decreolization hypothesis seemed outrageous to me, because everything I learned about the history of the relevant territories suggested a different language-evolution trajectory, more consistent with Robert Chaudenson’s views on the development of Creoles, which have too hurriedly been dismissed by some as "superstratist". The very suggestion that people from the lower class aspire at speaking like those of the upper class is so contrary to sociolinguistic reality around us. The suggestion that the factors associated with the putative decreolization would have worked on African Americans but not on White speakers of similar vernaculars in the USA is preposterous.

Perhaps another biographical footnote is in order here, in the spirit of your "biography-cum-bibliography" focus: I myself started my life at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and have often wanted things that the upper strata could afford, but never could I think of wanting to be like them.

In the context of the USA, you can see that at some point linguists must have misinterpreted African Americans’ struggle for equality as some desire to (fully) adopt European-American values or become European-American cultural clones. Anybody who has observed affluent African Americans should know much better. There is cultural diversity even in upper middle-class America.

The decreolization hypothesis is an unfortunate misinterpretation in a linguistics that has been primarily exercised by scholars from the white middle class. These scholars seem to not realize that the underprivileged populations whose language varieties they have investigated have, by and large, no social identity problem and have not wanted to be like them or speak a vernacular like theirs (the scholars’), though some of the Creole speakers have felt the need to speak another lingua franca, which happens to be similar to that spoken by the scholars, for socio-economic reasons. The decreolization hypothesis is a pathological interpretation that has little to do with Creole speakers.

Having dealt with such issues in creolistics, it was only natural for me to voice my opinion in the ongoing concerns about language endangerment. The vast majority of linguists who have expressed opinions on the subject matter are theoretical linguists, who know little about language ecology. Their opinions seem to reflect more guilt about European colonization of the past 400 years than a real understanding of language vitality, the broader context in which language endangerment must be discussed. Worse of all, they have expressed more concern about languages as commodities for linguistic analysis than with the costs and benefits to the populations who have shifted languages.

Even a well-documented book such as Vanishing Voices (by Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine) fails to address this socio-economic aspect of the subject matter, at least not to my satisfaction. In several ways, as compared to environmentalists in regard to endangered species, linguists concerned with endangered languages sound like amateurs, because they pay no (significant) attention to language ecology, the dynamics of which are poorly understood. The very confusion of language maintenance with language preservation, which is evident in much of the literature, is embarrassing for the field.

It’s interesting that you invoke Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic market. Anybody who is consistent with that approach should realize that it is inevitable that Creole speakers will preserve their Creole while they are still marginalized socio-economically. And, still following Bourdieu’s linguistic-market model, there will be an array of symbolic and real—and sometimes conflicting—interests to be derived from the maintenance of the Creole.

It’s sad, isn’t it, that the overwhelming majority of a country’s population is crowded at the margins, especially in socio-economic and political terms. The linguistic marginalization is but a reflection of these margins. It did not strike me until this past Summer in Jamaica that the vitality of Patois arises from that marginalization, which leads the population to exploit linguistic differences and identify with Patois. The same must be true of Haiti; I remember you quoting the phrase "Linguistic Apartheid" from Paul Dejean’s work. (Things are of course more complex than the simplification I am presenting here.)

A whole lot of the misunderstanding now has to do with misconceptions about how globalization works, but we’ll leave that alone.

Let me reach again for a biographical footnote—and I am glad that these footnotes can be put in ‘focus’!

The adaptive pressures that you and I as immigrants to North America experience in our linguistic and economic lives differ in significant ways from those of Creole speakers in Jamaica or Haiti, because the socio-economic structures are not the same, and challenges on an immigrant are not the same as those on a native.

The situation in Jamaica reminded me of socio-economic conditions in the Congo and other sub-Saharan African nations where a foreign language is used in the small sector of the economy that participates in, or interfaces with, the global economy of the world. An important difference is that in these other places the languages of the mass are not genetically related to the official languages. Another difference is that the Congo is heavily multilingual with lots of ethnic diversity whereas places like Haiti are virtually mono-lingual and mono-ethnic. I think in Jamaica ethnic stratification has taken a backseat to economic stratification. But that’s a rather complex topic, which I would prefer to discuss elsewhere.

While in Jamaica, it was easy for me to see why, from a political point of view, some have wanted to identify Patois as a separate language, though its speakers are really ambivalent about whether or not it is. My students have also made me more ambivalent about this issue.

One thing that was evident to me is that the worsening economic conditions seem to have led speakers of Patois to use it with more pride as a marker of identity. It could be that I failed to notice it 20 years earlier but it was now more obvious to me that just the opposite of the mythical decreolization is happening in Jamaica. This is one thing that one may want to read in Velma Pollard’s work on dread talk.

On the journey ahead

MICHEL: Is there anything that you haven’t found time to work on and that you fear you may never have time to work on because of your other "competing" (pun intended) interests and obligations? In other words, what other academic pursuits might you have "selected" if your own "ecology" were ever so slightly different?

SALI: My daughter and I recently bought two books on serendipity, which underscore accident as an important factor in the development of research questions and hypotheses. I believe that my main challenge is to discipline myself so that I can continue to address the many questions that arise from my book The Ecology of Language Evolution, which I consider the summary of an ambitious research program. I should refrain from other interesting pursuits, except social ones.

My recent visits to Jamaica and East Asia caused me to think more about the heterogeneous ways in which colonization, decolonization, and globalization have taken place around the world and the concurrent diversity of their influences on language evolution. My accidental discovery of the separate social identity of the Peranakan Chinese in the Straights of Malacca (well known to local historians) and the role they played in language evolution in the region has caused me to rethink some assumptions about the development of Creoles, for instance, the mischaracterization of the roles of social status and practicality (of costs and benefits to speakers) in language shift.

Learning about settlement patterns in colonial Singapore has also led me to wonder whether the mixing of Africans on Atlantic and Indian Ocean plantations really had such a counterpart in Hawaii and whether we have been correct in assuming that the ecologies of the developments of Caribbean Creoles are so similar to that of Hawaiian Creole.

Reading more about population movements in the history of mankind, including the work of Cavalli-Sforza and André Martinet, has caused me to wonder why genetic linguistics has ignored, or downplayed, the role of contact in language diversification and whether one can investigate language speciation without being informed by population genetics or studies of populations in general.

Does historical linguistics make any sense if it focuses solely on structural change, without a complement of external language history, including the socio-economic history of populations of speakers?

Does it make sense to study language change without considering patterns of interaction among speakers?

Even if contact of languages is not factored in, how about the variation inherent in a language among its idiolects and among its dialects?

Can one address the actuation question without addressing these factors in language evolution?

I obviously have more research questions than I can pursue and I hope there are junior scholars around interested in addressing some of them.

I am dying to get dirty with field research and structural analysis again, an anticipated healthy break from my present concerns with ecological aspects of language evolution. Every time I read your papers, for instance, I wish I could set some time aside to explore just another aspect of Creole structures, especially those presumed to be unproblematic. There’s usually a lot of excitement to derive from those unexpected discoveries, and a lot of unsuspected challenges to face, which invite us to reopen books that were closed too soon.

Creolistics is such a poorly exploited gold mine for general linguistics!