In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Shift

  • Introduction
  • General Theory and Background

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Linguistics Language Shift
Nicholas Ostler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0193


In this article, “language shift” means the process, or the event, in which a population changes from using one language to another. As such, recognition of it depends on being able to see the prior and subsequent language as distinct; and therefore the term excludes language change which can be seen as evolution, the transition from older to newer forms of the same language. (For this latter topic, seek references in “Historical, or Diachronic, Linguistics.”) Language shift is a social phenomenon, whereby one language replaces another in a given (continuing) society. It is due to underlying changes in the composition and aspirations of the society, which goes from speaking the old to the new language. By definition, it is not a structural change caused by the dynamics of the old language as a system. The new language is adopted as a result of contact with another language community, and so it is usually possible to identify the new language as “the same” as, that is, a descendant of, a language spoken somewhere else, even if the new language has some new, perhaps unprecedented, properties on the lips of the population that is adopting it. Language shift results in the spread of the new language that is adopted, and may result in the endangerment or loss of the old language, some or all of whose speakers are changing their allegiance. As a result, some readings on language spread and endangerment are relevant to language shift. Language shift may be an object of conscious policy; but equally it may be a phenomenon which is unplanned, and often unexplained. Consequently, readings in language policy (especially those on status planning) often relate to it. The conditions of imperial relations between societies, and the special links mediated nowadays by technological inventions, often worldwide and at a particularly rapid pace, are thought by some to require special theories.

General Theory and Background

Language shift is a dynamic phenomenon of social change, and is therefore a topic of sociolinguistics. There is no general theory of its causation that is universally accepted. Ostler 2011 sets it within a general framework of change in language-using populations. Wendel and Heinrich 2012 gives a framework for kinds of shift, as well as a useful bibliography of past seminal works. Thomason and Kaufman 1988 considers the effects on the corpus of a language that may result from shift, among other language-contact phenomena. Mackey 2001 begins the search for universals that apply in the relative propensity and speed of languages to shift. Barreña, et al. 2007 discusses possible criteria that may indicate impending shift. Bonfil Batalla 1996 outlines a theory of cultural control which bids to explain the linguistic transition. Mufwene 2008 places language shift (as well as language competition and globalization) within a more general context of language ecology.

  • Barreña, A., E. Amorrortu, A. Ortega, B. Uranga, E. Izagirre, and I. Idiazabal. 2007. Does the number of speakers of a language determine its fate? International Journal of the Sociology of Language 186:125–139.

    The authors show that the number of speakers cannot be considered the most important criterion in trying to anticipate language survival or death. Instead, natural transmission and intergenerational use are indicated.

  • Bonfil Batalla, G. 1996. La teoría del control cultural en el estudio de los procesos étnicos. Acta sociológica 18:11–54.

    The background to language shift is theorized in terms of a theory of cultural control, whereby a social group becomes alienated and accepting of external institutions.

  • Mackey, W. F. 2001. The ecology of language shift. In The ecolinguistics reader: Language, ecology, and environment. Edited by Alwin Fill and Peter Mühlhäusler, 67–74. London and New York: Continuum.

    Offers some recent evidence (e.g., in Quebec) for languages more closely related genetically to yield to one another, but different genetic types to act as a buffer on shift.

  • Mufwene, Salikoko. 2008. Language evolution: Contact, competition and change. London and New York: Continuum.

    A general view of the dynamic relation of languages, changing and expanding at one another’s expense among human populations.

  • Ostler, Nicholas. 2011. Language maintenance, shift and endangerment. In Cambridge handbook of sociolinguistics. Edited by Raj Mesthrie and Walt Wolfram, 315–334. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511997068

    There are three major issues addressed: how a new language can come on the scene; how the rising generation can come to learn it; and what determines when the result is language replacement, and when bilingualism.

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

    The effects of shift (where a whole language has been replaced, with various degrees of imperfect learning of the new language) are principally compared with those of borrowing (where only new lexis, morphology, or constructions are absorbed into the old language).

  • Wendel, J., and P. Heinrich. 2012. A framework for language endangerment dynamics: The effects of contact and social change on language ecologies and language diversity. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 218:145–166.

    This framework distinguishes replacement (which involves elimination of a distinct community) from shift (which involves long-term language change, typically with smaller languages giving place to larger ones).

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