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Language contact occurs when speakers of distinct speech varieties interact. Contrary to popular opinion, multilingualism has been common throughout much of human history. Even in hunter-gatherer times, to judge by recent parallels, multilingualism was not uncommon, as bands would need to communicate with neighboring peoples, who often spoke differing languages. And in present-day areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where there is much variation in language over even short distances, it is usual for anyone who has dealings outside his own town or village to know two or more languages, as it must have been in early times when almost all languages were spoken in a small territory. Thus, language contact is a very common phenomenon in human history, and the world's present vast linguistic diversity has developed in the presence of this constant contact.

When speakers of different languages interact closely, it is typical for their languages to influence each other. Languages normally develop by gradually accumulating internal differences until one parent language splits into daughter languages. This is analogous to asexual reproduction in biology. Change due to language contact, in this analogy, is akin to the recombination that happens when separate organisms exchange genetic material.

The study of language contact is called contact linguistics.

Forms of influence of one language on another[]

Borrowing of vocabulary[]

The most common way that languages influence each other is the exchange of words. Much is made about the contemporary borrowing of English words into other languages, but this phenomenon is not new, nor is it even very large by historical standards. The large-scale importation of words from Latin, French and other languages into English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was more significant. Some languages have borrowed so much that they have become scarcely recognizable. Albanian borrowed so many words from Iranian languages, for example, that it was at first considered a branch of the Indo-Iranian languages, and was not recognized as an independent branch of the Indo-European languages for many decades.

Borrowing of other language features[]

The influence can go deeper, extending to the exchange of even basic characteristics of a language such as morphology and grammar. Nepal Bhasa, for example, spoken in Nepal, is a Sino-Tibetan language distantly related to Chinese, but has had so many centuries of contact with neighboring Indo-Iranian languages that it has even developed noun inflection, a trait typical of the Indo-European family but rare in Sino-Tibetan. It has absorbed features of grammar as well, such as verb tenses. Romanian was influenced by the Slavic languages spoken by neighboring tribes in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, not only in vocabulary but also in phonology and morphology. It is easy to see how a word can diffuse from one language to another, but not as obvious how more basic features can do the same; nevertheless, this phenomenon is not rare.

Language shift[]

The result of the contact of two languages can be the replacement of one by the other. This is most common when one language has a higher social position. This sometimes leads to language endangerment or extinction.

Substratal influence[]

However, when language shift occurs, the language that is replaced (known as the substratum) can leave a profound impression on the replacing language (known as the superstratum), when people retain features of the substratum as they learn the new language and pass these features on to their children, leading to the development of a new variety. For example, the Latin that came to replace local languages in present-day France during Roman times was influenced by Gaulish and Germanic. The distinct pronunciation of the dialect of English spoken in Ireland comes partially from the influence of the substratum of Gaelic.

Creation of new languages: Creolization[]

Language contact can also lead to the development of new languages when people without a common language interact closely, developing a pidgin, which may eventually become a full-fledged creole language through the process of creolization. A prime example of this is Saramaccan, spoken in Suriname, which has vocabulary mainly from English and Dutch, but phonology and even tones which are closer to African languages.

Mutual and Non-Mutual Influence[]

Change as a result of contact is often one-sided. Chinese, for instance, has had a profound effect on the development of Japanese, but the Chinese language remains relatively free of Japanese influence, other than some modern terms that were reborrowed after having been coined in Japan. In some cases, language contact may lead to mutual exchange, although this exchange may be confined to a particular geographic region. For example, in Switzerland, the local French has been influenced by German, and vice-versa. In Scotland, the Scots language has been heavily influenced by English, and many Scots terms have been adopted into the regional English dialect.

Linguistic Hegemony[]

Obviously, a language's influence widens as its speakers grow in power. Chinese, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and English have each seen periods of widespread importance, and have had varying degrees of influence on the native languages spoken in the areas in which they have held sway.

Dialectal and Sub-Cultural Change[]

Some forms of language contact affect only a particular segment of a speech community. Consequently, change may be manifested only in particular dialects, jargons, or registers. The South African dialect of English has been significantly affected by Afrikaans, in terms of lexis and pronunciation, but English as a whole has remained almost totally unaffected by Afrikaans. In some cases, a language develops an acrolect which contains elements of a more prestigious language. For example, in England during a large part of the Medieval period, upper-class speech was dramatically influenced by French, to the point that it often resembled a French dialect. The same situation existed in Tsarist Russia, where the native Russian language was widedly disparaged as barbaric and uncultured.

Sign languages[]

Main article: Contact Sign

Language contact is extremely common in most Deaf communities, which are almost always located within a dominant spoken language culture. It can also take place between two or more sign languages, in which case the expected contact phenomena occur — lexical borrowing, foreign "accent," interference, code switching, pidgins, creoles, and mixed systems. However, between a sign language and a spoken language, while lexical borrowing and code switching also occur, the interface between the spoken and signed modes produces unique phenomena: fingerspelling, fingerspelling/sign combination, initalisation, CODA talk, TTY conversation, mouthing and contact signing.

See also[]


  • Uriel Weinreich, Languages in Contact (Mouton 1963)
  • Donald Winford, An Introduction to Contact Linguistics (Blackwell 2002) ISBN 0631212515.


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