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  • It’s still worth theorizing on LEL, despite the heterogeneity and complexity of the processes (Response to commentators)*
  • Salikoko S. Mufwene

language endangerment and loss, ecology, evolution, population structure

1. Introduction

I am grateful for the generally thought-provoking commentaries on my target article (Mufwene 2017), which reveal how multifaceted and complex the subject matter of language endangerment and loss (LEL) is. They also show how difficult it is to develop a position that addresses all of the issues. Because of space limitations, my responses focus on the most critical ones.

The respondents fall into three groups: (1) those who have worked on LEL mostly in former settlement colonies, viz., Lyle Campbell, Claire Bowern, and Colleen Fitzgerald; (2) those who have investigated them in former exploitation colonies, viz., Pierpaolo Di Carlo & Jeff Good, Friederike Lüpke, and Fiona Willans & Anthony Jukes; and (3) those who want to highlight the contributions that creolistics can make to the subject matter, viz., Marlyse Baptista and Nala H. Lee. The first group expresses the most reservations about the need to theorize on LEL, joined surprisingly by Willans & Jukes, while the second agrees with me that LEL have not proceeded uniformly around the world. They confirm that indigenous vernaculars in former European exploitation colonies have generally not been endangered by the European colonial languages. The third group draws attention to lessons that can be learned from the vitality of creoles and pidgins, rather differently from how I have invoked the same language varieties in Mufwene 2004, 2008 in order to show the occasional concomitance of language birth and death. My responses are structured according to these categories.

2. Regarding theorizing on LEL and the overemphasis on settlement colonies

Lyle Campbell observes that:

The sort of theorizing Mufwene calls for would take us way beyond linguistics into the vicissitudes of human choice, whims of society, and presumably into the contentious approaches to the explanation of social change, with all of its random and unique factors along with some putative systematic ones.


It would be contradictory for linguists to become involved with social experiences such as LEL and yet refrain from theorizing on the nonlinguistic aspects of the processes. Adequate theorizing entails grounding LEL historically in their contact ecologies, shedding light on how what has occurred recently compares with what occurred in the more distant past regarding costs and benefits to the affected populations. For instance, if the effects of LEL in the more distant past were deleterious, the theorizing should tell us whether the older processes could have been prevented, what would have changed the fates of the affected populations and how, and whether language advocates are reacting adequately to recent cases of LEL.

I fully agree with Campbell: the causes of LEL are nonlinguistic. This is why linguists should not dodge the onus of explaining how nonlinguistic factors can both actuate structural [End Page e306] changes and favor some languages at the expense of others. What I have highlighted is the fact that the current discourse on LEL has provided little information about the local political or socioeconomic dynamics that, in history, drove languages such as Hittite, Dacian, and Thracian to extinction. From a comparative perspective (see below), we may learn a great deal from these earlier evolutions. Regarding the recent past, the typical allusions to colonization and globalization are too vague to be informative.

Pace Campbell, explanations do not necessarily entail generalizations, especially where diversity is observable in the outcomes. They also involve telling why things have not evolved uniformly in different cases (Diamond 2005). The dominant discourse on LEL has typically accounted for various situations around the world based largely on knowledge of former European settlement colonies and less on that of former exploitation colonies. While the statistics provided by Claire Bowern show indeed that endangered languages of Africa or Asia have been discussed too, they do not answer the question of whether the accounts provided are consistent with the history of population and language contacts in these parts of the world. Nor do they explain why there are fewer cases of vernacular shifts to European languages in Africa than in the Americas.

According to Bowern,

there already...


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pp. e306-e316
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