LINGUIST List 28.1460

Thu Mar 23 2017

Review: English; Middle English; Old English; Irish; Insular Celtic; Historical Ling; Lang Acquisition; Socioling: Schreier, Hundt (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 19-Nov-2016
From: Steffen Schaub <>
Subject: English as a Contact Language
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Daniel Schreier
EDITOR: Marianne Hundt
TITLE: English as a Contact Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Steffen Schaub, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“English as a Contact Language”, edited by Daniel Schreier and Marianne Hundt, is devoted to the role of language contact in the formation and dispersion of English around the world. The volume’s objectives, formulated in the introduction by Hundt and Schreier (Ch. 1), are “to show that the English language has been contact-derived from its very beginnings onwards and to highlight the immense potential for the field of contact linguistics“ (1). As such, it encompasses interests from diverse subdisciplines of linguistics, including historical linguistics, variational linguistics, pidgin/creole studies and second language acquisition. The 17 contributions are not thematically grouped, but may be loosely subgrouped into a) historical accounts of English language contact (Chs. 2-4), b) language contact in regional varieties of English (Chs. 5-9), and c) socio- and cross-linguistic issues of English contact linguistics (Chs. 10-18). The contributions range from theoretical discussions and research syntheses to original studies. Below, each contribution is briefly summarized, followed by an evaluation of the volume.

Chapters 2-4 evaluate the role of contact-induced language change at historical-linguistic stages of English. In her contribution, Fischer (Ch. 2) assesses contact-induced change on the syntactic level in Old and Middle English. She points out that “[w]hereas lexical change […] [is] fairly easy to spot, [contact-induced] syntactic change and syntactic loans are much harder to observe” (18) due to the abstractness of the patterns and the high degree of interaction between syntax and other parts of the grammatical system. Fischer scrutinizes possible contact-induced change from three languages: Latin, Old Norse, and medieval French. Critically discussing evidence from past studies and considering the sociolinguistic nature of the contact situations, she concludes that “borrowing is unlikely to have occurred as a result of contact with Latin and French unless an analogous construction was available in the target language” (40). Only in the case of Old Norse does Fischer see a more profound influence, albeit of an indirect kind (through imperfect learning). Schendl (Ch. 3) is concerned with the influence of code-switching in late Middle English and its relevance for contact-induced lexical change. Drawing on mixed-language medieval texts, Schendl demonstrates that code-switching was “a widely accepted textual strategy in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England” (43), and concludes that widespread multilingualism in late medieval England was a strong facilitator of contact-induced lexical change. In Ch. 4, Wright explores the contact origins of Standard English, and argues that the role of mixed-language texts (cf. Schendl, Ch. 3) has so far been neglected in accounting for the emergence of a written Standard of English. Tracing the reduction of minor spelling variants in verb forms, she demonstrates that “it is the process of elimination [rather than selection] that is so remarkable about writing from 1500 as compared to a hundred years later” (66).

Chapters 5 and 6 concentrate on contact phenomena on the British Isles. Klemola (Ch. 5) challenges the traditional view that the insular Celtic languages have had little to no contact-induced impact on the evolution of English. Against the backdrop of archaeological, demographic and historical evidence of Celtic contact, he discusses three case studies of possible Celtic influence on the English language (Northern Subject Rule, self-forms as intensifiers and reflexives, and third-person singular pronoun ‘en’ in southwestern dialects), concluding that it is “perhaps impossible” (87) to demonstrate Celtic influence conclusively, but that the linguistic and non-linguistic evidence corroborates claims of linguistic change originating from contact to the Celtic languages. Hickey (Ch. 6) addresses the complexity of contact-induced language change in the context of language shift in Ireland and Scotland. Focusing on Ireland, he critically summarizes evidence of linguistic contact effects on English from Irish and provides examples of (undisputed) cases of transfer, coincidental structural parallels, as well as typological features from Irish which were not transferred. He argues that, in unguided adult acquisition scenarios such as in Ireland, suprasegmental phonology in particular plays a (so far) underestimated role. Comparing the prosody of Irish and its structural English counterparts, he demonstrates that primarily those constructions are transferred which correspond with the Irish constructions in terms of intonation. The chapter closes with parallels to the situation in Scotland.

Wolfram (Ch. 7) describes structural adaptation in socio-ethnic varieties of English in North America. By comparing representative phonological variables (such as consonant cluster reduction) and morphosyntactic variables (such as tense marking) in newly emerging varieties, for instance Hispanic English in the Mid-Atlantic South, as well as durable ethnic varieties, such as African-American Vernacular English, he demonstrates that L1-to-L2 transfer and accommodation do not take effect abruptly but gradually, leading to intermediate structural forms present in neither input variety. Wolfram’s focus is on both product and process by looking at durable ethnic varieties which have been extensively researched, such as AAVE and Native American Indian English as well as incipient varieties which emerge in North America as the result of transplanted communities, e.g. the newly developing Hispanic communities in the Mid-Atlantic south. Wolfram investigates a representative set of phonological variables (consonant cluster reduction, syllable timing, vowel production) and morpho-syntactic variables (past tense marking, third-person singular –s absence). Example study on glide reduction shows that the phonetic transition from Spanish to Southern English in Hispanic speakers does not occur abruptly, but gradually, leading to an intermediate form not present in either languages, and that lexis plays an important role in this process. Wolfram finds that transfer and accommodation do not take effect abruptly, but gradually, leading to intermediate, inter-dialectal phonetic output which may stabilize eventually. He also finds that the acquisition of phonetic processes is linked to lexical factors.

Schneider’s contribution (Ch. 8) inspects the role of contact in models accounting for the emergence of “New Englishes“ (postcolonial L2 varieties of English). Following a brief overview of the World Englishes research agenda and a critical discussion of terminological issues, he compares the role of contact in three popular conceptual models of World Englishes (the ENL/ESL/EFL distinction, Kachru’s Three Circles Model, and Schneider’s Dynamic Model), and concludes that the first two frameworks place little interest in contact-induced change. In contrast, he considers contact and its effect to be of central concern in Schneider’s Dynamic model, although he asserts that its impact is not equally strong throughout the evolutionary cycle. He then concentrates on the influence of contact in terms of his model by looking at extra-linguistic factors (such as the historical and sociolinguistic background) as well as the linguistic outcome (i.e. the linguistic contact effects). His contribution demonstrates that contact has significantly (but not exclusively) shaped postcolonial varieties of English.

Schreier (Ch. 9) advocates the study of so-called lesser-known varieties of English (LKVEs) in addition to the existing canon of well-known and closely studied varieties of English. In particular, he makes the criticism that varieties such as Tristan de Cunha English or Dominican Kokoy are “virtually unknown to scholars“ (149) and, consequently, are usually not represented in current models of English as a world language. LKVEs, he argues, offer potential for uncovering processes of convergence in contact situations, and he provides discussions of two exemplary processes, namely mixing and colonial lag. With regard to mixing, Schreier asserts that ''[w]e are still quite far from developing a coherent theory as to why mixing operates the way it does“ (160), but offers LKVEs as a chance to investigate this process in great detail. Furthermore, he provides evidence of the retention of an otherwise unattested phonological legacy (h-insertion) from nineteenth-century London retained in Tristan de Cunha English as an example of what has been termed ‘colonial lag‘. In conclusion, he argues that, despite their relatively insignificant population sizes, LKVEs are ideal candidates for scrutinizing contact-induced change in early formative phases of variety emergence.

Chapters 10-18 discuss issues of English contact linguistics in a wider context, including sociolinguistic and cross-linguistic concerns. Britain (Ch. 10) investigates the effects of everyday mobility and the resulting contact on the attrition and genesis of dialect forms. While drastic, life-changing mobility has been at the center of attention in sociolinguistic research, Britain, drawing on numerous studies, demonstrates that the same linguistic changes caused by life-changing (long-distance) transportation of speech communities (such as is the case in colonial settings) can also be observed in scenarios of less dramatic, everyday-life mobility. In discussing different factors causing or leading to mundane mobility, including commuting, urbanization and counter-urbanization (a more recent trend), Britain convincingly shows that mundane mobility is a subtle, but widespread form of mobility, “whose mundaneness has meant […] that it has fallen below the dialectological radar until relatively recently” (172). He emphasizes that mobility is not free, but socially stratified, which leads Britain to conclude that any linguistic consequences of dialect contact can only be assessed with the speaker’s socioeconomic background in mind. Turning to the linguistic outcomes of mundane mobility, he summarizes research which reports on the attrition of striking dialectal features in East Anglia and Dorset on the one hand, but also on linguistic outcomes which can be labelled ‘dialect genesis’. He concludes that mundane mobility helps in accounting for subtle dialectal changes.

In her contribution, Hundt (Ch. 11) takes an evaluative look at the concept of ‘epicenter’, i.e. a local norm-producing variety exerting a linguistic influence on neighboring areas. Although the concept is intuitively appealing and has recently attracted attention, Hundt argues that the concept poses theoretical and methodological problems. Regarding the theoretical problems, Hundt finds that the epicenter concept is a) ill defined, b) that the metaphorical connotations of the term are potentially misleading, and c) that its application to standard varieties of language (excluding vernacular varieties) is questionable. She further points to methodological challenges, asking, for instance, whether the identification of epicentres should (or possibly can) be based on synchronic data alone. Turning to methodological challenges, Hundt surveys empirical research on new and emerging epicenters, taking into consideration synchronic corpus-based studies, diachronic studies and language attitude studies, and assesses in how far these approaches meet the methodological requirements for identifying epicenters. In her conclusion, Hundt calls for a clearer definition of the concept, an expanded application to vernacular varieties, and basing future claims of epicentral status on a combination of empirical evidence from corpus-based, diachronic and language attitude studies.

Mufwene (Ch. 12) criticizes the still commonplace practice in historical linguistics of largely ignoring the impact of language contact in accounts of the history of English. Arguing that “the history of English and any modern language is necessarily contact-based” (205), Mufwene states that an approach to language evolution which marginalizes contact influence is misguided, as it fails to account for the underlying reasons and dynamics of variation, not only in contact-based pidgins and creoles, but also in dialect contact scenarios (koinéization) as well as the emergence of New and even native Englishes. The core of the contribution is a concise review of contact evidence throughout the history of English. For Old and Middle English, Mufwene emphasizes the underestimated role of the Celtic languages as the most protracted contact influence on English grammar. He also corroborates the argument that dialects are as much shaped by contact as colonial varieties, pidgins or creoles, and that there should be no qualitative distinction of them based solely on their contact-based emergence. For English spoken outside the British Isles, Mufwene criticizes the long-held view that indigenized Englishes and pidgins/creoles have traditionally been considered ''children out of wedlock'' (212) whereas colonial Englishes with a largely European population have been perceived as legitimate offspring of British English. His contribution summarizes how and in how far contact has shaped all colonial varieties of English, and underscores the role of population structure and inter-idiolectal contact.

Winford (Ch. 13) focuses on the interplay between language universals and contact-induced substrate influence, often considered competitors in causes of variation in contact Englishes. Winford evaluates the interaction in light of two opposing views on universals: the formalist view, which sees universals as innate features written into the Universal Grammar, and the functional view, which considers the causal mechanisms themselves as the true universals. Focusing on the tense/aspect systems of Caribbean contact Englishes, Winford provides support for both perspectives: Whereas the tense categories Relative Past and Future are shaped by internally motivated grammaticalization without any external influence, he finds evidence of contact-induced (i.e. externally motivated) grammaticalization in the Perfect category. He argues that such grammaticalization is the result of analogical inferencing. As an explanation, Winford offers the mechanism of 'imposition', which involves the transfer of properties of a category in the dominant L1 to the L2, and which explains contact-induced grammaticalization in a cognitively plausible way.

Mesthrie (Ch. 14) presents an original study on the use of be + ing in narrative function in South African Indian English (SAIE). He argues that the functional range of be + ing is wider in colonial and postcolonial contexts than would be allowed in traditional varieties. The construction, whose use in functions other than traditionally expected had been subject to stigmatization, has stabilized in some stigma-free community settings (such as personal narrative). Mesthrie’s study takes a closer look at be + ing in such narratives, and reveals that in SAIE the construction shows innovative grammatical nuances absent from traditional standards, for instance a marked contrast between backgrounding progressives (was + ing) and foregrounding progressives (is + ing), as well as the use of variations for climactic effects. In terms of a contact-induced explanation, he considers the functional extension of the tense marker to show “continuity with that of Indian languages” (256).

Chapters 15 and 16 focus on the respective roles of children, adolescents and adults in language contact. The study by Kerswill, Cheshire, Fox & Torgensen (Ch. 15) is concerned with the role of children and adolescents in contact-induced change. Reviewing the literature, they find that contact linguistics has long underestimated the importance of adolescents and, particularly, young children for introducing contact-induced changes. A basic assumption is that adult-to-adult contact leads to simplification, e.g. in morphology, whereas contact among children may lead to complexification, such as in the form of added innovations. Kerswill et al. provide data from recent and ongoing research on inner-city London English, and show that adolescents and children exhibit phonological (vowel system), morphological (was/were variation) and syntactic (new quotative this is +speaker) innovations and change when compared to their adult counterparts. The authors largely attribute these innovations and changes to the highly diverse multicultural context of adolescent contact, and are thus able to show the relative importance of adolescents and children as agents of contact-induced change.

This is complemented by Thomason (Ch. 16), who discusses the relative contribution of adults and children to contact-induced language change, i.e. which types of change can be attributed to either group. Thomason demonstrates that while both adults and children can be initiators of borrowing, change resulting from shift-induced interference (i.e. language change as a result of imperfect learning) is likely exclusively initiated by adults. Providing evidence (from languages/dialects, mixed languages as well as pidgins/creoles) of child- and adult-initiated change, Thomason demonstrates how children or adults initiate language change. She concludes that neither are the sole initiators of contact-induced change, which also suggests that both are agents of internally motivated change as well.

Odlin (Ch. 17) presents the results of an original study of Finnish and Swedish learners of English. The central question is whether the respective substrate languages work as accelerators or inhibitors in interlanguage development. Odlin is particularly interested in two aspects, namely the relation between transfer and developmental sequences, and between the individual and the group (313). The results show that in some Finnish learners, the substrate works as an accelerator, e.g. in the acquisition of subordinate clauses, it also operates as an inhibitor, as in the use of articles and prepositions. The strong individual variation across learners even within the same L1 group leads Odlin to conclude that strong deterministic claims of substrate influence cannot be substantiated for a group in general. Nevertheless, he sees merit in group comparisons, especially if the tendencies can be replicated in other contact situations. He closes with a call for researchers to trace contact-induced substrate influence using large samples and detailed sociolinguistic information.
The concluding contribution by Mair (Ch. 18) is dedicated, quite fittingly, to the possible future of English as a contact language. Mair, aware of the challenging task at hand, takes a look back at mid-20th century prospects on the future of English as a world language, and concludes that predicted linguistic changes in such prophecies often turn out to be false. With this in mind, Mair restricts his own predictions to only three: there will be more and more diverse contact between English and other languages; there will be more and more diverse contact among (standard and non-standard) varieties of English; and the mediated performance of vernaculars […] will be far more important as a site of language contact in the future (317). Considering the first two uncontroversial, Mair proceeds to discuss his third prediction, using data from a diasporic Nigerian online discussion forum. He argues that the use and ‘hyper-awareness’ of language in the digital mediascape challenge traditional notions of static, geographically clearly locatable language varieties. Mair concludes that, at least for the context of digital communication, it is perhaps best “if we see World English not as a bundle of separate varieties […], but rather as a pool of standard and non-standard features of varying and fuzzy regional reach” (325-326, author’s own emphasis), and calls for more research on contact phenomena in their communicative context instead of any detached long-term effects.


'English as a contact language' is a ground-breaking volume capturing the growing field of English contact linguistics. In line with the editors’ objective to “bring together insights from a number of disciplines that interact in complex ways” (17), the seventeen contributions included approach the topic of English contact linguistics from a diversity of perspectives, ranging from historical linguistics to dialectology, World Englishes research, language typology and second language acquisition. Linguistic evidence comes from historical stages of English (Old and Middle English), regional varieties of English, dialects and sociolects, pidgins and creoles, mixed languages and learner language, and covers all levels of linguistic analysis, from phonology to morpho-syntax and semantics. Despite the diversity of (sometimes contradictory) viewpoints included, the volume is coherently designed towards the common goal of gaining ''a better understanding of the full complexity of contact-induced language change'' (xvi).

A particular merit of the volume is that its contributors often go beyond describing effects of language contact seeking explanations and underlying mechanisms of contact-induced change. While comparative research in English contact linguistics has primarily (and importantly so) focused on the question of what, i.e. the structural effects of contact, it has neglected to address the questions of how and why, i.e. the underlying dynamics and motivation. The volume addresses these issues and raises questions of agency in contact scenarios, such as the relative importance of children and adolescents, as well as seeking cognitively plausible, potentially universal explanations of contact-induced change, among others.

A major challenge is the concept of language contact itself, which escapes a uniformly accepted definition. Several contributions problematize the conceptualization of contact in light of different modes of transfer. While indirect forms (television) or diffusing factors (social class) of language contact are also acknowledged, face-to-face conversation is considered the primary mode of contact. Consequently, rather than relying on decontextualized contact effects alone, several contributions call for researchers to include speakers, communicative setting and the general context into consideration when investigating contact-induced change (see, for instance, Britain, Mesthrie or Mufwene).

In sum, the volume succeeds in demonstrating the contact-intensive nature of the English language throughout its history, and how contact operates on different scales, from mundane dialect contact to the emergence of regional epicentres. Furthermore, by adopting a broadly interdisciplinary approach, it facilitates innovative perspectives into the study of contact linguistics in general. The volume is highly recommended reading for beginning and experienced scholars in (English) contact linguistics, English variational linguistics, language typology, and beyond.


Steffen Schaub is a Lecturer of linguistics in the English department at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany. He holds a degree in English Linguistics, Linguistic Engineering and American Studies. His research interests include English corpus linguistics, second-language acquisition, sociolinguistics and language typology.

Page Updated: 23-Mar-2017