Languages in contact – What happens when languages meet?

In a time when Europe is going through the so-called ‘migration crisis’, it is important to talk about the influence that cross-border movements of people could have on languages (their own language as well as the vernacular). In fact, according to the Ethnologue website, “the movement of people also means the movement of languages from their original geographic locations to new locations and to new language ecologies”.

Migration is indeed not only a demographic phenomenon: migrants move from their home country to another bringing with them their cultures, customs and traditions, languages and sometimes also religions. Is this a recent phenomenon?

In the history of humankind, people have always moved from one territory to another, a long time before the words ‘continent’, ‘nation’ or ‘state’ were even coined. In prehistoric times, people were already moving from their original location in search for better living situations.

In this article, we are going to show you some cases in which movements of people resulted in language change.

Language contact – Historical cases

As Prof. Laura Calabrese wrote in her syllabus of Bloc1 course Multilinguisme et société, when it comes to language contact, the possible outcomes are diverse and can be temporary or permanent. The different groups can, in fact, maintain their language (language maintain) or adopt the other linguistic group’s code (language shift). A third possibility is the creation of a new code. These events can occur in different circumstances: migration, colonisation, tourism…

Historically speaking, one case in which some speakers adopted other groups’ code is colonisation. People did not speak English in Australia before 1770, French in Canada or Portuguese in Brazil. With colonisation, movements of people (in this case the colons) coincided with movements of languages, imposing their language and therefore changing the linguistic ecology of the colonized territories.

One of the main outcomes of language contact is interference. It occurs when speakers of a language adopt semantic, phonetic or syntactic features of the language they come in contact with. This phenomenon occurred to Spanish in Argentina. The mass migration of Italians (especially Neapolitans) to Argentina at the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th century was indeed so large that Spanish speakers absorbed that Italian accent. This event differentiated the intonation and lexicon of Spanish speakers in Argentina so deeply that their dialect is distinguishable from other varieties of Spanish in the world.

Language contact – Recent cases

During the Bloc2 course Anglais II: Langue, Société et Culture, we studied the linguistic situation in India, discovering Hinglish language. The term is a portmanteau of Hindi and English, which is the language of colonisation, spoken in India since the beginning of the 19th century. Hinglish is a hybrid language, not yet normalised: it means that it doesn’t have its own dictionaries and grammar, but it is largely spoken by the younger generation. In fact, it is considered a subversive language, as some Hinglish speakers know both Hindi and English, but some others do not feel confident speaking English and prefer to use Hinglish because they would be more competent in it. Examples of words in Hinglish are Auntyji and Uncleji, which stand for a child’s elder relations.

In Europe, we can also notice some cases of interference between migrant languages and vernaculars. For instance, in Belgium and France, we can notice how the younger generation use more and more Arabic terms while speaking French. Some examples are: Insha’Allah, Mash ‘Allah, kiffer, halouf… Many of these words have spread way beyond immigrant communities and are now stable features of French slang, while some have entered the dictionary (bled, clebs, toubib) and thus the standard French lexicon.

We can also observe some situations of code switching. This concept refers to the linguistic phenomenon by which bilingual speakers mix languages during a conversation depending on cognitive economy factors. In other words, bilingual speakers often utter a word or a sentence in the language that occurs to them first, juggling between two (or more) languages spoken on a daily basis. This phenomenon is very common in migrants conversation or in families with mixed backgrounds.

What will happen in the near future?

The fact that migration in Europe is increasing does not mean that in the near future languages are going to change radically or disappear because of migration. And this won’t happen because of many reasons: first of all, European languages are nowadays extremely protected and normalised and, consequently, very difficult to replace. Secondly, migrants come from different countries of the world, bringing with them different languages and not just one that could exert a massive pressure on the local language (just as it happened to Old English when it met old French). It seems therefore unlikely that one of these languages could replace or interfere deeply with European vernaculars. Thus, it is also important to consider that languages are continually changing and new vocabulary is permanently added in dictionaries, a phenomenon that has been going on since the beginning of  globalisation… in the 15th century! Isn’t this extremely enriching?

Written by Jennifer Ferri