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Title: Language in Isolation, and Its Implications for Variation and Change
Author(s): Daniel Schreier
Journal Title: Language and Linguistics Compass
Volume: 3
Issue: 2
Page Range: 682 - 699
Publication Date: Feb-2009
Abstract: This article discusses some approaches to the conceptualization of isolation in sociolinguistic research. It argues that isolation is a multifaceted phenomenon with geographic, social and attitudinal implications. Based on evidence from geographically isolated speech communities (mostly islands) and socially isolated ones (so-called Sprachinseln) from around the world, it discusses their potential for variation and change studies, both in terms of synchrony (contact phenomena, language obsolescence or revival and intensification, language and identity, etc.) and diachrony, because they provide showcase scenarios to look into and reconstruct mechanisms of contact linguistics (e.g. new-dialect formation), founder effects, colonial lag, etc.

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How isolated a language (or a speaker) can be?   by Nikolaos Lavidas , 7-Jul-11
The article is very convincing, presenting arguments on the value and the implications of the study of ‘language in isolation’ for both synchronic and diachronic aspects of language. It is shown very clearly that the concepts of isolation and ‘enclave community’ are more difficult to define than is commonly assumed, and that the study of ‘languages in isolation’ can contribute to the understanding of language variation and change (for some more examples, cf. Christidis. A.-F. et al. (eds) 1999. Dialect Enclaves of the Greek Language. Thessaloniki: Center for the Greek Language). The presentation of these difficulties can lead us to some important questions with regard to the notion of ‘linguistic isolation’ itself. Are there really isolated languages and communities? I would claim that the discussion about languages in isolation is analogous to the discussion about isolated people and speakers. It reminds us the cases of isolated children who try to acquire their first language without input. These cases are very important for the theory of language; but it is very difficult to meet these ‘experiments in nature’. And in the case of languages and communities (not just of a person), it is very difficult to imagine a community of speakers who live without being in contact with visitors or tourists or national television or national newspapers (national television and newspapers can be based on a different dialect or on a koine), or their heteroglossic language environment and -most important- without being in contact with speakers who live in the same place but speak a different dialect. Finally, the complexity of the phenomenon of language in isolation (as presented by Schreier) can be proven to be greater since language in isolation can give us evidence on change caused only from internal factors. That can be also a reason why language in isolation is not always equated with stability in language.
Another language myth bites the dust/2   by Chiara Gianollo, Compass Panelist , 7-Jul-11
(b) Schreier's survey highlights how the issues touched above are interestingly connected to the non-static nature of isolation, i.e. to the fact that the conditions ensuring isolation may change over time (not only in the case of social factors, but also with respect to the import of geographical isolation, with the development in surface and tele-communications). The study of the transition of previously isolated communities to a contact situation represents an exciting 'language laboratory' (p. 689) for research on language variation and change. Schreier points out how studying this kind of environments could shed light, among other things, on the relative stability of linguistic features, and on their 'resilience' to contact-induced change (cf. Nichols 2004, Diversity and Stability in Language, in Joseph & Janda, The Handbook of Historical Linguistics). Some features seem to remain static (e.g. hyperinsertion of /h/ in Tristan da Cunha English p. 691 f.), other features are less conservative, and there are even others that can apparently be both conservative and progressive (cf. rising of short front vowels in New Zealand English according to Trudgill et al. 1998). Schreier shortly discusses lexical and structural borrowing (p. 695 f.), but again he focuses on contact situations, as when he mentions language obsolescence and death. My question here is: although much work certainly has to be done on the varying effects of contact on more and less stable features, it does not seem particularly relevant that at least one of the involved varieties comes from a history of isolation: we'd probably expect to find similar results when studying contact among varieties that independently underwent previous contact processes. Wouldn't it be more interesting, when focusing on languages in isolation, to study the stages when these languages are really isolated, instead of looking for contact effects? this way, the effect of language-internal change could be better investigated in an ideal environment. My impression is, however, that cases of prolonged isolation, where an extensive historical record may be accessed, are really few. Any hint to relevant literature from Compass panelists and Linguist readers?
Another language myth bites the dust/1   by Chiara Gianollo, Compass Panelist , 7-Jul-11
Daniel Schreier's article makes it very clear that most of the traditionally held beliefs about language in isolation are, in fact, nothing more than myths, myths that not only influence popular culture, but often bias linguistic research. Schreier's fundamental point is that language isolation is in fact a multifaceted phenomenon, determined by at least three groups of factors (geographical, social, attitudinal) and coming in different degrees, for which an uncontroversial measuring scale does not exist yet. In practice, especially in our modern society, 'no dialect is an island' (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes’ (1997: 97)). From the point of view of a historical linguist, I have a couple of observations (one here, one in my next post): (a) I found of particular interest the critical discussion concerning the equation 'isolation equals conservatism', i.e. the hypothesis that for isolated varieties a slowing-down of language change would be observed. Schreier presents, for instance, the case of dialect transplantation, e.g. in the process of colony creation. In principle, two different scenarios are possible: (i) the transplantation yields linguistic conservatism, especially for the earliest generations (colonial lag) or (ii) it speeds up language change. Proponents of the colonial-lag model variously attribute linguistic conservatism to social conservatism, ideological connection to the mother-country culture with concomitant geographical isolation, absence of a common peer-group dialect for acquisition in case of dialect mixture. Critics of the model remark that innovations are indeed frequent in dialect transplantation, and that even koineization processes can happen once different varieties are simultaneously transplanted. But then my question is: can we really speak of isolation in these latter cases? if, on the one hand, the transplanted variety is isolated from its roots, on the other hand it comes in contact with other languages, either exported or indigenous ones. I guess that a sociolinguist's answer would be that the degree of isolation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, depending on the level of social integration among groups within the community: am I right? but, anyway, given the strong presence of contact, do these cases (p. 690 f.) really represent evidence against the equation 'isolation equals conservatism'?
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