- Robert Chaudenson, Université d'Aix-en-Provence

Reprinted from The Carrier Pidgin, vol 29, 2001

I was delighted by the Carrier Pidgin’s invitation to write a "Focus" article on Salikoko Mufwene. Then, when I began to reflect a little on what I should write, I realize what an overwhelming task I had accepted. My personal acquaintance with Salikoko goes back some good fifteen years, during which I have assiduously followed his research and publications. I was well aware that in the past few years they have intensified. But I had not completely realized the diversity and the extent of his research until I started summarizing it for the present article. The increase in productivity is all the more surprising because, for the past six years, he was chairing the University of Chicago's Linguistics Department.

I got a glimpse of one of the reasons behind Salikoko’s extraordinarily fruitful career when I discovered a biographical detail that he had hidden from me, namely that he was born on the first day of November. This date is All Saints' Day. I suspect that November 1st in Mbaya-Lareme---his native village in the Congo---is "All Fairies Day". As in a tale, the fairies would have gathered around little Salikoko to lavish him with talents, thus setting him up for such a brilliant scientific career.

Seriously now, I am convinced that, more than his birthday, Salikoko’s birthplace did set him up for a particular sort of academic life. Let me explain. Take his first language. This is neither French, nor English as one might think when reading or listening to him. One of Salikoko’s native languages is Kiyansi, of the Bantu family. In Creole studies—his academic discipline---this point is important because there are still too many Creolists who ceaselessly invoke African languages, about which they really know nothing.It was in Africa that Salikoko first attended university. In 1973, he received a License en Philosophie et Lettres (with a major on English Philology) from the National University of Zaire at Lubumbashi (with Highest Honors). The same year he also obtained his Agrégation d'enseignement moyen du degré supérieu (with Honors). Let me comment a bit on the significance of these diplomas, especially for readers who are not familiar with (post)colonial Africa. That the young Salikoko, born in Mbaya-Lareme, would find himself twenty years later in Lubumbashi at the University, with not one but two diplomas, should in itself count as an obvious sign of intellectual excellence for anyone who is in any way familiar with the Congo of that era. Salikoko must have seriously distinguished himself among his peers: at that time, overly limited opportunities and a brutally elitist educational system did entail fierce competition.

This academic debut is also characterized by Salikoko’s polyglotism, a crucial ingredient throughout his career. He started life speaking Bantu languages, in the plural---I do believe he speaks many, although I haven't checked with him. Then he learned French at school, and later specialized in English at the University. In his subsequent life as a linguist, his fluency in both French and English has given him a distinct advantage over his Anglophone colleagues who ignore not only works written in French, but more generally European linguistics written in any language other than English. Salikoko has written prolifically in both English and French---a rare feat among creolists, and linguists in general. This comment is not inspired by any sort of linguistic chauvinism on my part. Indeed there is no intrinsic reason why non-Francophone researchers should read works written in French. On the other hand, these works seem indispensable for those working on French or French-based Creoles or any other language on which a great part of the scholarly work is produced in French. Among the good fairies who bent down over little Salikoko on that fateful November 1st, there were without a doubt, the Bantu fairies, the French fairy, and the English fairy. In order to avoid any problem with protocol, I have listed the fairies in the order of their appearance on stage! His diploma in English from the National University of Zaire at Lubumbashi allowed Salikoko to pursue his studies, this time in linguistics, at the University of Chicago, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. There, he garnered additional honors and awards, and obtained his PhD in 1979 (with Distinction). His doctoral dissertation on ‘Semantic field’ versus ‘semantic ‘class’ was prepared under the guidance of the late James McCawley, a prominent name in the development of semantics in the 20th century, prepared him for some of his analyses of his creoles’ structures.

Salikoko would return 12 years later, in December 1991, as Full Professor, in the same university where he began his career as a linguist. In the meantime, his career as creolist was launched and had begun to blossom, even if his PhD research was by and large orthogonal to creolistics. After the Chicago graduate school years, he spent a year and a half as a Lecturer at University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. The latter is, so to speak, a Mecca for creolists: the first international conference on Creole languages was held there in 1968, bringing together the few linguists who at that time had fledgling research projects in these languages. It was during the `Jamaica years' (1980 and 1981) that Salikoko published his first articles on Creoles. His "Observations on time reference in Jamaican and Guyanese Creoles" (1983/1984) is clearly an application of his training in theoretical linguistics to creole topics. Yet it was already firmly anchored in fieldwork with native speakers---in this case, Jamaican Creole speakers, who gave him his first in vivo acquaintance with a Creole language (not counting his competence in Kituba and Lingala, which he is not reluctant to call creoles). I will venture the guess that Mervyn Alleyne must have played a key role in this fortuitous and fortunate turn of events.

His position as Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia at Athens since September 1981 would also play an important role in his intellectual growth as linguist and creolist. He would spend 10 years there (until December 1991). As an extension of his previous probes into problems of creolization, he very quickly began to work on Gullah. He first studied Gullah's morphosyntax (1982--1983), then widened his research to other aspects of the language. Among his several publications on Gullah, we find the following titles, which significantly illustrate the evolution of his interests: "The linguistic signification of African proper names in Gullah" (1985), "Number delimitation in Gullah" (1986), "Restrictive relativization in Gullah" (1986), "How African is Gullah, and why?" (1987), "Equivocal structures in some Gullah complex sentences" (1989), "Some reasons why Gullah is not dying yet" (1991). This is only a small sample of his articles on Gullah. In fact, I may well incite him to add his 131st title to his already long list of publications by expressing my regret that he has not yet anthologized his Gullah-related works in one easily-accessible volume.

Towards the mid-1980s, the evolution of his interests towards more general perspectives and theories becomes manifest. The painstaking research on Gullah doesn't prevent him from investigating other products of language contact (e.g., Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole and African-American English aka Ebonics) and, more generally, the processes and products of language contact both in the `New World' and in the African context (e.g., the case of Kituba). Here we must note, inter alia, the 1993 publication of the now-classic Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties (proceedings of the round table he organized in Athens in 1988) and the 1998 publication African-American English in collaboration with of with J. Rickford, G. Bailey, and J. Baugh.The endless evolution of S. Mufwene's scientific quests is marked by an inescapable internal logic. Semantics and syntax have attracted him at the onset, since his "entrance into linguistics". His aforementioned polyglotism has given him precious access to multiple sources of both primary data and scholarly treatises. He can thus process facts from, and discussions on, an impressive variety of languages: English, French, Gullah, African-American English, English- and French-based Atlantic Creoles, Bantu languages (e.g., Lingala, Kikongo-Kituba, Kiyansi), etc. Nevertheless, and perhaps due to the very study of these languages (many of which originated at more or less the same time and in somewhat similar ecologies), Salikoko was brought to approach contact linguistics---in particular, the variation and evolution of languages---from the perspective historical sociolinguistics, and historical anthropology. In this vein, one of his first theoretical articles about `creolization' bears the telling title "Les langues créoles peuvent-elles Ltre définies ans allusion B leur histoire?" (‘Can Creole languages be defined without reference to their history?’), in Etudes Créoles (1987).

It thus seems thoroughly logical that his research would subsequently evolve into an even more general reflection about the evolution of languages and, in turn, about the very foundations of Creole studies and historical linguistics. Here Salikoko’s greatest innovation is to daringly bring together population genetics and the problematics of linguistic ecology and language evolution. Witness his last book The Ecology of Language Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The very making---that is, the evolution (pun intended)---of this book is itself an exceptional tour de force: it has the internal coherence of a monograph written in one go, yet it is mostly made up of revised papers, most of which have been, over the past few years, published individually for distinct audiences. Over the last ten years, Salikoko has established himself not only as one of our most prominent creolists, but also, and especially, as one of our most prominent general linguists. The quality of his research and his prodigious productivity cannot but astonish most of us, even more so that his immense scientific output in the past six years has unfurled in tandem with his fulfilling extremely demanding administrative responsibilities. Recall that from 1995 to 2001, he was Chair of Linguistics at the University of Chicago.

Nevertheless this success does have a price: Salikoko is sought after everywhere and can barely stay at home. He must incessantly travel to the four corners of the world, from Ireland to Trinidad and Jamaica, from South Africa to Singapore and Hong Kong, just to mention the most recent scientific escapades. In Spring 2002, he is a Visiting Professor at Harvard. He must learn to resist this flow of invitations lest he succumb to the avalanche of stardom.