31st SAAL Lecture
Topic: Calling World Englishes as complex dynamic systems: diffusion, restructuring, exaptation
Linguistic research on World Englishes has tended to focus on the documentation, analysis and explanation of characteristic features of individual varieties or variety types (Kortmann, Schneider et al. 2004; Kortmann & Lunkenheimer 2012). Disadvantages of such an approach include a tendency to constrain one's perspective on individual properties, largely disregarding contexts or alternatives, and the fact that emerging varieties are measured against some external yardstick, often BrE as a donor variety or some "international standard English" as a norm of reference. Instead, World Englishes must be understood as coherent systems in their own right. I suggest that the theory of complex dynamic (or "adaptive") systems, which has been developed in the sciences and in biology (cf. Mobus & Kalton 2015) and has been suggested to offer a fruitful framework also for the development of languages (Schneider 1996; Ellis & Larsen-Freeman 2009; Kretzschmar 2009), constitutes an enriching framework to enhance our understanding of the emergence of World Englishes as well, in addition to crediting to them the status of distinctive, independent and complex entities. Some central ideas and assumptions of this theory, culled mainly from the above sources, and of its applications to languages are outlined briefly, including the following: systems as processes organized in structural and functional hierarchies; sub-systems of varying levels of complexity or orderliness, influencing each other mutually; the existence of a self-organizing capacity effective in time (and driven by both cognitive and sociolinguistic mechanisms); intrinsic diversity and perpetual dynamics, over multiple scales of space and time; locality of change and adaption through amplification; nonlinearity and phase transitions, which may cause orderly sub-systems to become chaotic and vice versa; sensitivity to minimum differences in the input in network diffusion (so that small changes can have substantial effects in the long run); etc. I suggest that many of these forces have been effective in the crafting of properties of English, including New Englishes, so that highlighting these relations may put processes of change in perspective and yield interesting insights. New Englishes are understood as complex dynamic systems which went through accelerated phases of change in subsystems due to contact effects. Applications of such lines of thinking, meant to support our understanding of the emergence of specific sets of properties, are offered for select data from the history of English and varieties of English, including Postcolonial Englishes. In particular, I focus on and exemplify three interrelated, characteristic and relevant types of processes: diffusion, the transmission of sub-systems through time and space with differential frequency shifts of units (specifically looking at the diffusion of the polysemy of words by asking which meanings of polysemic words are passed on, lost, or strengthened); the restructuring of partial systems, with local constraints and conditions being widened to new contexts (the main example being options for expressing "small clauses", with a focus on "qualifying as"); and exaptation, the adoption of new functions by preexisting forms (as in the case of one).