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Review of  Languages in Contact

Reviewer: Ilaria Fiorentini
Book Title: Languages in Contact
Book Author: Uriel Weinreich
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 23.3396

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AUTHOR: Weinreich, Uriel
TITLE: Languages in Contact
SUBTITLE. French, German and Romansh in twentieth-century Switzerland
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Ilaria Fiorentini, University of Pavia/Free University of Bozen, Italy

“Languages in Contact: French, German, and Romansh in Twentieth-Century
Switzerland” is Uriel Weinreich’s (1926-1967) doctoral dissertation, defended in
1951 with the title “Research Problems in Bilingualism, with Special Reference
to Switzerland” and until now unpublished. 60 years later, William Labov and
Ronald I. Kim have edited this faithful reproduction of the original typescript
(the text has been digitized and reproduced in full), with an introduction,
notes and comments. The introductory chapter presents the life and legacy of
Weinreich, as well as the background of his fieldwork in Switzerland, and shows
how “Languages in Contact” (1953, henceforth LiC), perhaps Weinreich’s most
important work, grew out of this dissertation; finally, it summarizes the
developments of multilingual situation in Switzerland up to 2011.

The volume is divided into four parts. The first (Chapters 1-3) deals with
general research problems: large parts of it will be incorporated in LiC. In
Chapter 1, Weinreich discusses psychological and neurological theories of
bilingualism, enumerating methods for characterizing and measuring it, such as
relative proficiency, which, by means of a formula, calculate the bilingual
quotient, “a highly useful basis for comparing and grouping bilinguals” (p. 5).
This “new tool”, however, was still at its starting point, and, as Weinreich
notes, it had never been tried out on Swiss bilinguals (even if a few pilot
tests had shown its applicability there). The author analyzes reasons for
positive attitudes toward languages and describes the circumstances surrounding
the learning of languages. Then he deals with the alleged effects of
bilingualism on language learning performance, intelligence, group
identification, character formation and emotional adjustment (in the latter
case, he concludes that there is no evidence for detrimental effects of
bilingualism on emotional life). Weinreich also analyzes educational problems
with regards to bilingualism, especially the organization of schools in
bilingual areas and the best pedagogical methods for teaching two languages,
giving a partial bibliography on educational difficulties.

In Chapter 2 the author outlines patterns of bilingual communities, in which the
functions of the two languages may be diagrammed for the various levels of use
(such as literature, church, administration, etc.). Nevertheless, the division
between two languages is not always clear: this is the problem of intermediate
languages, “intermediate forms existing between the mother-tongue and the
other-tongue” (p.23). Weinreich defines mother-tongue groups, i.e. those
segments of the population including “all those who speak language A AS THEIR
MOTHER-TONGUE, whether or not they also use language B in other functions”(p.
21), and points out that most bilingual communities often have two mother-tongue
groups within them , with a socially higher-standing group that “claims for
itself the levels of use which are endowed with social and cultural prestige”
(p. 25). The author then introduces the notion of counter-prestige, “which
evolves as a reaction to prestige” (ibidem), foreshadowing the notion of covert
prestige, expounded later most famously by Peter Trudgill (1972) and William
Labov (2006). Finally, he stresses the difficulty in obtaining satisfactory
statistics and maps on bilingual populations.

Chapter 3 deals with linguistic problems of bilingualism. After sketching
theoretical questions on bilingualism, Weinreich discusses the distinction
between borrowing in speech and borrowed elements in language. He points out
that borrowing includes not only words or morphemes generally, but also
“phonetic, morphological and syntactic patterns. Where there is no introduction
of segmental material from one language into the other, it is sometimes more
convenient to speak of interference” (p. 40). While discussing the challenge of
observing the act of borrowing, he introduces what would now be called the
observer’s paradox (Labov 1972). As for interference and borrowings, he
describes phonetic aspects, morphological aspects (in his opinion, the
possibility that morphological patterns can be borrowed “cannot be excluded on
principle, unless the possibility of language change is denied”, p. 48),
syntactic and lexical aspects. As for the last, he lists reasons for borrowing
(the need for names for certain objects or concepts, social prestige, and so
on), concluding that all these motivations still do not solve “all the problems
of lexical borrowings” (p. 54), like the fact that some words are never borrowed
and “neither cultural, structural, nor social (prestige) considerations account
for this difference” (ibidem). At the end of the chapter, the differences in the
total amount of borrowing (individual differences, different types of
bilingualism, monolingual or bilingual interlocutors), the structural and
cultural resistance to borrowing, substratum and convergent development are

The second part (Chapters 4-5) deals with the bilingualism in Switzerland, the
dissertation’s main focus. In Chapter 4 the author describes the different
contact situations which can (or could) be found in quadrilingual Switzerland:
German-French (only between Biel and Fribourg), German-Italian (almost no
contact), Italian-Romansh (generally no communication), German-Romansh
(discussed later). Weinreich sketches a revised map of language territories,
from which it seems evident that “the contact between language territories and
language communities in Switzerland is considerably smaller than is usually
assumed on the basis of misleading maps” (p. 70). Then the author outlines the
features of the federal government, cantonal governments and communal
administrations in Switzerland.

Chapter 5 deals with intralingual relations in Switzerland. First Weinreich
outlines the regional and social differentiation of Schwyzertütsch and the
language patterns of German Switzerland, where Schwyzertütsch was used as the
spoken language while “the functions of a written language are generally
fulfilled by Standard German” (p. 84). The author describes the prestige factors
of Schwyzertütsch (such as its status as a mother tongue), the attempts to
broaden its functions, and the linguistic effects of German-Swiss bilingualism,
such as the slow but steady impact of Standard German on the dialect. Then he
deals with the contact situation between Standard French and patois, a case of
irreversible language shift: patois had been driven out completely from the
schools, and had thus become associated “with lack of education and peasant
backwardness” (p. 109), even if there were efforts to preserve it, at least as a
vehicle “for lyrical expression and of local patriotic sentiment” (p. 111). In
Italian Switzerland, Standard Italian was in contact “not only with local
dialects corresponding to the French patois or to the several varieties of
Schwyzertütsch, but also with a Common Lombardic dialect” (p. 114). Finally,
Weinreich deals with Romansh and its dialects: Upper and Lower Engadinian,
Sutsilvan, Protestant and Catholic Sursilvan, Surmiran, each one with a standard
for writing (the creation of a single supradialectal written standard -- the
“Rumantsch Grischun” by Heinrich Schmid -- did not come about until 1982).

Part III (Chapters 6-8) deals with the stable, long term language contact
between German and French. Chapter 6 describes general features of French-German
bilingualism. Weinreich details these bilingual segments of the Swiss
population, dividing them according to geographic zones and providing a history
of the bilingual populations inside French territory. He describes the
linguistic effects of bilingualism on vocabulary and grammar, and notes that the
French-German grammatical cross-influence had not yet been investigated, as well
as the phonetic influences; in his opinion, it was “certainly to be expected
that German settlers who learn French will have traces of their native sounds in
their French speech, and vice versa” (p. 141).

Chapter 7 presents a case study on the static bilingual situation in the canton
of Fribourg, “where no observable language shift is taking place” (p. 143). The
language patterns of the area are described in detail, and, for each of the 22
communes, the total population and numbers of mother-tongue speakers are given.
Weinreich identifies seven predominantly German communes, six highly mixed
communes and nine communes with predominantly French-speaking populations, and
gives for each commune a rate of bilingualism (none, slight, widespread, very
widespread). The author then describes the religious dominations of the area,
because “in the particularly mixed villages, the difference in denomination may
be even more prominent than that in language” (pp. 153-154) and the organization
of schools, which appears to have a “conservatory, stabilizing effect on the
bilingual situation” (p. 160). He takes into account also the organization of
churches and administrative activities and concludes that, even diachronically,
this region can be termed “a stable bilingual area” (p. 175).

Chapter 8 describes the linguistic effects of bilingualism in Fribourg.
Weinreich first analyzes the nature of bilingualism of the area and its
sociocultural context and then speech mixture and mutual influence between the
two languages involved (French and Schwyzertütsch), outlining and comparing
their sound systems and investigating morphological, syntactic and lexical

Part IV (Chapters 9-14) deals with the contact between German and Romansh in a
situation of ongoing shift. Chapter 9 describes the general features of
German-Romansh bilingualism. First of all, Weinreich sketches a brief history of
the receding Romansh language territory. He states that since the 1870s native
speakers of Romansh had ceased to be linguistically self-sufficient due to the
economic development of the canton, so that knowledge of German had become
vital. Nonetheless, it appeared that Romansh enjoyed a “very strong prerational
(‘mother-tongue’) prestige” (p. 209). Weinreich’s conclusion was that the area
was rapidly approaching complete bilingualism. Finally, he describes the
linguistic effects of German-Romansh bilingualism on vocabulary, grammar and

Chapter 10 is a case study on the dynamic bilingual situation in Central
Grisons, where “an observable language shift is taking place” (p. 215).
Weinreich describes the area and the population, as well as the language
patterns, identifying eight communes with Romansh majorities and eleven with
German majorities. As already pointed out, knowledge of German was essential to
the population, while the local Romansh variety was considered an inferior,
“substandard” language: it was not taught in school and it was almost entirely
excluded from local administration. Language shift was visible both
diachronically, by looking at the changing proportions of mother-tongue
segments; and synchronically, as the percentage of Romansh mother-tongue
speakers was declining and they were, on the whole, “OLDER than those of German
mother-tongue” (p. 251-252); the Germanization in the area was therefore “a
self-accelerating process” (p. 265).There were, however, rationalized motives
for retaining Romansh, as the alleged advantages in learning other languages and
accessibility to the Romansh cultural heritage.

Chapter 11 deals with Raetoroman actions aimed at containing language shift and
halting Germanization, e.g. the attempt to standardize Sutsilvan dialects, the
foundation of Romansh kindergartens (the so-called “scolettas” which, in
Weinreich’s opinion, had demonstrated that local Romansh could “be taught to
children and be made a source of pleasure for them”, p. 289), and the proposal
for a language conservation law. A broad plan for revitalizing Romansh Sutselva
was made by Dr. Gangale, a Romance philologist and scholar of Romansh, and
included even “psychological treatments”: “At first it is hard to decide whether
this scheme is ridiculously foolish or frighteningly ingenious” (p. 295). Thanks
to the campaign “to contain and reverse the language shift”, according to
Weinreich many Raetoromans were convinced “that they had responsibilities toward
their language” (p. 298).

Chapter 12 deals with the linguistic effects of bilingualism in Central Grisons,
where there was a real bilingual speech community, since “the two languages
overlap in certain functions” (p. 302). Weinreich describes this bilingualism
and the types of mixture (incidental speech mixture -- “while German elements
are tolerated practically without any limit, the reverse possibility … is kept
strictly within bounds”, p. 302 and habitualized mixture -- for German, “there
IS a tendency for borrowing to become habitual, and thus a part of the
language”, p. 303). The phonetic influences between the two languages, with a
comparison of the two sound systems, and the morphological, syntactic and
lexical influences are described at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 13 is a short description of German-Italian bilingualism: there was “no
German-Italian border bilingualism to speak of” (p. 325), only scattered
bilingual minorities in both German and Italian Switzerland.

Chapter 14 summarizes what has been laid out in the four parts of the book with
general conclusions on intralingual and interlingual relations, concluding that
“it seems that bilingualism can be studied properly only on an interdisciplinary
basis” (p. 336).

The appendices report excerpts from interviews with bilingual children (appendix
A), the questionnaire for students of the Cantonal school in Chur (appendix B),
information about the Romansh League’s language poll (appendix C) and a guide to
bilingual placenames (appendix D).

The importance of this volume lays first in the fact that, until now, few
linguists have been aware that the main themes of LiC were first proposed in
embryonic form here and even fewer had access to it. Besides its undeniable
utility, the book is pleasant reading also thank to the inclusion of photos,
hand-drawn diagrams and other material personally prepared by the author. The
editors specify that, although this is a faithful reproduction of Weinreich’s
doctoral dissertation, they have made some adjustments to the original,
replacing old-fashioned linguistic usages and obsolete or idiosyncratic terms
such as “morphologic”, “unilingual”, or “bilinguality” with “morphological”,
“monolingual”, or “bilingualism” respectively (although in the whole Chapter 10
“bilinguality” is used instead) and dividing the original “unwieldy” third
chapter of Part II “into several more easily digestible pieces (chapter 6-13)”
(p. XXV).

Weinreich’s preliminary research on Romansh Switzerland was coordinated by André
Martinet, who later wrote the preface to LiC (1968). The author spent two years
(1949-50) in Switzerland for his fieldwork, travelling throughout the country,
“compiling statistics on linguistic knowledge and use” (Kim 2011: 103), taking
photos (some of which are reproduced here), becoming familiar “with the full
spectrum of everyday life in the villages and towns” (ibidem), describing
historical, political and socio-economic aspects of the population which spoke
the languages he was studying. This exhaustive research led to a deep knowledge
of the full context of the speakers’ lives, social behavior and interaction and
to a valuable, detailed and most of all, for that time, innovative analysis of
the various aspects of the contact between two languages, whose linguistic
outcomes, in his opinion, “could not be deduced from a comparison of their
structures alone” (Kim 2011: 108).

Among the many concepts here introduced or foreshadowed by Weinreich are his
innovative position on the borrowability of morphemes, the notion of
“counter-prestige”, the concept of “domain of language use” (developed by
Fishman 1965), the problem of the observer’s paradox (developed by Labov 1972),
the distinction between “stable” and “dynamic” bilingualism, the phonemic over-
and under-differentiation, and so on. Many of these inspired intuitions will be
developed in LiC, as well as, for instance, what can be considered the
“incunabulum” of contrastive linguistics (Cardona 1974), i.e. his comparison of
the phonological systems of Schwyzertütsch and French to establish the effects
on speech of this bilingualism.

The importance of the entire Weinreich’s work has been remarked on by William
Labov, regarded as the father of variationist sociolinguistics and who
acknowledges that many of his own intuitions come ultimately from Weinreich,
admitting that “to this day, I do not know how many of my ideas I brought to
linguistics, and how many I got from Weinreich. I would like to think that my
students are as lucky as I was, but I know better than that” (Labov 2001: 459).

Cardona, Giorgio Raimondo. 1974. Preface to the Italian edition of Weinreich,
Uriel. Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. Torino: Boringhieri. VII -

Fishman, Joshua A. 1965. Who speaks what language to whom and when. La
Linguistique, vol. I, n. 2. 67-88.

Kim, Ronald I. 2011. Uriel Weinreich and the birth of modern contact
linguistics. In Chruszczewski Piotr P. and Zdzisław Wąsik (eds.). Languages in
Contact 2010.99-111.

Labov, William. 1972.Sociolinguistic Patterns. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, William. 2001. How I got into linguistics, and what I got out of it.
Historiographia Linguistica 28:3. 455-66.

Labov, William. 2006 [1966]. The Social Stratification of English in New York
City. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martinet, André. 1968. Preface to Weinreich, Uriel. Languages in Contact:
Findings and Problems The Hague-Paris-New York: Mouton. VII-IX.

Trudgill, Peter. 1972. Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban
British English of Norwich. Language in Society 1. 175-195.

Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. New York:
Linguistic Circle of New York.

After earning an M.A. in Linguistics at the University of Turin with a thesis on the Italian suffix -ATA, Ilaria Fiorentini is now a PhD student at the University of Pavia and the Free University of Bozen (Italy). Her doctoral research deals with the contact situations in the Ladin valleys of Trentino Alto Adige/Südtirol, with particular attention to code-mixing phenomena among Ladin, Italian and German. Her primary research interests include sociolinguistics, contact linguistics and pragmatics.