Language Contact and Linguistic Diversity


Stephen Fafulas



The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed

through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.


  ―Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.



Language is an individual entity constrained by our cognitive abilities and woven into our biological fabric. At the same time, language is a social construct that is shaped through communication in the ever-changing world in which it is used. Without language, our means of expression, interaction, and knowledge transmission would be drastically different, if not impossible. Our species is unique in its ability to communicate through socio-culturally agreed upon symbols, which serve to draw attention to mental states and events in the outside world. While certain properties of language reflect our similarities, others are manifestations of our differences. In part, these differences are responsible for the fact that we do not all speak the same language. In this essay, I examine how external forces, such as geo-political boundaries, population demographics, and world economies, lead to linguistic diversity and change.


            The thousands of languages of the world share certain complex features. Children are capable of acquiring any of these languages, provided that they are exposed to the conventionalized linguistic symbols of their environment within a specific window of opportunity (the critical period). Moreover, children do this rapidly without explicit explanation. Children ultimately acquire the ability to use language in novel ways and express an infinite number of ideas. Given the striking uniformity in completing this task, it is hard to argue against an underlying biological architecture for human language. The ability to acquire language appears to be part of our genetic or cognitive machinery. However, it is undeniable that communication with other members of society is essential for language development. This conflict of theories highlights the role that our external environment has in the formation of language.


            The reasons why languages change are numerous. To begin with, all languages display some degree of variation. As no two people are exact copies of one another, neither are any two languages identical. Our language is constantly changing as we evolve throughout the lifespan. While two people may speak the same language, their use of grammatical structures and their pronunciation will be slightly different. Our individual language system is known as an idiolect. Speakers, and the linguistic knowledge that they possess, are part of a larger taxonomy. This taxonomy is known as the speech community, which includes all the individual idiolects of a certain group of speakers. The speech community when viewed as a whole, shares a specific set of social norms and linguistic knowledge. In a given speech community, there exist different ways of communicating a similar message. Speakers alter their linguistic choices based on their own ideologies, attitudes, social status, and their desire to accommodate or differentiate themselves from their interlocutors. As William Labov explains, “one cannot understand the development of a language change apart from the social life of the community in which it occurs” (3). The linguistic variation of individuals and groups can be spread through population movements, contact with other languages, and can be affected by factors such as a nation’s language policy.


            Speakers in a community regularly become isolated from other members, thereby creating subpopulations of speakers. Over time, speakers in these subpopulations create new linguistic conventions to represent their shared socio-cultural realities. Depending on the situation, different dialects of the same language may emerge. If these subpopulations become completely isolated, they may form distinct languages. An example of this process is the evolution, or division, of Latin into what is presently known as the Romance languages. This change is continual; what we call the Romance languages today will be different in the future. For example, consider the two major Portuguese varieties of today, Brazilian and European/Continental Portuguese, which are considered to constitute a single language. However, Clancy Clements suggests that enough significant differences between these varieties exist to call this classification into question (The Linguistic Legacy 6-7). Thus, it is possible that at some point in the future these will be considered distinct languages.


            We currently live in a globalized world where everything from culture to climate is undergoing rapid transformation. This transformation impacts language and its diversity throughout the world’s nations on multiple levels. The number of languages spoken today is greatly less than that of a few hundred years ago. While there is no such thing as a superior language there are dominant (i.e. majority) languages. Dominant languages are attributed a certain level of prestige by speakers, due to their prevalence in the media, adoption in the formal educational system, and their means of serving as a vehicle to achieving greater economic capital. Within a specific language, there are particular varieties or dialects that are evaluated as more or less prestigious or ‘educated’ by speakers. Nothing is inferior about these less prestigious dialects and language varieties, only that they differ in arbitrary, yet identifiable and systematic, ways from the socially accepted standard variety. Languages that do not factor heavily into the educational, political, or business roles of a society are typically marginalized and threatened (Hinton 3). Scholars warn against the rapid decline in the world’s linguistic diversity, particularly the languages of minority indigenous communities. Estimates put the number of languages spoken in the world today between 6,000 and 7,000. However, languages are not equally distributed across the world’s population. For example, the ten most widely spoken languages account for over fifty percent of earth’s total population (Harrison 13).


            Languages change due to contact with other languages. Knowledge of more than one language is the norm, rather than the exception, among the world’s population. It has been estimated that one half, if not more, of the world’s population is bilingual (Grosjean 13). Linguistic innovation and the transmission of new features are greatly augmented by speakers and speech communities operating with multiple linguistic systems. Among bilingual or second-language speakers, it is common for a specific form or structure in one language to be replaced by, simplified, or reinterpreted in the other language. If two languages are spoken by the same individuals in a society (societal bilingualism) for an extended period of time and used in all spheres (stable bilingualism), such as Guarani and Spanish in Paraguay, the structures of both languages may be altered. In other contexts, there is temporary and unstable bilingualism, which may result in language shift —the gradual or rapid abandonment of one language in favor of another. This is historically and presently the situation of many immigrant communities in the United States of America (USA) who stop transmitting the language of their country of origin and shift to the dominant societal language. For example, Potowski holds that in spite of the impressive volume of speakers, “Spanish is not being transmitted intergenerationally in the United States; speakers are shifting to English equally or perhaps more rapidly than in past generations” (335).


            Equally as important for language transmission, particularly when it relates to minority languages, are the linguistic and educational policies adopted by each state or nation. A case in point is 20th and 21st century Spain. While the language policy of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship was that of Castilian Spanish only, today the linguistic diversity of Spain is embraced as a source of cultural heritage to be protected and respected by its citizens and government (Lasagabaster 111-12). Since the constitutional reform of 1978, all languages recognized by the Statues of their regional autonomies share co-official status with Spanish. Spain’s official recognition of its multilingual territories has resulted in differing degrees of bilingualism in communities where Spanish, Basque, Catalan, and Galician coexist. These events have affected the structures of the languages spoken in each region.


            An overview of Europe’s history the past few hundred years further exemplifies the consequences that social, political, and economic issues have on language change. Invasions of the New World, war, slavery, migration and colonization placed languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and English in constant contact with each other and with non-European languages and cultures. This situation altered the linguistic and cultural landscape of both Europe and the Americas (and other continents). For example, while the colonizers of Brazil brought with them the language of Portugal, influence from the numerous indigenous peoples and languages of the region, as well as that of African migration have transformed this language over time into the language variety known today as Brazilian Portuguese (Christie 259-60). Another example of the results of language contact is the sustained history of shared space by speakers of Spanish and varieties of Quechua in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (and to lesser degrees in Colombia, Chile and Argentina). This long-term bilingual situation has given way to a distinct variety of Spanish known as Andean Spanish. Andean Spanish displays a number of innovative (or non-standard) properties at the phonological, lexical, and syntactic levels (Escobar 335). Additionally, the sociolinguistic backdrop of the region has led to the adoption of certain features of the Spanish language in the Quechua spoken throughout South America. In a recent investigation I conducted with Erin O’Rourke, we analyzed the distinct variety of Spanish that has emerged in ethnically dominant Bora communities located along the Amazon basin of Loreto Peru. In order to meet their basic education, medical, and economic needs, indigenous language speakers in this region are abandoning their native language in favor of Spanish. The results of this language shift have led to a number of significant differences in the phonological systems of these bilingual Bora-Spanish speakers, which differentiates them from other Spanish-speaking communities in Peru and elsewhere (ibid in press). Likewise, Michnowicz’s work displays how the Spanish of the Yucatan peninsula has emerged as a unique variety through a combination of intense contact with Yucatec Mayan, and geographic, political and cultural isolation from the rest of Mexico (38).


            At times, language contact results in hybrid varieties, such as Cocoliche in Argentina, which mixes Spanish and Italian. Along the bordering regions of Brazil where Spanish and Portuguese intersect, non-standard dialects have emerged, which are typically referred to as fronterizo or portuñol. This is similar to the situation found along the border of Spain and Portugal where Barranquenho is spoken. When populations of mutually unintelligible speakers meet through trade or colonization they may create a mixed language depicting vocabulary and grammar from different source languages. These mixed language varieties are often referred to as pidgin or creole languages, depending on the extent to which they have been transmitted generationally. This process is responsible for many of the diverse Portuguese-based creoles spanning from Africa to Asia. For example, Korlai Portuguese formed in the early part of the 16th century as a result of Portuguese men marrying with Marathi-speaking women and settling in Chaul India, where they passed on the results of their linguistic and cultural mixing to future generations (Clements 4-11). The same is true of the numerous varieties of English found in the Caribbean, which resulted from the contact between English-speaking colonizers from Britain and speakers of non-European languages in the same region. An extreme case of language restructuring is Media Lengua, thought to have developed in the early part of the 20th century among peasant workers in a semi-rural area of Ecuador. Muysken reports that Media Lengua is an intergroup language, unknown to speakers outside the region, composed of Spanish vocabulary adapted to Quechua phonology, with a grammatical structure that resembles standard Quechua (375).


            The picture of linguistic diversity that has been briefly sketched in this essay emerges from the multidimensional society in which language is situated, the complex nature of human beings, and our shared history as a species on this planet. Languages, interwoven with the fabric of individuals and societies, are constantly evolving, adapting, and undergoing transformation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s international world where speakers enjoy unprecedented mobility and access to new information, goods, and cultures. The USA, currently home to some 300 languages and considered to comprise one of the five largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world (Romaine 25), is representative of the ways in which globalization is transforming the world’s linguistic and cultural landscape. On the one hand, Spanish speakers are losing their heritage language generationally. On the other, Spanish is rapidly becoming a dominant second language of the country. At the same time, speakers from different dialects of the Spanish-speaking world are creating new language types such as Isleño Spanish in Louisiana and MexiRican Spanish in Chicago. The results of this apparent paradox, whether Spanish will continue to expand in the USA or decline as speakers shift to English, depends in part on the educational and political policy of this country, as well as the complex economic landscape of the world. The changes that occur globally impact language in ways that scholars are still learning to understand. One thing is for certain: the results of today’s wars, political decisions, and shifting economy will be reflected in the language diversity and change that our future generations inherit.






Works cited


Christie, Christina. “African Influence in the Brazilian Portuguese Language and Literature.” Hispania 26.3 (1943): 259-266. Print.


Clements, J. Clancy. The Genesis of a Language: The formation and Development of Korlai Portuguese. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1996. Print.


---. The Linguistic Legacy of Spanish and Portuguese: Colonial Expansion and Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.


Escobar, Ana María. “Spanish in Contact with Quechua.” The Handbook of Hispanic Sociolinguistics. Ed. Manuel Díaz-Campos. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 321-52. Print.


Grosjean, François. Bilingual: Life and reality. Cambrigde: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.


Harrison, K. David. When Languages die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.


Hinton, Leanne. "Language revitalization: An overview." The green book of language revitalization in practice. Eds. Leanne Hinton and Ken L. Hale. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. 3-18. Print.


Labov, William. Sociolinguistic patterns. No. 4. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972. Print.


Lasagabaster, David. "Language policy in Spain: the coexistence of small and big languages." Uniformity and Diversity in Language Policy: Global Perspectives. Eds. Catrin Norrby and John Hajek, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2011. 109-25. Print.


Michnowicz, Jim. "El habla de Yuacatám: Final [m] in a Dialect in Contact." Selected Proceedings of the Third Workshop on Spanish Sociolinguistics. Eds. Jonathan Holmquist, Augusto Lorenzino, and Lotfi Sayahi. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 2007. 38-43. Print.


Muysken, Pieter. “Media Lengua.” Contact Languages: A Wider Perspective. Ed. Sarah G. Thomason. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1997. 365-426. Print.


O’Rourke, Erin and Stephen Fafulas. “Spanish in contact with Amazonian languages: An examination of intervocalic stops”. Selected Proceedings of the 6th Conference on Laboratory Approaches to Romance Phonology. Ed. Erik Willis. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, in press. Print.


Potowski, Kim. “Language Maintenance and Shift.” The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Eds. Robert Bayley, Richard Cameron, and Ceil Lucas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 321-339. Print.


Romaine, Suzanne. “Language contact in the USA.” Language diversity in the USA. Ed. Kim Potowski. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 25-46. Print.
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