Cell hypothesis – with regards to globalisation of English


Some fascinating ideas from Liling’s blog, lilinguistics (see sidebar).

Cell hypothesis – a novel model formulated by Duh liLinguistics

Traditionally, a language has been analogized to an organism. However linguists have rejected the idea of the organism analogy because it prevented historical linguists from identifying the real cause of language change; the analogy is also “inconsistent with the reality of idiolects.” (c.f. Mufwene, 2001) Mufwene (2001) hypothesized language as a parasitic species, whose makeup can change several times in its lifetime, whose life depends on its hosts (i.e. speakers of the language, society formed by the speakers and culture in which the speakers live).

This discussion introduces the Cell hypothesis as a tool to examine languages, particularly New Englishes (NE). Cell hypothesis defines languages as “lects”, each NE is an ecolect (language spoken in a particular ecology). The theory also acknowledges the presence of a communelect (language spoken by a particular speech community in an ecology). Lastly Cell hypothesis refers to idiolect as a cell, the most basic unit of an ecolect.

The Cell hypothesis studies

  1. an idiolect and examines what are the linguistic features that the idiolect composes,
  2.  the processes that idiolects under goes when they conjugate to form a communelect,
  3. and ultimately describes how NEs (an ecolect) is formed and stablized.

On many grounds, Cell hypothesis is equivalent to Mufwene’s parasitic notion of language, but the core difference is that a cell is not dependent on a host like a parasite; a cell itself is a host. By conceptualizing language as a cell, it can incorporate Fishman (1991) analogy of how language can “get sick” (how language requires language maintenance) and also take the integrationalist view of language. Pennycook (2007) urged the notion to view language and its Transcultural flows. Rather than categorizing languages as different species, the Cell hypothesis views language (cell) as something with the ability to be form larger entities. The “lects” are able to flow to a different ecology regardless of level (eco-, communal- , or idio- ). The Cell hypothesis sees language changes, identity realignments and language attitude shift as processes that affect the ecology at all levels.

Ecology of the Evolution of NE in Cell hypothesis

Each idiolect is composed of a pool of linguistic features; this pool is dependent on the idiolects original ecology. When an idiolect is grafted into a different ecology, it interacts at cellular level to conjugate with other idiolect, forming communelect. Similarly, Mufwene (2001) capitalized on inter-idiolectal variation to argue language as a species, although Smith (1999) denied the validity of “collective language”, which corresponds to the communelect notion in Cell hypothesis (c.f. Mufwene (2001)). This inter-cellular interaction affects the resultant communelect. Once the pioneering idiolects form the initial communelect, any idiolect, new to the ecology, needs to conform to the norms in the founding communelect. This ties in with Mufwene’s (2001) Founder Effect hypothesis.

By Darwinian evolution principle, the fittest survives. In the Cell hypothesis, it is an intuitive process that the language in power will survive too. By looking into early developments of PCEs, it is clearly seen that it is individuals desire to learn English, a language that symbolizes elitism; Enxonormative Stabilization stage of Schneider’s (2007) dynamic model clearly reflect the individual’s desire to be bilingual of English. Cell hypothesis supports such natural selection by introducing the Genetic Drift, where idiolects begins to see the need to be proficient in the language of power and hence shifting their “pool of linguistic features” to include the power language in their pool’s repertoire.

However the Cell hypothesis applies Pennycook’s (2007) “transgressive” concepts to explain how Genetic Drift occurs. Genetic Drift develops as idiolects involves in transculturation, identity shift and “Primary Linguistic Processes” (PLP). PLP would include the speakers’ acculturation, linguistics assimilation and domestication of lexical terms. The processes are not mutually exclusive. The Genetic Drift affects and is affected by the identity construction of the idiolects and language attitude towards different cells. Genetic Drift occurs both within every “lectal” level.

In the Cell hypothesis, “nativization” of a language occurs when communelects conjugates to form an ecolect. At ecolectal level, the ecology begins to build structures and stabilizes as a generic speech community. Linguists had shown that ethnic variation, gender variation and other differentiation exist within any ecolect. (e.g. Tan (1999), Canary &Dindia (1998), Deterding & Poedjosoedarmo (2000)). However it is noted that Genetic Drift is still at work at communelectal level, hence it is an uncertainty to whether differentiation among the communelects is more significant than the formation of the ecolect. At ecolectal level, “Ecological Linguistics Processes” (ELP) are activated. ELP include the nativization of language and stabilization of the ecolect. Mere idiolectal bilingualism wouldn’t be able to affect the ecolect significantly but language policies at ecology level would change idiolects genetically.

This is the effect of language policies is reflected in Singapore language ecology; language policies had played an important role in constituting to the formation of Singlish. Kachru (1983) had discussed how Singapore language pedagogy had affected the English spoken in Singapore. Changes at the idiolectal will indirectly contribute to the Genetic Drift at the ecolectal level; Lim (2008) presented how the in flux of Cantonese idolects had affected the English ecology in Singapore (c.f. Lim, 2008). Ultimately when an ecolect is stabilized, speakers of the ecolect will consider his presence in the ecology as part of their identity construct. Since the ecolect is a subset of the featured pools of the idiolects, speakers in the ecology will continue to converse in their idiolects.

In special situations, a speaker may be in an ecology but he/she doesn’t adopt the ecolect hence he/she would be less likely to be identified with the particular ecology. The analysis from the case study (refer to group work) has shown that people speaking Singlish has a higher rate of being identified as Singaporean and Singaporean who spoke other brands of English has a lower rate. Lastly at ecological level, global events can affect the genetic drift of the idolects and indirectly alters the ecolect and vice versa.

Liling, first LMS student to graduate

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