LINGUIST List 12.2786

Wed Nov 7 2001

Review: Thomason, Language Contact

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  1. Marie Nilsenova, review of Thomason, Language Contact

Message 1: review of Thomason, Language Contact

Date: Wed, 07 Nov 2001 14:51:14 +0100
From: Marie Nilsenova <>
Subject: review of Thomason, Language Contact

Thomason, Sarah G. (2001) Language Contact. Georgetown
University Press, x+310 pp., $29.95, paperback ISBN

Marie Nilsenova, Department of Philosophy, University of

An introductory text intended for readers with basic
linguistic knowledge; it addresses the fundamental notions
of language contact studies in view of numerous examples
and their implications. The author, Sarah G. Thomason, is
a prominent scholar in the field (co-author of the widely
used Thomason & Kaufman (1988)) and is otherwise known for
her work on Salish. In the course of ten chapters, the
following topics are discussed: arising and types of
contact situations, national and individual attitudes
towards multilingualism, linguistic areas, contact-induced
language change and its mechanisms, types of mixed
languages, language death and issues concerning endangered
languages. The general discussion is accompanied by case
studies of multilingualism in India and the Sprachb�nde of
the Balkans, Baltic, Ethiopian highlands, South Asia, the
Sepik River basin and the Pacific Northwest.
 While the book presents author's personal view on a
number of issues (as clearly indicated in the introduction),
it contains suggestions for further reading for those
interested in exploring a particular controversial topic
in depth.
 The book is written with a common sense attitude and a
sense of humor, with examples often drawn from the
author's own research or personal experience. It is to be
recommended both to students and to interested individuals
not just as a textbook, but as an exciting reading
material in general.

Chapter 1: Introduction
By means of examples, this chapter defines the general
basics: what is language contact, where it can be found
(everywhere) and what its results can be in terms of
linguistic changes.

Chapter 2: Contact Onsets and Stability
Based on the (few) contact situations for the beginning of
which there exist historical sources, the following cases
can be distinguished: (1) two language groups moving
simultaneously into a previously unoccupied territory, (2)
movement of a language group into anther group's territory
(far more common) either by conquering the preexisting
population or by immigration of small groups (also the
case for imported labor force), (3) meeting in No Man's
Land (e.g., for purposes of trade or harvesting), (4)
close social contacts (e.g., intermarriage) and (5) due to
'learned contacts', as in the case of Latin in the Middle
Ages, or of English at present.
 Language-contact situations further differ in their
stability; some are short-lived while others become quasi-
permanent. It seems that stability is influenced purely by
social factors (rather than linguistic ones).

Chapter 3: Multilingualism in Nations and Individuals
Various examples of multilingualism around the world
strongly support the observation that multilingualism
(rather than monolingualism) is the norm. There are two
ways of perceiving the attitude towards multilingualism,
(a) external and (b) community-internal. As for the
former, it is surprising that many negative notions
associated with multilingualism from a psychological point
of view (the disproved claim that bilingualism damages a
child) as well as sociologically (many scholars link
multilingualism directly to conflict, though its
contribution is most likely merely symbolic). The
community-internal attitude varies depending on the
importance of the language as a marker of ethnic identity.
Addressing the issue of national language policies and
language planning, suggestions are made as to what
purposes an official language must meet, followed by
examples and history of institutions and laws concerning
the establishment and development of the official
language. The case study of India serves as a prime
example of a multilingual nation.
 The chapter closes with a section on multilingualism
in individuals, with an overview of current research on
bilingual FLA and a long list of research topics.

Chapter 4: Contact-Induced Language Change: Results
While raising more questions than the researchers are
currently able to answer, chapter 4 is a valuable summary
of the author's observations (see also Thomason & Kaufman
1988) on what forms the core of language-contact studies.
It shows that for almost any of the popular 'truisms'
(interference increases with greater access to a dominant
language, pronouns cannot be borrowed, etc.) there exists
a counterexample, since speakers' attitudes are in the end
the main decisive factor: "...there are no linguistic
constraints on interference: any linguistic feature can be
transferred to any language, given appropriate social
conditions (intensity of contact, motivation, etc.), and
any change can occur as an indirect result of language
contact" [p.85].
 Announced as an overview for the material to come, the
chapter also gives typologies of contact induced language
change (predictors of kinds and degrees of change, effects
on the recipient-language structure and mechanisms of
contact-induced change), contact languages (pidgins,
creoles, bilingual mixed languages), and routes to
language death.
 Especially with respect to the typology for language
change, the author warns the reader that in reality the
situation is less neat than on the paper, and no list of
categories can cover the existing complexities which can
most appropriately be expressed by means of probabilistic
generalizations. For example, with respect to features
available for borrowing, Asia Minor Greek is
one (of several) counterexample(s) to Meillet's and
Sapir/Jakobson's restrictions (Meillet: grammatical
interference confined to features that fit well
typologically with the structure of the receiving
language; Jakobson: a language accepts only elements that
correspond to its own tendencies of development).
Similarly, counterexamples can be found to all other
constraints on feature borrowing (or borrowing scales),
such as words first than grammar or contact-induced change
leads to simplification/complexity.

Chapter 5: Linguistic Areas
Starting with a discussion on the definition of a
Sprachbund, this chapter offers a brief description of
several linguistic areas for comparative purposes.
The areas surveyed are the Balkans (comprising Rumanian,
Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, some dialects of Serbo-
Croatian, Greek and possibly Romani), the Baltic
(Estonian, Livonian, Karelian, Latvian, Lithuanian,
northwestern Russian dialects, dialects of German and
possibly Karaim), the Ethiopian highlands (with languages
belonging to the Cushitic, Omotic and Ethiopic Semitic
branches of the Afro-Asiatic family), South Asia (with
languages from the Dravidian family, the Indic subbranch
of Indo-European and the Munda branch of the Austro-
Asiatic family), the Sepik River basin in New Guinea (with
Yimas, Alamblak and Enga) and the Pacific Northwest of
North America (with Salishan, Wakashan and Chimakuan
language families).

Chapter 6: Contact-Induced Language Change: Mechanisms
Seven mechanisms of language are examined in depth: (i)
code-switching (the use of material from two or more
languages by the same speaker in the same conversation),
(ii) code alternation (the use of two or more languages by
the same speaker in different environments), (iii) passive
familiarity, (iv) 'negotiation' (speakers approximate
their own language to what they believe is the structure
of the addressee's language), (v) second-language
acquisition strategies (using material from the speaker's
native language to make up for deficiencies in the target
language), (vi) bilingual first-language acquisition, and
(vii) change by deliberate decision. Again, the
theoretical claims are supported by an array of well-
selected examples and anecdotes.

Chapter 7: Contact Languages I: Pidgins and Creoles
The author first defines 'contact language' as any NEW
language that arises in a contact situation from two or
more sources, and thus cannot belong to a particular
language family (though in theory, it is conceivable that
a contact language would arise from two sources belonging
to the same family ^� a question not addressed). It is
necessary to distinguish between two kinds of contact
languages, those that emerge in environments where
speakers from different linguistic backgrounds need
to communicate with each other (pidgins ^� always spoken as
second language, and creoles, native languages of some
community), and those that serve as in-group languages
(bilingual mixed languages). Though similar in many
respect, creoles do not necessarily arise from pidgins,
and none of them are maximally structurally simple (e.g.,
they do not always lack morphology and have SVO word
order, as has been claimed for creoles).
 An interesting discussion in the second part of the
chapter is that of the origin of grammar in pidgins and
creoles -- the (untenable) monogenesis hypothesis, abrupt
genesis scenarios, and gradual genesis scenarios.

Chapter 8: Contact Languages II: Other Mixed Languages
The study of bilingual mixed languages (BML) has a short
history, but some generalizations can be drawn from the
six examples described in this chapter: Ma'a (Mbugu),
Anglo-Romani, Kormakiti Arabic, Michif, Mednyj Aleut and
Media Lengua. For instance, there seem to be two ways to a
BML, by gradual loss of a language due to pressure, or by
abrupt creation by people who are active bilinguals in
both languages, with subsequent effects on the linguistic
make-up of the BML (asymmetrical distribution of features
across language subsystems in the first case vs.
compartmentalization in the second case).

Chapter 9: Language Death
"...language death is almost always a result of intensive
language contact" [p.223]. The chapter starts with an
attempt to define language death, the examples of Latin
and Hebrew posing problems for any simplistic definition.
Afterwards, Sasse's (1992) theoretical model of
language death is introduced together with language
attrition, showing that most of the processes contributing
to language death (lexical loss, heavy borrowing, etc.)
are typical of contact situations in general. Other, less
typical processes of language death are grammatical
replacement and abrupt death (e.g., due to death of a
language community).

Chapter 10: Endangered Languages
Starting with a reference to the famous article by M.
Krauss (1992) and his (as well as others') alarming
predictions concerning the expected large-scale language
disappearance in the coming century, the author continues
to give some examples of institutional and community
efforts of language preservation.

Apart from isolated cases, there are generally no explicit
references to the literature drawn upon for the content of
the chapters. Instead, each chapter finishes with a
section on sources and further reading, with selected
references accompanied by a relevant commentary. This is
an appealing format since the closing sections thus serve
as a short review of the content of the chapter, reading
suggestions and topics for further discussion and
 In addition to the ten chapters (as well as REFERENCES,
A Map of Some Contact Situations Around the World,
APPENDIX 2: Official Languages in the World's Nations and
an extensive GLOSSARY of basic terminology.

There are a few entries in the glossary which appear
superfluous (such as 'Captain Cook', 'BCE'[Before the
Christian Era] and 'CE'[Christian Era]) while some basic
linguistic terms which could perhaps be of help are
lacking (e.g., 'stops').

Also in the glossary, at the entry for 'aspect', the
author gives as examples of the durative vs. nondurative
action the English 'I was walking' vs. 'I walked',
respectively. It is notoriously difficult to test
durativity but it still seems that in both cases the
predicate would be durative (cf. '(??) I was suddenly
walking' and '(??) I suddenly walked', or 'I was walking
for hours' and 'I walked for hours' where there does not
seem to be any coercion needed in the second case in order
to obtain a grammatical interpretation, viz Dowty 1986 and

As a proper name, the name of the German composer 'Bach'
is perhaps a slightly contrived example of nativization
[p.134 and 272], defined as "the phonological adaptation
of a borrowed word to fit receiving-language structure"
[p. 272].

Finally, at several places [p. 65, 202-203, 206, 212, 217,
264, 270], it is claimed that Mednyj Aleut has adopted
only Russian finite verbal morphology. However, Vakhtin
(1998), one of the three fieldworkers on the language,
gives examples involving the infinitival marker -t', as in
[p. 320]:
ya bud ivo hayaa=t' ukushkaxx hasii=t'
I WILL HIM ASK=inf WINDOW open=inf
"I will ask him to open the window"

ni=ugunuu=y chvnonibut' aqaasaa=t'
"Do not forget to bring something"

Dowty, D. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar: The
Semantics of Verbs and Times in Generative Semantics and
in Montague's PTQ. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht.

Krauss, M. 1992. 'The World's languages in crisis'. In K.
Hale et al. (eds.) Endangered languages, Language 68: 4-

Sasse, H.-J. 1992. 'Theory of language death'. In M.
Brezinger (ed.) Language Death: Factual and Theoretical
Explorations with Special Reference to East Africa,
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 7-30.

Thomason, Sarah Grey, and Terence Kaufman (1988). Language
contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press.

Vakhtin, N. 1998. 'Copper Island Aleut: a case of language
"resurrection"'. In L.A. Grenoble & L.J. Whaley (eds.)
Endangered Languages, pp. 317-327.

Marie Nilsenova is a Ph.D.student at the University of
Amsterdam. Her research interests are formal semantics and
pragmatics and comparative morphosyntax.
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