Naomi Nagy

Linguistics at U of T

A comparative model of contact-induced language change
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A comparative model of contact-induced language change

Linguists since the Neogrammarians have stressed the need to examine social factors in the study of language change. However, there is still little consensus regarding the roles that these factors play-- or even what the factors are. Eckert (1989:254), for example, argues explicitly that gender roles differ over time from community to community. Implicitly, there is the suggestion that any social factor may have different effects in different communities and at different times. My question is, would that really be the case if everything else could be held constant?

While many extensive and detailed studies of the interaction of social and linguistic factors have been conducted, each has been undertaken in an independent framework, making comparison across cases difficult or impossible. The root of the problem lies in the fact that, in general, linguists who devote themselves to detailed analysis of particular contact situations do not also propose useful wide-ranging principles for the field as a whole. On the flip side, theoretical linguists who write grand treatises on How Language Changes do not generally report detailed facts regarding particular situations of language change. My aim here is to show how this gap can be bridged. In order to see whether social factors actually have constant effects, a uniform multi-dimensional approach is necessary. In this paper, I outline a proposal for a large-scale research project to do that in the field of contact-induced language change.

Since Labov's early work, sociolinguists have used a similar paradigm to analyze spontaneous change and variation, calling upon a core group of factors relevant to speakers' social identities, experience and position within their communities. When these factors don't account for all of the variance, other factors such as ethnicity, level of education, and network membership may be added. Such sets of core and peripheral social factors are not recognized in the field of language contact.

Focusing on intensity of contact as the primary correlate of contact-induced change, I propose that, in order to make progress in the study of how contact induces language change, a number of comparable case studies is necessary. A paradigm for conducting such studies is set up, building on the factors which have been shown to be pertinent in earlier studies. A set of factors which should be addressed in all studies is established, and I have indicated how the factors are to be aligned along three axes. A method for combining the effects of these factors, using a logistic equation, is proposed. Once a set of such equations is available from a series of similarly conducted studies, the set of equations is, in principle, solvable, and sociolinguists will have a model of how social factors affect language change in contact communities. In combination with work on linguistic structure effects and typological difference effects, a complete model of language change will be within reach.


Eckert, P. (1989). "The whole woman: Sex and gender differences in variation." Language Variation and Change 1:245-67.

Paper presented at:
The 1997 Meeting of the Modern Language Association
Title: The politics of being bilingual

Author: Naomi Nagy
Affiliation: University of New Hampshire

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