October 27, 2009

Humanities Day lecture: Poor translations influenced linguistic development of colonies of European colonization

The struggle for economic dominance during European colonization mirrors the spread of European languages, linguistics professor Salikoko Mufwene said in a Humanities Day lecture.

Mufwene traced the spread of language, starting with 15th-century Spanish. From French in Louisiana to Portuguese in Brazil, Mufwene examined how modern languages around the world developed as a direct result of European colonization.

Linguistic competition works by “the same process you might find in evolutionary biology,” Mufwene said: A language changes and evolves to fit the needs of its nation.

Explaining the spread of the Southern dialect in the United States, Mufwene said many factors contribute to the formation of a national language. From settlement styles to widespread exposure to poor translations, the creation of a national dialect was a complex process during European colonization.

Dialects in settlements like Jamaica demonstrate how a mix of cultures and influences leads to the creation of a national language, rather than to submission to a dominant European language.

According to Mufwene, language develops out of economic necessity and strengthens through generations of learning.

The loss of native languages remains a relevant topic. “People fear that at some point, their children will not speak their language at home,” Mufwene said.