Language Contact

Why do we have words in English such as "fiesta" and "macho", "beef" and "bon voyage"? All of these words have entered the language via what we call language contact. Specifically, it's important to note, as we have seen in our discussion of sociolinguistics, that languages don't exist in isolation. Rather, they are used by speech communities whose members interact with one another as well as with members of other speech communities. Those who study language contact study the linguistic results of such interaction.

What are the kinds of ways that linguistic systems are affected by language contact? Well, here are some concepts that we want to be in control of:


What factors affect linguistic borrowing? One primary factor is intensity of contact.

Another factor affecting borrowing is prestige (or power):

Here are some other phenomena arising from language contact situations:

Two important concepts: pidgins and creoles

One of the most interesting areas of study in language contact is the study of so-called pidgins and creoles.

Pidgins arise usually as a code used in trading situations in which speakers of many languages come together and need some means of communicating for the purposes of doing business with one another. The interesting thing about pidgins is that they are not the primary language for any of their users. Structurally, pidgins tend to be somewhat simpler than full-blown natural languages. As your textbook notes, though, this is a bit of an oversimplification.

For example, they discuss the development of a transitive marker [im] in Solomon Islands Pidgin. Some linguistis have associated this with English 'him'.

luk 'look'

luk-im see something

But other Oceanic languages such as Kwaio have similar structures:

aga look

aga-si see something

Note that both the pidgin and Kwaio have intransitive verbs that can take a transitive suffix. So, we can think that this grammatical property of the Pidgin comes from the substrate Oceanic languages and not from the superstrate English.

Creoles, on the other hand, are languages with speakers for whom the creole is the primary form of communication--the native language as it were. Creoles are found in many parts of the world. The Caribbean, for example, has English-realted Jamaican Creole and French-related Hatian Creole. In both of these cases, a situation arose (due to the plantation system) in which many Africans speaking a diverse range of mutually unintelligible African languages came into contact with each other and with English or French. Over time, this mixing gave rise to a generation of speakers who spoke none of the original languages but rather new languages that were related lexically and structurally to parts of the languages that came into contact.

One of the miraculous things about human language, as Pinker points out, is its instinctive nature. Pinker discusses the remarkable and documented case of the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language via the process of creolization of a pidgin form of sign used by Deaf people in Nicaragua. What's so interesting about this is that we have actually seen and carefully documented a case of language genesis. The Deaf children from whom the creole emerged did not have a full fledged sign language as a model. In essence, they, as a speech community, gave birth to a new language (without even trying!). You saw this on the video in your recitation section.

Focus on Pidgins

Here's a list of some of the properties of pidgins:

Here we see an example of some words from Tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea. Note how the vocabulary is taken from English, the superstrate language. 

Tok Pisin













by and by



General Features of Pidgins

phonology: cluster reduction is common, resulting in a favoring of CV syllables. Example: dust becomes dus.

morphology: pidgins often have absence of affixal marking (drop the s-agreement from verbs, for example)

syntax: word order tends to be SVO, prepositions used, articles not generally used, aspectual distinctions often marked by auxiliaries

Here's some data from the pidgin called Cameroonian. Note how the auxiliaries di and don express aspectual notions such as completed, repeated and ongoing.




di laf

was laughing



don du

have done



di du

do always


semantics: pidgins usually have small vocabularies with words with extended meanings. [wikup] means wake up and also 'get up' (Cameroonian, I think). More compounds employed: dog baby for puppy.


In broad strokes, Creoles are precursored by prepidgin jargons.

Your book lists a number of modes of evoloution:

Type 1: pidgin jargon--> creole, ex. Hawaiian Creole English

Type 2: pidgin jargon--> stable pidgin -> creole, ex. Torres Straits Creole English

Type 3: jargon ->stable pidgin->expanded pidgin -> creole; ex. New Guinea Tok Pisin

Important concept: nativization--the process by which some variety of speech that was no one's native language is learned by the children in that community as their first language.

We can think of crreolization as nativization.