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Language contact and language change

Types of contact
Reasons for contact
Contact and bilingualism



Types of contact

Any discussion of language contact and ensuing borrowing must take the various types of contact and the results for the languages involved into account. For the present discussion one must distinguish two basic kinds. The first is direct transfer where the effect is immediate, frequently with alteration in the structure of the recipient language. Immediate influence on closed classes of a language (morphology and syntax) presumes an intensity of contact and a lack of external constraints such as a notion of standard, perpetuated by general education and a literate public. This sort of extreme social situation is most typical for pidgins arising in the colonial period outside of Europe but may also have occurred in the early phases of European languages where there was little outside influence on language development in contact situations.

The second main type can be termed delayed effect contact. The effect here is not immediate. There is no structural upheaval in the recipient language but a gradual penetration due to prolonged exposure to another language by large bilingual sections of a community. Characteristic for such a scenario is low-level influence in a general sense: ‘speech habits’ migrate from one language to another. These may lead later to structural if not indeed typological change. The development of French [y], if it has its origins in contact with Celtic (not everyone agrees on this), must have arisen in this manner. This view of gradual change is of course more Neogrammarian than one which presupposes the sudden appearance of a contact phenomenon in a recipient language. If Celtic had /y/ at the time of the initial development of Vulgar Latin to French in Gaul (which is by no means certain) then an abrupt appearance could only have occurred in a scenario which assumes lexical diffusion: the Romance speakers started borrowing words on a large scale from the Celts and among these words would have been some with /y/ and this pronunciation would have then spread to encompass native sections of their vocabulary causing a shift of U to /y/.

Another possible case of delayed effect contact is found in Old English in the contact with the native Celts of Britain. It is known that the Germanic settlers did not banish the Celts but subjugated them and the continuous contact with the speakers of British Celtic, which had much weakening of consonants, may have given added impetus to the phonetic attrition which is ultimately responsible for the loss of endings and the typological re-orientation of English towards an analytic type in the Middle and Early Modern English periods.

CODE-SWITCHING is a phenomenon where speakers move from one language to another and back again with the same sentence. There are many speculations about why this takes place but two reasons can be put forward: 1) speakers have become acquainted with some phenomenon in the second language and switch to it when talking about it, 2) speakers feel that the second language is more prestigious and switch to it to make their speech appear more fashionable.

The switching may involve single words (sometimes called ‘sugaring') or whole clauses. The latter type is governed by strict rules about what point in a sentence can act as a pivot for the switch-over. If code-switching is widespread in a community and becomes socially accepted then it may lead in the fullness of time to changes in the original language just as borrowing or structural transfer has done in the cases where it is attested.

WHAT GETS TRANSFERRED? When considering what items are borrowed when two languages are in contact, direct or indirect, the distinction between closed and open classes is once more of direct relevance. The main open class is the lexicon and the items most easily borrowed are independent words. Next come free-floating discourse items such as exclamations or interjections as these are not part of the grammatical system of a language. An example would be arrah ‘well, anyway’ from Irish which was transferred to English and used be very common (it became too typical of this variety and nowadays speakers tend to avoid it). What also gets transferred easily, are idioms probably because these behave like single indivisible units and can be borrowed as a block without disturbing any further aspect of the borrowing language.

The prototypically closed classes — morphology and syntax — are only affected if the type of contact is direct and intense. The reason for this is simple: speakers do not alter closed classes unless there is strong exposure to a new system. This means that a degree of bilingualism is necessary in a situation of face-to-face contact for the elements of one language’s closed class to penetrate that of another language.

Reasons for contact

REASONS FOR CONTACT Languages can come into contact in a variety of ways. Basically there are two types: the first is direct contact in which speakers of one language turn up in the midst of speakers of another (because of invasion, emigration, etc.), the second is where the contact is through the mediation of literature or nowadays television and radio. This is the case with the contact between German and English at the moment; the former type can be illustrated clearly with examples from history such as Scandinavian or French contact with English.

In any contact situation there will be two possible scenarios for change. One is where lexical borrowing takes place from language one into language two. The second is where structural interference from one language leads to changes in language two. The essential difference is that for interference to take place, there must be a degree of bilingualism in the community, otherwise there are no speakers to transfer structures from a second language into their mother tongue. With an indirect contact situation borrowing can take place without bilingualism. However in this case, the contact only results in lexical borrowing (see German vis à vis English today). In the history of English the contact with the Scandinavians lead to a lot of bilingualism and thus to more extensive borrowing, e.g. on the morphological level, cf. the pronouns of the third person plural in th- which are imports from Scandinavian.

Direct contact Indirect contact
(speakers intermingle) (no mixing of speakers)
Linguistic effect
Lexical loans; Pronunciation; Structural transfer in closed classes (morphology / syntax) Only lexical loans ('cultural borrowings')
Cases where attested
Scandinavian and late Old English Central French and Middle English
Low German and Swedish Modern English and Modern German

Contact and bilingualism

Contact situations have a number of further consequences for the languages involved. If contact is accompanied by extensive bilingualism then there is a distinct tendency for both languages to simplify morphologically to a more analytic type. This can be seen in the history of English where the periods of contact appear to have led to an accelerated movement from a synthetic to an analytic type. The most extreme case in this respect is that of pidgins which, given the type of imperfect bilingualism which is characteristic of them, always result in severely analytic language types.

Bilingualism usually sorts itself out and one language wins out over the other (English over the other languages it has been in direct contact with), unless the languages involved enter some sort of equilibrium for social or political reasons as has happened in Belgium with French and Flemish for instance. There is in fact an even clearer kind of stable bilingualism, called diglossia (see section on sociolinguistics above). By this is meant a situation in which two languages (Spanish and Guaraní in Paraguay) or two distinct varieties of the same language (Swiss and High German in Switzerland) are used side by side in separate spheres of life, typically in the public and private sphere. The functional distinction of the two varieties/language guarantees their continuing existence in a speech community.

The direction of contact is determined by factors of social prestige. Of two languages one will be of higher standing than the other. This is termed the superstrate language. The other is then the substrate language. In a few cases where both languages are approximately equal in social status one speaks of adstrate languages. Normally the substrate language is influenced by the superstrate one, as was the case with England with respect to French in the late Middle Ages. An influence may be exerted by a substrate language, but this is usually low level and not of any immediate relevance to the structure of the superstrate language, though substrate influence may be the source of changes in cases of delayed effect contact.

Interference is the transfer of a structure from one language into another language in which it is not permissible (see section on contrastive linguistics above). For instance if an English speaker says in German Ich bin gewiss, dass er nicht bereit ist, dies zu tun (based on English I'm certain that he's not prepared to do this) then this is an item of illegal structural transfer. Equally if a German says He wants that you come tomorrow then this is obviously modelled on the German sentence Er will, dass du morgen kommst and again is an example of negative transfer, i.e. interference, from the mother tongue of the speaker. Interference can be an established historical feature of a language variety if it has been accepted across a broad front by previous generations, e.g. the Irish English construction as in I'm after eating my dinner (= ‘I have just finished eating my dinner') is a clear interference phenomenon from Irish which entrenched itself in the course of the early modern period.

Hickey, Raymond (ed.) 2020. The Handbook of Language Contact. Second edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Thomason, Sarah G. 2001. Language Contact: An Introduction. Edinburgh: University Press.

Fisiak, Jacek (ed.) 1995. Linguistic change under contact conditions. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kastovsky, Dieter and Arthur Mettinger (eds) 2001. Language contact in the history of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Filppula, Markku, Juhani Klemola and Heli Pitkänen (eds) 2002. The Celtic roots of English. Studies in Languages 37. Joensuu: University Press.

Ureland, P. Sture and George Broderick (eds) 1991. Language contact in the British Isles. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Clyne, Michael 2003. Dynamics of Language Contact. Cambridge: University Press.