Salikoko S. Mufwene

University of Chicago

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Race, Racialism, and the Study of Language Evolution in America

Students of 'race' remain divided over the foundation of this notion. On the one hand, biologists such as Richard Lewontin, Steven Jay Gould, and Jared Diamond, as well as anthropologist Jonathan Marks, among other distinguished scholars, dispute the genetic basis of the concept, arguing that it is a social construct. On the other, anthropologist Vincent Sarich and Psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, among others, argue that, as small as the percentage of genes determining racial variation may be, it is important nonetheless. This small proportion of genes would be as significant as, if not more than, the small percentage of genes distinguishing mankind from chimpanzees. It would not be the number or proportion that matters but rather the impact that they have on human behavior, which would provide the basis for classifying humans into various categories identified as "races."

However, the social history of North America also suggests that what was identified yesterday as race is sometimes designated today as ethnicity. Regardless of all this confusion or uncertainty, the social sciences and linguistics have used some social notion of 'race' to account for language variation and language evolution. The question is: How operational and informative has the notion been? This paper is an assessment of some of the race-based accounts of language acquisition, language variation, and language evolution in linguistics. Statements such as the following stand out: 1) what particular language variety a person speaks has nothing to do with his/her race; 2) creoles in the New World and Indian Ocean developed in part because the enslaved Africans were segregated from the Europeans and no longer had access to the latter's languages (the so-called lexifiers); 3) the northern city vowel shift has affected only White Americans. This discussion is an invitation to recalibrate our explanations with the sociohistorical ecologies of language acquisition, language evolution, and language variation in North America (and in the Caribbean).