In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of Language Contact and its Sociocultural Contexts

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Texts
  • Multilingual Practices and Discursive Construction of Identity
  • Linguistic Differences and Social Inequality
  • Language and Colonialism
  • Language Contact and Nation-Building
  • Language Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization
  • Education and Social (Re)production
  • Language Contact, Migration, and Globalization
  • Verbal Play and Aesthetics of Contact

Anthropology Anthropology of Language Contact and its Sociocultural Contexts
Miki Makihara, Juan L. Rodriguez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0231


Language contact is not just about language. It extends to a whole complex set of sociocultural and historical formations that characterize life in intersecting communities of language users. It is a space of linguistic as well as sociocultural reproduction and transformation. Early anthropologists and linguists focused narrowly on how languages, understood here as structural codes, influence each other, producing lexical, phonological, and morphosyntactic changes. The discipline of linguistics has largely continued this line of inquiry and focused on issues of variation and structural change. In conducting empirical ethnographic studies, sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists have exposed the constructedness of the static, bounded notions of “languages” and “communities” of monolingual speakers. They have also increasingly emphasized the embeddedness of language in its sociocultural and historical context (see Foundational Texts). Anthropology of language contact, accordingly, investigates changing practices of language use, unequal acquisition, socialization, and development of linguistic norms. This article highlights the dynamic relationship between the use and conceptualization of language. It includes works on multilingual and dialectal practices (see Multilingual Practices and Discursive Construction of Identity), and how linguistic differences function, produce, and perpetuate forms of social inequality (see Linguistic Differences and Social Inequality). It also addresses the historical, sociocultural, and interactional contexts of encounters and power dynamics. As such, we examine the context of colonialism and missionization (see Language and Colonialism) and the rise of nation-states in which standard language has been taken to be coterminous with the polity (see Language Contact and Nation-Building). Nationalism based on an association between nation and language is important in understanding the processes of language endangerment and revitalization (see Language Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization). This article also covers the flow of people and commodities, as well as industrialization, urbanization, and the introduction of new technologies (see Language Contact, Migration, and Globalization). Such flows and movements occur at different scales, from face-to-face interaction to global trade, and transform boundaries between languages (or what counts as such) and the communities that use them. Notwithstanding the fluidity of global communication, the school has been the most important site of the reproduction of standard and monolingual ideologies, closely connected to the process of nation-building, colonization, and the reproduction of privilege and inequality (see Education and Social (Re)production). The final section gathers works that highlight the poetic function of language and individual creative choice in multilingual verbal arts (see Verbal Play and Aesthetics of Contact).

Foundational Texts

The foundation of linguistics and anthropology of language contact was set in the 1950s with Weinreich 1953 and Haugen 1953, both of which are on multilingualism and language shift. For Uriel Weinreich, the locus of language contact is the language-using individual. Languages are in contact insofar as they produce interference on each other when individuals use them. He broke away from the previous scholarly preoccupation with typology and classification of languages and foregrounded the psychosocial reality of individual speakers. Following this, Labov 1963, a study of Martha’s Vineyard, introduced quantitative, sociolinguistic, variationist methods and focused on phonological features. The author also highlighted the ability of speakers to employ linguistic variables in systematic ways; in this particular case, in dialect contact situation. LePage and Tabouret-Keller 1985 also emphasizes individual creativity, choices, and psychosocial factors in sociolinguistic variations. Thomason and Kaufman 1988, which produced a renewed interest in language contact among linguists, understands all linguistic features and levels as being involved in contact-induced changes, and highlights social factors as the most important variable in determining linguistic consequences of contact. It might not be an overstatement to say that with this work, contact linguistics became an established field of study within linguistics. With the introduction of ethnography of speaking (communication) in the 1960s, led by Dell Hymes, sociolinguistic studies of language contact took on producing ethnographic studies. In this context, language contact came to be understood as a site for struggles over linguistic inequality and power (Hymes 1992). The concept of the speech community in Gumperz 1968 grounded the discussion of language contact on verbal interactions and social relations. The author emphasized dynamic, frequent interaction and shared norms as the basis for understanding changing use in multilingual (and dialectal) communities. Gal 1979 was the first significant ethnographic work on language shift that became the model for the study of multilingualism and language change among the subsequent generation of scholarship on language contact. Finally, Bakhtin 1981, although on literary criticism, has influenced ethnographic works on languages in contact. Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia and polyphony have been taken up by sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists to highlight ideological forces of unification and differentiation in changing communities as well as in concrete utterances of individual actors.

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. Discourse in the novel. In The dialogic imagination. By Mikhail Bakhtin, 269–422. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    A seminal literary criticism text that has been particularly influential in linguistic anthropological works on languages in contact. In particular, it examines the social and ideological bases of discourse practices, including bilingual and multilingual narratives. Dialogism, heteroglossia, polyphony, and centripetal versus centrifugal forces of language are among the concepts that have been taken up in analyses of multilingual discourse and linguistic diversity.

  • Gal, Susan. 1979. Language shift: Social determinants of language change in bilingual Austria. New York: Academic Press.

    This work is the first substantial ethnographic work on social factors of language shift and bilingualism. Gal explains how speakers’ language choice in a German Hungarian bilingual town in Austria is largely determined by who their interlocutors are, while a sociolinguistic hierarchy leads shifting loyalty toward German, especially among young women.

  • Gumperz, John J. 1968. The speech community. In International encyclopedia of the social sciences. Edited by David L Sills, 381–386. New York: Macmillan.

    Rather than starting from languages as a unit of analysis, Gumperz advocates studying verbal behaviors and repertoires of a speech community—“human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage” (p. 381).

  • Haugen, Einar. 1953. Norwegian language in America. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    A classic sociolinguistic study rich in social history of the maintenance and loss of Norwegian language among immigrants in the United States, focusing on bilingual speech behaviors among Norwegian Americans in the Midwest. This work represents the early language contact research, along that by Weinreich.

  • Hymes, Dell. 1992. Inequality in language: Taking for granted. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 8.1: 1–30.

    Hymes states that languages are equal only in their potential state, but not in actual state. He calls for a recognition of social conditions of communities that make language use unequal.

  • Labov, William. 1963. The social motivation of a sound change. Word 19.3: 273–309.

    DOI: 10.1080/00437956.1963.11659799

    In this early sociolinguistic variationist study of sound change in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Labov investigates patterns of variation in pronunciation of /ay/ where middle-aged fishermen are rejecting the ongoing shift away from the local island dialect toward the standard form. Labov interprets this as a marker of local identity and resistance to American English. This study highlights the ability of speakers to employ linguistic variables in systematic ways.

  • LePage, R. B., and Andrée Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of identity: Creole-based approaches to language and ethnicity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A classic sociolinguistic work on Atlantic Creoles, on the basis of a longitudinal fieldwork study in Belize, St. Lucia, and immigrant communities in London. The authors’ influential “acts of identity” model of language describes how individuals create the patterns of linguistic behaviors and project their group identities and how the linguistic behaviors vary depending on social and psychological motivations.

  • Thomason, Sarah G., and Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This is an influential work that surveys the nature of language contact scenarios and their linguistic consequences. It led to a surge in research on language contact in the 1990s. Thomason and Kaufman argue that the presence or absence of “imperfect learning” by a group commonly predicts the kinds of contact-induced change, but given the right social conditions, any linguistic element can be borrowed.

  • Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in contact: Findings and problems. The Hague: Mouton.

    With this work, the modern study of language contact began. Weinreich focuses on the influence of bilingualism on grammar but argues that language contact is part of the larger sociohistorical contexts. He introduces the term “interference” to describe bilingual behaviors as “deviations” from the monolingual norms of either language. The term “interference” is increasingly being replaced with other terms such as “transfer” due to the prescriptive bias implicit in the former term.

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