Language Contact: The State of the Art

Symposium keynotes abstracts

Contact linguistics and usage-based linguistics: a marriage made in heaven

Prof. Ad Backus
Tilburg University

In my talk, I aim to explore in what ways the study of contact-induced language change can benefit from adopting the usage-based approach to linguistic theory that underlies much of 'Cognitive Linguistics'. From this perspective, language change is characterized as change in the inventory of form-meaning units that a given speaker masters as well as in the degree to which these units are entrenched in that speaker's mental representation. Cumulatively, we speak of language change if similar such changes occur in the mental representations of many speakers in the same speech community. Furthermore, since mental representation is argued to be based on usage, it must be dynamic, so we should see change as a design feature of language. While the first part of my talk will reinterpret some ongoing discussions in contact linguistics from a usage-based perspective, the second part will report on several recent empirical studies on Turkish-Dutch contact in the large Turkish immigrant community in The Netherlands. Contact between the languages is very intense, and results in widespread codeswitching and all kinds of lexical and structural change. Together, these studies represent a range of topics and methods. The results show that the data from corpora, experimental tasks and judgment tasks largely yield converging evidence, allowing fairly robust conclusions about the principles behind change. The comparisons also show, however, that in contact settings the apparent non-use of older, inherited features does not mean that they are not entrenched anymore in the individual speaker's mental representation. Lack of active usage, that is, does not automatically mean quick erosion of passive knowledge.

Substrates in Finnic

Dr. Petri Kallio
University of Helsinki

Finnic a.k.a. Fennic, Balto-Finnic, Balto-Fennic, Baltic Finnic, Baltic Fennic, etc. is a subgroup of the Uralic language family, including several relatively closely related languages, such as Finnish and Estonian. From a contact linguistic point of view, the Finnic languages are exceptionally well-researched as far as their Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic superstrates and/or adstrates are concerned. At the same time, however, their possible substrates have barely even been mentioned (apart from the Saami substrate in North Finnic), but there have only been few subtle references to unknown substrates. Thus, the present paper will examine the evidence both for and against such unknown substrates before reaching a startling conclusion that the substrate in Finnic was not so unknown after all.

Contact-stimulated grammatical extension: from syntax to information structure and back

Prof. Marianne Mithun
University of California, Santa Barbara

Great progress has been made since early assumptions that only vocabulary can be copied in situations of language contact. It is now recognized that, given appropriate social circumstances, nearly any aspect of language can be affected, including abstract structure. Exciting work is now emerging on the kinds of processes that might shape grammar in contact situations (Heine and Kuteva 2003, 2005, 2010 on replica grammaticalization, Johanson 2008 on selective copying, Matras 2011 on pattern replication, etc.). Here a kind of contact-stimulated grammatical development is examined which involves the extension of dependent clause constructions to markers of information structure and on toward case marking.

The North American Southeast is a strong linguistic area. Languages at the core include all those of the Muskogean family and, to their west, isolates Atakapa and Chitimacha among others. Contact is longstanding and intimate, but the distribution of contact effects contrasts with frequently-cited borrowability hierarchies. Unrelated languages share little vocabulary but show extensive phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic parallelisms.

Central to the syntax of the Muskogean languages are switch-reference constructions. Verbs in dependent clauses carry markers which indicate whether their subjects are co-referential with that of the matrix or different. Intriguingly, the shapes of the same-subject markers match nominative case markers, and those of the different-subject markers match oblique (non-subject) case markers. Both systems can be reconstructed to Proto-Muskogean. It has often been assumed that the switch-reference system developed from case-marked dependent clauses, but Martin (2009) has suggested a more compelling scenario. He posits the starting point as the switch-reference system, noting that even in the modern languages not all lexical nominals are marked for case. He traces the origin of the case markers to focus constructions with an initial dependent clause: 'It being X, . . .' In most modern Muskogean languages, focus constructions also contain a suffix -o: before the case markers, which Martin traces to a Proto-Muskogean verb *o:mi 'be'.

A strikingly similar match across clausal and nominal constructions appears in the neighboring isolates Atakapa and Chitimacha, though the shapes of the markers are different. Dependent participial clauses and focused or topicalized lexical nominals are all marked with =š, also potentially traceable to verbs meaning 'be'. It thus appears that the Atakapa and Chitmacha speakers copied the grammaticalization of a verb 'be' to dependent clause markers, then copied the extension of the dependency construction to mark special information structure.

A final twist involves the late copying of substance. The westernmost Muskogean language Choctaw, closest to the isolates, has aparently recently recruited their marker =š as a replacement for its native =t in certain clausal and nominal constructions, to further specify simultaneity of associated events and special focus on referents.


Heine, Bernd and Tania Kuteva 2003. Contact-induced grammaticalization. Studies in Language 27:529-72.

--- 2005 Language Contact and Grammatical Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--- 2010 Contact and Grammaticalization. The Handbook of Language Contact. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. 86-105

Johanson, Lars 2008. Remodeling grammar: Copying, conventionalization, grammaticalization. Language Contact and Contact Languages. Peter Siemund and Noemi Kintana, eds. Hamburg Studies on Multilingualism 7. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 61-79

Martin, Jack B. 2009. From switch reference to case marking in Muskogean. Summer meeting of the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, University of California, Berkeley.

Matras, Yaron 2011. Language Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Last modified: Monday, 18-Aug-2014 22:11:50 EEST