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Review of  Contact Languages

Reviewer: Farah Ali
Book Title: Contact Languages
Book Author: Yaron Matras Peter Bakker
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 28.3516

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


This edited volume aims to provide an overview of different types of contact languages by means of historically contextualizing them, outlining their communicative functions, and summarizing their most common linguistic features. Additionally, as stated by the editors, apart from outlining the various types of contact languages, this volume also aims to approach these unique linguistic varieties from an historical perspective as well as from a sociolinguistic perspective. Given these objectives, this volume dedicates five sections to addressing different types of contact languages, while two additional sections aim to address contact languages from an historical/genealogical perspective, as well as a sociolinguistic perspective.

The first - and aptly chosen - contact language to be discussed is pidgins (by Mickael Parkvall and Peter Bakker). In this chapter, the authors discuss a variety of proposed definitions of what a pidgin is, and propose a list of the most salient characteristics of pidgins. Given the finite lifespan of this variety of contact languages, the authors also discuss the life cycle of the pidgin, from its first moments born out of contact, to its eventual death or evolution into a creole language. The authors also highlight some of the common linguistic features of pidgins, going beyond the phonological, lexical and morphosyntactic features and also discussing pragmatic and stylistic features as well. Finally, they also discuss factors that may favor their emergence and spread.

The chapter that follows (by Angela Bartens) smoothly transitions into a discussion of creole languages, opening with an examination of the socio-historical contexts that surround creole development, followed by a review of theories on creole genesis. Bartens also dedicates a section to more current investigation in creole studies, such as the need for historical and anthropological studies to account for the cultural components of creolisation. Finally, the author provides a detailed description of the phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexicosemantic features of creoles, drawing on numerous examples from a variety of languages in each category.

The third type of contact language to be discussed is mixed languages (by Felicity Meakins). In addition to defining mixed languages and providing detailed descriptions of numerous examples, Meakins also attempts to provide a means of classifying mixed languages according to their degree of grammatical mixing. In addition to discussing the features of mixed languages, including sociolinguistic features such as mixed languages as an ethnic marker, mixed language genesis is also examined with the presentation of a wide variety of both unidirectional and fusion approaches. Finally, Meakins discusses current issues in the study of mixed languages; one particularly interesting area is the argument for the status of mixed languages as an autonomous language system in which Meakins examines specific criteria such as linguistic stability, its independent development from source languages, and the presence of structural elements from both source languages.

Multi-ethnolects are discussed in the subsequent chapter (by Jacomine Nortier and Margreet Dorleijn). The authors define multi-ethnolects, distinguishing them from ethnolects, as well as the socio-political circumstances in which they occur, such as migration and urbanization. While linguistic features are discussed, the authors also focus their attention on stylistic features, drawing on Thomason’s (2001) proposed mechanisms of interference and their application to multi-ethnolects. Finally, the authors cite examples of various multi-ethnolects across the globe and examine some of the emerging questions in this field of study, one of which includes the question of the multi-ethnolect’s place among other contact languages.

The chapter discussing written language intertwining (by Lars Johanson) is a unique one in its focus in that it deals with language contact through written mediums. Johanson aims to present an overview of this phenomena, drawing on evidence from written letters and older literate societies to show how these languages interrelate. Because of the relative importance of prestige attached to each language, Johanson classifies languages into five Types (A-E) in terms of not only their prestige but also in terms of how they are used in comparison with their partner language. Much of this chapter, then, deals with the functions of these languages and the degrees of influence that one language has over another, depending on its Type.

April McMahon premises the chapter on the genetic classification of contact languages with the argument that language contact and linguistic classification are incompatible. McMahon is critical of a number of methods used in linguistic classification, such as the Comparative Method and various theories surrounding language change. McMahon also deals with approaches to classifying specifically contact languages, but points out that many of these approaches are problematic, and - in the concluding remarks - calls for the reprioritization of historical and comparative linguistics in terms of what is a normal versus anomalous language, which in turn could bring contact languages out of the periphery and into a more central position in the study of language classification.

The final chapter of this volume (by Donald Winford) deals with the social factors involved in shaping contact languages. Winford discusses the situation of bilingual mixed languages as well as intertwined languages and their correlation to the social contexts and motivations from which they emerge. Winford also examines less stable situations of bilingualism and discusses the process of convergence and the formation of ‘converted’ languages that manifest from these unstable and disparate conditions. Second language acquisition is also discussed in terms of pidgin and creole formation as well as the socio-historical factors that favor their emergence. Finally, Winford discusses the status and function of contact languages, citing their presence in media and education as evidence of the increasing acceptance of contact languages, and the need to revise language planning and policies to reflect this shift in status.


This volume has a number of merits which make it a worthy read for any scholar who is interested in familiarizing his/herself with practically any aspect of contact languages, such as their distinguishing features, linguistic and social factors that influence their emergence and development, as well as traditional and more current theories relating to contact language genesis. Because of the level of detail found in each chapter, this book would be more useful to scholars who are already acquainted with some of the more basic concepts surrounding contact linguistics, as a more novice student may find the magnitude of information and the complexity of the discussions to be overwhelming.

One of the greatest strengths of this volume is the overall coherence in themes throughout the book. An important underlying theme that resurfaced in each chapter was the idea of redefining contact languages and how they are understood, thereby challenging the reader to reconsider traditional parameters for their classification, not only in terms of their place alongside each other as contact languages, but also with respect to their place among other languages.

It is also worth referring back to Donald Winford’s reference to Weinrich’s 1953 book on contact languages. As stated in Winford’s chapter, Weinrich’s goals for language contact studies involved the inclusion of psychological and sociocultural settings in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of contact languages. Winford also comments on the tendency for scholars to devote their attention to the structural aspects of language contact while disregarding the sociocultural contexts from which they emerge. This is an important point because this present collection manages to successfully take on an holistic approach to language contact by presenting a balanced examination of both the structural and social aspects that define and shape contact languages.

Another asset of this volume is the depth in which each author presents contact languages. While many publications aiming to introduce contact language focus on only pidgins and creoles, it is commendable that this volume also includes contributions pertaining to other types of contact languages such as mixed languages, multi-ethnolects, and - even more unique - written intertwining languages. Additionally, each chapter draws on numerous and diverse examples of contact languages to illustrate their explanations or support their arguments. Contact languages are a global phenomena and it is critical for any comprehensive guide such as this one to reflect that extent of diversity.

One critique that could be offered, however, is that while the volume as a whole is cohesive in its overall themes, there is a lack of structural and contextual uniformity from one chapter to the next. For example, only the chapter on creole languages gave a very detailed account of syntactic features, while the remaining chapters provided a more general overview. Additionally, the varying formats and topics of discussion in each chapter may lead the reader to infer varying objectives from each author, which takes away slightly from the overall consistency of the volume. Applying a more systematic method of organization to each chapter would allow the reader to more easily compare and distinguish each type of contact language.

Given the previously stated objectives of providing an overview of contact languages and examining them from both historical/genetic and sociolinguistic perspectives, each contributor executed these goals, going above and beyond a general overview and giving a very thorough account of contact languages, their emergence, functions and features. This collection forms an exhaustive volume on contact languages in a way that not only thoroughly summarizes and challenges traditional theories and models pertaining to this field of study, but also provides newer approaches to analyzing contact languages, their origins, and methods of classification, and as such, lays the framework for further investigation on contact languages.


Thomason, Sarah Grey. 2001. Language Contact: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Weinrich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact: Findings and problems. (New York: Linguistic Circle of New York). The Hague: Mouton.
Farah Ali is currently a student at SUNY Albany, pursuing her PhD in Spanish Linguistics. Her research interests include sociolinguistics, contact linguistics, bilingualism, and second language acquisition.