Language Contact

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

cartoon of two people speaking different languages
"Language contact," says Konrad Ehlich, "can have disturbing, disrupting or even destructive consequences for the individual" ("Communication Disruptions" in Language Contact and Language Conflict, 1994). (Frank Renlie/Getty Images)


Language contact is the social and linguistic phenomenon by which speakers of different languages (or different dialects of the same language) interact with one another, leading to a transfer of linguistic features.

"Language contact is a major factor in language change," notes Stephan Gramley. "Contact with other languages and other dialectal varieties of one language is a source of alternative pronunciations, grammatical structures, and vocabulary" (The History of English: An Introduction, 2012).

Prolonged language contact generally leads to bilingualism or multilingualism.

Uriel Weinreich (Languages in Contact, 1953) and Einar Haugen (The Norwegian Language in America, 1953) are commonly regarded as the pioneers of language-contact studies. A particularly influential later study is Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics by Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (University of California Press, 1988).

Examples and Observations

"[W]hat counts as language contact? The mere juxtaposition of two speakers of different languages, or two texts in different languages, is too trivial to count: unless the speakers or the texts interact in some way, there can be no transfer of linguistic features in either direction. Only when there is some interaction does the possibility of a contact explanation for synchronic variation or diachronic change arise. Throughout human history, most language contacts have been face to face, and most often the people involved have a nontrivial degree of fluency in both languages.

There are other possibilities, especially in the modern world with novel means of worldwide travel and mass communication: many contacts now occur through written language only. . . .​

"[L]anguage contact is the norm, not the exception. We would have a right to be astonished if we found any language whose speakers had successfully avoided contacts with all other languages for periods longer than one or two hundred years."

(Sarah Thomason, "Contact Explanations in Linguistics." The Handbook of Language Contact, ed. by Raymond Hickey. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

"Minimally, in order to have something that we would recognize as 'language contact,' people must learn at least some part of two or more distinct linguistic codes. And, in practice, 'language contact' is really only acknowledged when one code becomes more similar to another code as a result of that interaction."

(Danny Law, Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference. John Benjamins, 2014) 

Different Types of Language-Contact Situations

"Language contact is not, of course, a homogeneous phenomenon. Contact may occur between languages which are genetically related or unrelated, speakers may have similar or vastly different social structures, and patterns of multilingualism may also vary greatly. In some cases the entire community speaks more than one variety, while in other cases only a subset of the population is multilingual. Lingualism and lectalism may vary by age, by ethnicity, by gender, by social class, by education level, or by one or more of a number of other factors. In some communities there are few constraints on the situations in which more than one language can be used, while in others there is heavy diglossia, and each language is confined to a particular type of social interaction.

. . .

 "While there a great number of different language contact situations, a few come up frequently in areas where linguists do fieldwork. One is dialect contact, for example between standard varieties of a language and regional varieties (e.g., in France or the Arab world). . . .

"A further type of language contact involves exogamous communities where more than one language might be used within the community because its members come from different areas. . . .The converse of such communities where exogamy leads to multilingualism is an endoterogenous community which maintains its own language for the purpose of excluding outsiders. . . .

"Finally, fieldworkers particularly often work in endangered language communities where language shift is in progress." 

(Claire Bowern, "Fieldwork in Contact Situations." The Handbook of Language Contact, ed.

by Raymond Hickey. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) 

The Study of Language Contact

- "Manifestations of language contact are found in a great variety of domains, including language acquisition, language processing and production, conversation and discourse, social functions of language and language policy, typology and language change, and more. . . .

"[T]he study of language contact is of value toward an understanding of the inner functions and the inner structure of 'grammar' and the language faculty itself."

(Yaron Matras, Language Contact. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

- "A very naive view of language contact would probably hold that speakers take bundles of formal and functional properties, semiotic signs so to speak, from the relevant contact language and insert them into their own language. To be sure, this view is much too simplistic and not seriously maintained any longer. A probably more realistic view held in language contact research is that whatever kind of material is transferred in a situation of language contact, this material necessarily experiences some sort of modification through contact."

(Peter Siemund, "Language Contact: Constraints and Common Paths of Contact-Induced Language Change." Language Contact and Contact Languages, ed. by Peter Siemund and Noemi Kintana. John Benjamins, 2008)

Language Contact and Grammatical Change

"[T]he transfer of grammatical meanings and structures across languages is regular, and . . . it is shaped by universal processes of grammatical change. Using data from a wide range of languages we . . . argue that this transfer is essentially in accordance with principles of grammaticalization, and that these principles are the same irrespective of whether or not language contact is involved, and of whether it concerns unilateral or multilateral transfer.. . .

"[W]hen embarking on the work leading to this book we were assuming that grammatical change taking place as a result of language contact is fundamentally different from purely language-internal change.

With regard to replication, which is the central theme of the present work, this assumption turned out to be unfounded: there is no decisive difference between the two. Language contact can and frequently does trigger or influence the development of grammar in a number of ways; overall, however, the same kind of processes and directionality can be observed in both. Still, there is reason to assume that language contact in general and grammatical replication in particular may accelerate grammatical change . . .."

(Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva, Language Contact and Grammatical Change. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Old English and Old Norse

"Contact-induced grammaticalization is part of contact-induced grammatical change,and in the literature of the latter it has been repeatedly pointed out that language contact often brings about loss of grammatical categories. A frequent example given as illustration of this kind of situation involves Old English and Old Norse, whereby Old Norse was brought to the British Isles through the heavy settlement of Danish Vikings in the Danelaw area during the 9th to 11th centuries. The result of this language contact is reflected in the linguistic system of Middle English, one of the characteristics of which is the absence of grammatical gender. In this particular language contact situation, there seems to have been an additional factor leading to the loss, namely, the genetic closeness and--accordingly--the urge to diminish the 'functional overload' of speakers bilingual in Old English and Old Norse. 

"Thus a 'functional overload' explanation seems to be a plausible way to account for what we observe in Middle English, that is, after Old English and Old Norse had come into contact: gender assignment often diverged in Old English and Old Norse, which would have readily led to the elimination of it in order to avoid confusion and to lessen the strain of learning the other contrastive system."

(Tania Kuteva and Bernd Heine, "An Integrative Model of Grammaticalization." 

Grammatical Replication and Borrowability in Language Contact, ed. by Björn Wiemer, Bernhard Wälchli, and Björn Hansen. Walter de Gruyter, 2012)

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