Language contact as a significant social phenomenon

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

Author: Shkarpetina Alexandra, East Kazakhstan State University in honor of S. Amanzholov, Kazakhstan

Languages have always been influencing each other in certain ways, when speakers of different languages interact closely. This interaction has always been of interest for linguists, and there is even a special branch of linguistics, called contact linguistics, which studies language contacts. Normally, this interaction is reflected in language convergence, borrowing and replacement. It may also lead to the emergence of hybrid languages, such as pidgins, creoles, and other mixed languages.

This research will cover the following aspects:

1) What is language contact;

2) The ways languages interact and influence each other;

3) Possible outcomes of such influence.

Language contact is considered to be an important phenomenon, and many linguists have been studying it for years. Multilingualism has always been common in the human history. In the today’s world of globalization, most people became multilingual, and there is much language variation. Therefore, studying the aspects of language contact and of its influence is a significant matter.

First of all, it is important to remember that all languages change though time due to various reasons. These reasons include drift, which means tendencies within the language to change due to structural imbalances, dialect interference, and foreign interference (Thomason and Kaufman, 1991). Various factors may lead to the dialect diversity and even to language splits. Therefore, any language may have numerous offspring (Thomason and Kaufman, 1991).

The simplest definition of language contact is the use of more than one language in the same place at the same time (Thomason, 2001). This phenomenon does not require fluent multilingualism. Instead, it involves the communication between speakers of different languages. Moreover, it should be exactly two different languages, not different dialects of one language.

However, the language contact does not require the direct communication between two or more people of different languages. It can also occur through reading, watching movies on a foreign language, listening to the music or the radio on another language, and so on (Thomason, 2001). The brightest example of that is the way one languages influenced others is through sacred texts and spread of religions, such as Christianity (spread of Latin and Greek), Buddhism (the Pali language), Islam (Arabic), and so on.

Thus, the cycle of language contact begins when environment puts monolingual speakers in interaction that makes them think about learning another language (Scotton. 2002). In other words, the cycle begins with the emergence of bilingualism, which may further lead to the language shift and to the penetration of one language into another one.

Language contact may take place as a result of various circumstances. They include military invasion and subsequent colonization, living in a border area, migration, education, spread of international languages, and ethnic awareness (Scotton, 2002). There can be other influential factors and events, but these ones are the most frequent causes, which took place many times throughout the history.

The influence of language contact can be reflected in several ways. They include borrowings, adoption of other languages features, language shift, replacement of the languages, and creation of new languages. Let us examine these forms of influence more thoroughly further.

Lexical borrowings are considered to be the most common way of influencing a language. There are numerous examples of loans and borrowings in languages. For example, the French language influenced the lexicon of Middle English a lot and brought many borrowings, which are still used today. In addition, these borrowings can be integrated in varying degrees into the morphology, phonology, and syntax of the borrowing language. Further, they may also be subject to semantic change (Winford, 2002).

The influence can be exerted deeper than just on words, extending to the basic characteristics of a language, for example, grammar and morphology, as well. One language can absorb grammar forms, verb tenses and other features from another. Usually, there are only certain examples of this kind of influence in a language, such as the word groups attorney-general or Lake Superior in English, which are adapted from the French language’s rule to put an adjective after a noun. However, sometimes a language can influence the basic features of another language as well by changing its grammar and morphology features (Scotton. 2002).

Language shift is also a possible phenomenon, which occurs when one language replaces another one due to a higher social position. In this case, a replaced language is highly likely to become extinct. Nevertheless, it can leave a deep impression on the replacing language in some cases (Thomason, 2001). For instance, when Latin replaced such local languages as Gaulish and Germanic in Roman times, they left its influence on it.

In addition, language contact can lead to the creation of new languages. The development of pidgin and Creole languages is common when people with different languages interact closely. Such languages are usually rather simple. In case communities are fluent in both languages they use for communication, mixed languages may emerge and be more complex in grammatical and phonological aspects than pidgin and Creole (Thomason and Kaufman, 1991).

Most bilingual communities experience the dominance of one of the languages. It appears that even though a community can be bilingual, it contains only one native tongue, while another one may be not spoken at all or spoken rarely (Weinreich, 1968). Therefore, the change resulted from language contact is usually one-sided. A certain number of people should speak a language for it to be considered a living language. If this number drops, the language is referred to as an extinct one. Therefore, one of the outcomes of language contact is language extinction.

It is obvious that when the speakers of a language get more power, this language becomes more influential. Thus, such languages as Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, French, Chinese, Russian, and of course English have experienced the periods of global importance. As a result, they have all influenced each other in some ways as well. In the present days of globalization, the number of languages becomes less every day, because they either become mixed or are replaced by other ones. Therefore, the branch of linguistics which deals with language contact becomes more important for further research.


1. Scotton C. M. Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes. - Oxford University Press, 2002

2. Thomason S. and Kaufman T. Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics. - University of California Press, 1991.

3. Thomason S. Language Contact - An Introduction. - Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

4. Weinreich U. Languages in Contact: Findings and problems. - Mouton, 1968.

5. Winford D. An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. – Blackwell, 2002.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

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