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Language Contact

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the ideas of multilingualism and language contact against the backdrop of applied linguistics. In the last four decades, scientific research on multilingualism has experienced numerous stimuli, the majority of which can be attributed to language contact research in the Weinreich tradition, going back to his famous Languages in Contact. Although multilingualism and language contact between individuals and groups are age old, language contact research first obtained a secure position in applied linguistics in the 1970s through the development of the social sciences. The great significance of multilingualism in the future of Europe and North America and its greater importance in many other parts of the world led to an interdisciplinary interest in contact linguistics. As an interdisciplinary branch of multilingual research, contact linguistics incorporates three areas of inquiry: language use, language user, and language sphere. This article explains the field of contact linguistics along with its significant parameters.

Keywords: multilingualism, applied linguistics, scientific research, numerous, contact linguists, language sphere, significant parameters, social sciences

I. Language Contact, Multilingualism, and Applied Linguistics

In the last 40 years, scientific research on multilingualism has experienced numerous stimuli, the majority of which can be attributed to language contact research in the Weinreich tradition, going back to his famous Languages in Contact (1953). Weinreich's work is based on the fact that speakers or language communities, rather than languages on an abstract level, are in contact with one another, and that any analysis of multilingual behavior is useless without consideration of the linguistic and cultural roots of the given situation. Today, research into language contact is manifest in two volumes of an international handbook (Contact Linguistics) which appeared for the first time in Dirven and Pütz (1996 and 1997). The interest of applied linguistics in language contact research or contact linguistics—a term used since the Brussels “Contact and Conflict” congress in 1979—begins with the recognition that the majority of the world's population is multilingual, so that multilingualism is to be regarded as the norm rather than the exception. Although multilingualism and language contact between individuals and groups are as old as the Babylonian confusion of tongues, language contact research first obtained a secure position in applied linguistics in the 1970s through the development of the social sciences. The great significance of multilingualism in the future of Europe and North America and its greater importance in many other parts of the world led to an interdisciplinary interest in contact linguistics, whose relation to multilingualism can be portrayed graphically: see figure 25.1.

 Language ContactClick to view larger

Figure 10.1 The relation of contact linguistics to multilingualism

Reprinted in Memory of Dr. Nelde. (p. 374)

II. What is Contact Linguistics?

As an interdisciplinary branch of multilingual research, contact linguistics incorporates three areas of inquiry: language use, language user, and language sphere.

The significant parameters of contact linguistics are linguistic levels (phonology, syntax, lexicon) and also discourse analysis, stylistics, and pragmatics. In addition there are the external linguistic factors: for example, nation, language community, language boundaries, migration, and many others.

The type of multilingualism is also relevant; in other words, whether it manifests itself as individual, institutional, or state bilingualism, as social multilingualism, as diglossia or dialect, or as natural or artificial multilingualism, for which the immediate levels—such as so-called semilingualism or interlinguistics—also must be considered. In the process it is helpful to make a basic, simplifying distinction between autochthonous (native) and allochthonous (migrant, refugee) groups, because instances of language contact can rarely be isolated as single phenomena but, rather, usually as a cluster of characteristics.

The structuring of social groups is of crucial importance to the language user. Besides the conventional differences of age, sex, and social relationship, minority status receives special attention from researchers of multilingualism.

Above and beyond these factors, all of the sectors responsible for the social interplay of a language community play an essential role. Added to traditional sectors like religion, politics, culture, and science in the last few decades are others like technology, industry, city and administration and, most recently, also media, advertising, and data processing. In the educational/cultural sector, the schools occupy a special place, as they are constantly exposed to new forms and models of (p. 375) multilingual instruction from North America and—above all—from Canada. The question of whether bilingual and multilingual education will interfere with a child's right to use his/her mother (home, first, colloquial) tongue depends mainly on the intentions of the respective language planners, so that conformity and integration, instead of language maintenance, constitute the motivating forces of multilingual instruction. To oversimplify the issue, the underprivileged must submit to bilingual education and thus to assimilation, while foreign language instruction is available to the sociological elite. Contact processes that have concerned researchers in multilingualism since the beginning are partly diachronic and partly synchronic in nature. Besides language change, borrowing processes, interference, and language mixing, there are linguae francae, language alternation, language maintenance and loss, code-switching, pidginization, and creolization.

The effects of such language contact processes can be registered by measuring language consciousness and attitude. Language loyalty and prestige play a decisive role in the linguistic identity of a multilingual person, and extreme care must be taken in interpreting so-called language statistics (censuses and public opinion surveys).

The language spheres in which considerations of multilingualism have become indispensable extend over numerous areas of study and are, furthermore, dependent on the respective level of development and interest. These include, to name a few, language policy, language planning, language ecology, language contact in multinational industries and organizations, language care and revitalization among minorities, as well as single development, planned languages, and the role of English as a world language with all the concomitant effects on the respective individual languages. (For a complete list of topics see Nelde et al., 1996.)

Such a bird's-eye view shows well enough how extensive, interdisciplinary, and yet specialized the field of multilingualism is as related to contact linguistics.

III. Contact and Conflict

Ethnic Contact and Conflict and Sociology

Most contact between ethnic groups does not occur in peaceful, harmoniously coexisting communities. Instead, it exhibits varying degrees of tension, resentment, and differences of opinion that are characteristic of every competitive social structure. Under certain conditions, such generally accepted competitive tensions can degenerate into intense conflicts, in the worst case ending in violence. The possibility of conflict erupting is always present, because differences between groups create feelings of uncertainty of status, which could give rise to conflicts. Sociologists who have dealt with contact problems between ethnic groups define conflicts as contentions involving real or apparent fears, interests, and values, in which the goals (p. 376) of the opposing group must be opposed, or at least neutralized, to protect one's own interests (prestige, employment, political power, etc.; Williams, 1947). This type of contention often appears as a conflict of values, in which differing behavioral norms collide, because usually only one norm is considered to be valid. Conflicts between ethnic groups, however, occur only very rarely as openly waged violent conflicts and usually consist of a complex system of threats and sanctions in which the interests and values of one group are endangered. Conflicts can arise relatively easily if—as is usually the case—interests and values have an emotional basis.

The magnitude and the development of a conflict depend on a number of factors determined by level of friction between two or more ethnic groups, the presence of equalizing or mitigating elements, and the degree of uncertainty of all the participants. Thus, a one-sided explanation of the conflict, or one based on irrational prejudices, will fail. Very different factors that influence each other can reinforce and escalate to cause group conflict. This group conflict is part of normal social behavior in which different groups compete with each other, and should therefore not be connoted only negatively, because in this way new—and possibly more peaceful—forms of coexistence can arise. On the other hand, tensions between ethnic groups brought about by feelings of intimidation can give rise to new conflicts at any time—conflicts that can be caused by a minority as well as by a majority group. As long as society continues to create new fears, because of its competitive orientation, the creation of new conflicts appears unavoidable.

Political Language Contact and Conflict

Along with sociologists, political scientists also assume that language contact can cause political conflict. Language conflicts can be brought about by changes in an expanding social system when there is contact between different language groups (Inglehart and Woodward, 1972). Belgium and French Canada are examples of this. The reasons for such a situation are the following: A dominant language group (French in Belgium, English in Canada) controls the crucial authority in the areas of administration, politics, and the economy, and gives employment preference to those applicants who have command of the dominant language. The disadvantaged language group is then left with the choice of renouncing its social ambitions, assimilating, or resisting. Although numerically weak or psychologically weakened language groups tend toward assimilation, in modern societies numerically stronger, more homogeneous language groups possessing traditional values, such as their own history and culture, prefer political resistance, the usual form of organized language conflict in this century. This type of conflict becomes especially salient when it occurs between population groups of differing socioeconomic structures (urban/rural, poor/wealthy, indigenous/immigrant) and when the dominant group requires its own language as a condition for the integration of the rest of the population. Although in the case of French-speaking Canada, English appeared to be the necessary means of communication in trade and business, nearly 80% of the francophone population spoke only French, thus being excluded from social elevation (p. 377) in the political/economic sector. A small French-speaking elite, whose original goal was political opposition to dominant English, ultimately precipitated the outbreak of the latent, socioeconomically motivated language conflict.

Most current language conflicts are the result of differing social status and preferential treatment of the dominant language on the part of the government. In these cases, there are the religious, social, economic, or psychological fears and frustrations of the weaker group that may be responsible for the language conflict. However, a critical factor in the expansion and intensification of such conflict remains the impediment to social mobility, particularly of a disadvantaged or suppressed ethnic group (e.g., the numerous language conflicts in multiethnic Austria-Hungary).

Language problems in very different areas (politics, economics, administration, education) appear under the heading of language conflict. In such cases, politicians and economic leaders seize upon the notion of language conflict, disregarding the actual underlying causes, and thus continue to inflame “from above” the conflict arisen “from below,” with the result that language assumes much more importance than it may have had at the outset of the conflict. This language-oriented “surface structure” is used to obscure the more deeply rooted, suppressed “deep structure” (social and economic problems). Furthermore, multilingual conflicts in Europe, especially in urban societies, show quite clearly that language conflicts are caused primarily by attempts on the part of the dominant group to block social mobility.

Language Conflict and Contact Linguistics

Even in contact linguistics the term conflict remains ambiguous, at least when it refers generally to social conflict that can arise in a multilingual situation. The notion appears to us essential here that neither contact nor conflict can occur between languages; they are conceivable only between speakers of languages. Oksaar (1980) correctly points out the ambiguity of the term language conflict as either conflict between languages within an individual or as conflict by means of language(s), including processes external to the individual. Similarly, Haarmann 1980, 191) distinguishes between interlingual and interethnic language conflicts.

Among the founders of modern research in language contact—running parallel to the rapidly developing sociolinguistics and sociology of language (e.g., Weinreich and Fishman), the term conflict rarely appears. Although Weinreich views multilingualism (bilingualism) and the accompanying interference phenomena as the most important form of language contact, without regard to conflict between language communities on the basis of ethnic, religious, or cultural incompatibilities, Fishman 1972: 14) grants language conflict greater importance in connection with language planning. Haugen (1966) was the first to make conflict presentable in language contact research with his detailed analysis of Norwegian language developments. Indeed, even linguists in multilingual countries (e.g., Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Belgium) resisted, up until the end of the 1970s, treating conflict methodically as part of language contact research, since such an “ideologicalization” of language contact appeared to them as “too touchy” (Fishman, 1980: xi). One reason for the (p. 378) late discovery of a term indispensable in today's contact research is to be found in the history of contact linguistics itself: In traditional language contact research (as well as in dialectology and research on linguistic change) the emphasis tended toward closed, geographically homogeneous and easily describable socioeconomic groups, rather than on urban industrial societies, ripe for social and linguistic strife, whose demand for rapid integration laid the groundwork for conflict. However, it is precisely in modern urban society that conflicts result essentially from the normative sanctions of the more powerful, usually majority, group, which demands linguistic adaptation to the detriment of language contact, and thus preprograms conflict with those speakers who are unwilling to adapt.

Despite a less than ideal research situation essentially limited to empirical case studies of language contact, the following statements can be made. Language conflict can occur anywhere there is language contact, chiefly in multilingual communities, although Mattheier (1984: 200) has also demonstrated language conflicts in so-called monolingual local communities. Language conflict arises from the confrontation of differing standards, values, and attitude structures, and strongly influences self-image, upbringing, education, and group consciousness. Thus, conflict can be viewed as a form of contact or, in terms of a model, as a complementary model to the language contact model.

Contact linguists have either described conflict research as an integral part of language contact research (Nelde et al., 1996) or have dealt with special topics from the perspective of conflict. The methods used are heterogeneous and come from numerous neighboring disciplines (psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, communication research, sociology, etc.). For lack of its own methods, research still employs predominantly empirical procedures. Along with interview and polling techniques, privileged informants and representative sampling, prejudice research and stereotype and attitude observation, the past few years have seen combined investigation models such as socioprofiles and ethnoprofiles, community and polarity profiles (Nelde, 1995).

IV. Essential Principles of Contact Linguistics

These observations on language contact and conflict situations lead to some basic premises of contact linguistic, which, despite their occasional seeming triviality, merit consideration at this juncture:

  1. 1. Language contact exists only between speakers and language communities, not between languages. Comparison of one and the same language in different contexts is therefore possible only in a quite limited way.

  2. 2. The statement that there can be no language contact without language conflict (“Nelde's Law”; K. de Bot, 1997: 51) may appear exaggerated, but (p. 379) there is in the realm of the European languages at present no imaginable contact situation that cannot also be described as language conflict.

  3. 3. Contact linguistics usually sees language as a significant secondary symbol of fundamental causes of conflict of a socioeconomic, political, religious, psychological, or historical sort. Thus, in a way, language conflict appears to be the lesser evil, because it apparently can be more easily corrected and neutralized than primary sociopolitical conflicts.

  4. 4. Contact linguistics, at the same time, makes it clear that conflicts should not be condemned as only negative, but, rather, it proves that new structures that are more advantageous than the foregoing ones can often result from conflicts.

V. Typology of Conflict

The current language conflicts in Europe, North and Central America, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa can be viewed as situations of either natural or artificial language conflict.

Natural Language Conflict

Natural language conflicts are those situations that have traditionally existed between indigenous majorities and minorities. The extensive literature of language conflict abounds with examples of this type, particularly those of minorities pitted against official national or regional languages. Conflict has frequently arisen in these situations of language contact because the linguistic minority was not in a position to assimilate. This type of conflict can be found, for example, in Europe along the Germanic-Romance and the Slavic-Germanic linguistic boundaries, and in Canada involving the French-speaking minority and among a few indigenous peoples. Natural language conflicts can become problematic when ideology on either side—not only the majority but the minority as well—is used to intensify the differences that exist, and peaceful coexistence between language communities can easily be threatened when the banner of language is hoisted as the defining symbol of a people.

The conflict between Belfast (Northern Ireland) and Connemara (North of Galway in the Irish republic), for example, involves considerably more than just language: An urban, Protestant, working environment (Belfast) in fact has little if anything in common with a rural, Catholic region of high unemployment (Connemara). The issue of language only exacerbates these differences.

A similar situation is reflected in the ideologically motivated opposition between Afrikaans and English in Namibia (and also in South Africa). The vast majority of the Namibian populace, regardless of race or social status, speaks or at least understands Afrikaans. The country's official language, however, is English, cast as (p. 380) the “language of freedom,” though less than 3% of the population speak it as their first language. Afrikaans, the former language of instruction and administration, remains the “language of oppression.”

More recently, the study of Russian has witnessed a rapid decline in the former Eastern Bloc countries, and one can only speculate on the relationship between the sudden lack of interest in Russian and the “de-ideologicalization” of that language in the new republics. After 1992, in the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Herzeg), all mentions of the term Serbo-Croatian have been expunged from schoolbooks and replaced, not on linguistic but on ideological grounds, by the term Croatian.

Artificial Language Conflict

Artificial, or self-imposed, conflict arises out of situations of compromise in which one or more language communities are disfavored. These situations have existed in every society from Babel to Brussels. Symmetric multilingualism, in which equal numbers of speakers are invested with equal rights and in which both language prestige and linguistic identities are congruent, is impossible, because one of the language groups will always be subject to stigmatization and/or discrimination, with conflict the inevitable result.

Artificial language conflict occurs especially when, motivated by the need for rapid international communication, politically influential economic powers export their languages (and their resulting socioeconomic influence) to their trading partners. Thus, Russian (before 1990) and English have become languages of great economic expansion, despite a noteworthy lack of formal educational planning. Secondary schools in Strasbourg, for example, have abandoned study of the native German dialect for English (as the first foreign language), with the result that German is being lost as a local working language. It is offered as a second “foreign” language only to students over 12 years old, with the result that a passive knowledge of the mother tongue (a German dialect) is now all that remains.

The European Union has provided interesting examples of artificial language conflict. In the “Which language(s) for Europe?” debate, the Danes years ago, in a spirit of genuine cooperation, seemed to have opted to forgo the use of Danish. In retrospect, Denmark may appear to have resolved the issue, in the early years of the European Union, of reducing the number of official languages to at most two, with English and French destined to be the languages of international communication. The initial delight of London and Paris at this helpful suggestion was quickly dampened, however, because the Danes also suggested that the English should use French and the French should use English. After that suggestion, enthusiasm for the Danish solution quickly withered.

The presence of almost 4,000 translators and interpreters in Brussels suggests a return to the Tower of Babel. At the present time (the year 2000), the 11 working languages of the 15 member states generate a total of (10 × 11 =) 110 language combinations. The enlargement of the European Union by six or more additional member states in the coming years, with several new languages, leads to so many (p. 381) mathematical combinations that no assembly hall in the world would be able to accommodate meetings for all the interpreters.

These examples amply demonstrate that the language contacts and conflicts that threaten the peaceful coexistence of peoples are not always the consequence of long-standing historical contacts and conflicts among language communities. The new orders and restructurings of recent years have also led to sources of conflict that were not fully grasped just a few years ago. In any event, neither natural nor artificial conflict should be judged only negatively; rather, we should hope that out of conflict there may ensue new alliances and new solutions that will function better than any of the efforts of the past.

VI. Future Prospects

There are hardly any areas of human life that do not have to do with language contact and multilingualism in some way. Since its renaissance in the 1950s and 1960s, research on multilingualism has been carried out on contact linguistic initiatives due to the inclusion of neighboring disciplines like sociology, psychology, and many others. In the new century, younger subdisciplines will probably play a leading role because of their pronounced orientation to practical applications. The difference between the so-called internal and external linguistic criteria that was stressed in the past will be abandoned, because the interdependence and inseparability of these factors has become apparent in the most recent research results. In addition to the traditional (“hyphenated”) linguistic disciplines, these areas of research will surely include ecolinguistics, which has already provided research on language contact with many new stimuli. In the area of the conflict issues mentioned before, ecolinguistic initiatives have proved to be particularly successful, so much so that the constantly changing forms of language contact and multilingualism can be described more satisfactorily. More and more new migrant groups (evacuees, asylum seekers, refugees, expatriates) are being included in the traditional autochthonous and allochthonous forms of multilingualism, in addition to the native minorities. Here, we see, at the beginning of the new century, new language contact research fields arising. One example is connected to the development of the new media and their dominant role in changing societal structures by destroying traditional fields in the society. This also has an enormous influence on the central concept of contact linguistics that remains multilingualism. In future research, we have to develop new forms of multilingualism that are emerging from virtual contacts and from new economic-based minorities. It is one of the chief tasks of contact linguistics to meet this challenge and concern itself more intensively than in the past with a field that can serve as an outstanding example of applied science, the significance of which for life and survival on an overpopulated planet with hundreds of different languages cannot be overvalued.