Contact between people speaking different languages can have a wide variety of outcomes. In some cases only a few words are borrowed; in others whole new languages may be formed. The results of such contact differ according to several factors, including the length and intensity of contact between the groups; the types of social, economic, and political relationship between them; the functions which communication between them must serve; and the degree of similarity between the languages they speak.

Most languages have been influenced at one time or another by contact, resulting in varying degrees of transfer of features from one to the other. English, for instance, has borrowed a great deal of vocabulary from French, Latin, Greek, and many other languages in the course of its history. Transfer of this kind does not even require speakers of the different languages to have actual contact since it can be accomplished through book learning by teachers who then pass on the new vocabulary to other speakers via literature, religious texts, dictionaries, and so on. But many other contact situations have led to language transfer of various types, often so extensive that new contact languages are created.

One such situation, rather rare today, involves contact between relatively small groups leading to extensive multilingualism and diffusion of both vocabulary and grammar across their languages. Examples include areas of Papua New Guinea, the Amazon basin, and the Australian desert. Other situations involve geographic proximity between different language communities with only slow spread of features across languages, creating so-called sprachbund or linguistic areas. An example is the Balkan sprachbund, where speakers of typologically distinct languages like Greek, Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc. have adopted features from each other over the centuries.

Yet another kind of situation involves the use of distinct languages within the same community by bilingual or multilingual speakers. This can lead to a high degree of convergence between very different languages, as occurred with languages like Urdu, Marathi, and Kannada in the village of Kupwar in India. In other communities, the ability to manipulate two codes can lead to very intricate patterns of code alternation and code mixture. Some communities have highly regular patterns of code switching according to the setting or context of speech, resulting in what is called 'diglossia', where one code is used in informal contexts such as the home, neighborhood, etc., while the other is used in more formal settings such as school, church, government and the like. In other communities, a high degree of code mixture may be preferred, perhaps because it reflects a sharing of identities. When groups perceive each other as different either in terms of power relationships or ethnic and cultural identity, language boundaries become more like borders which must be defended, as has happened with French and English in Canada.

The Dynamics of Language Contact

It would appear that language contact situations generally are subject to two often conflicting forces—the need to achieve communicative efficiency adequate for the purpose of the interaction (dynamics of accommodation) and the need to preserve a distinct sense of group identity (group loyalty). The former encourages convergence or compromise between languages; the latter encourages divergence, or preservation of language boundaries. We see the former at work in cases of borrowing, in the spread of features across languages, and in the willingness of bilinguals to switch and mix codes (See Sociolinguistics). We see the latter at work in the efforts of language purists to proscribe foreign influences on a language, in attempts to maximize differences between languages so as to assert cultural or ethnic differences, and in the refusal to accommodate through code switching.


Among the most interesting cases of language contact are those which came about as the result of trade or of colonial expansion. The former has led to varying kinds of linguistic compromise for the purpose of barter and exchange. Such compromises often result in pidgins, highly reduced languages with a minimal vocabulary and grammar, restricted primarily to the function of trade. The term 'pidgin' itself is generally agreed to derive from 'business'. Some pidgins involve more mixture of vocabulary than others. For instance, Russenorsk, used in trade between Russians and Norwegians up to the 19th century, employed vocabulary from both groups' languages.

Other pidgins like Eskimo Trade Pidgin and Chinese Pidgin English derive their vocabulary primarily from one source, usually the language of the group that held control of the trade or its location. Pidgins have also arisen in contexts other than trade, for instance in cases of military occupation (Pidgin English in Japan) or in domestic settings for communication between masters and servants of different language background (Indian Butler English) or on plantations (Hawaiian Pidgin English). Pidgins show varying degrees of elaboration in both vocabulary and grammar if their range of functions extends beyond the confines of the original context of use. In such cases, there may be varying degrees of incorporation of features from both the dominant 'lexifier' or 'superstrate' language and the native or 'substrate' languages of other groups. Some pidgins achieve such a degree of elaboration in this way that they are in principle no longer pidgins, but fully developed natural languages. Examples include languages like Tok Pisin and Bislama, official languages of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu respectively, both descended from an earlier plantation pidgin, in turn descended from early Pacific trade pidgin.


European colonial expansion during the 15th-19th centuries led to the creation of new communities in which colonial languages come in contact with the indigenous languages of the colonized. In extreme cases, such as the plantations of the New World, where huge numbers of West African slaves were transplanted during the era of European colonization, contact led to the emergence of creole languages, so called because they were used by the 'creole' or locally born slaves (as well as many Europeans) in the colonies. These creole languages are a blend of mostly European vocabulary with a grammar representing a compromise between that of the West African substrate and that of the European superstrate. Creoles differ primarily in the extent of one or the other of these influences on their grammar. The varying outcomes depended on the demographic structure of the community, the social settings and codes of social interaction governing contact and relations between the groups, and the types of linguistic input involved What is perhaps distinctive if not unique about creoles is that they are new creations whose birth accompanied the emergence of completely new communities of speakers. Born in conflict and the need to compromise, they developed an autonomy of their own, creating new norms of usage which define the social identity of their speakers and their membership in a distinct creole community. Creoles represent a compromise among competing linguistic input, just as creole culture reflects a compromise among competing sociocultural traditions.

Other Outcomes

In other colonial settings, long-term contact between European and indigenous languages led to outcomes such as bilingual mixed languages and 'indigenized' varieties of the European languages. The best example of the former is the Media Lengua of Ecuador, a language which incorporates Spanish vocabulary into a virtually unchanged grammatical framework of Quechua. The best known indigenized varieties are the 'New Englishes' of countries like India, Nigeria, and Singapore where English has been restructured under influence of the pronunciation patterns and grammar of the local languages. Some of these varieties have been given names that reflect their local roots, like 'Singlish' of Singapore and 'Pringlish' of Puerto Rico. These contact vernaculars are reminiscent of other second language varieties which result from untutored learning in a wide variety of situations, from the Hispanicized varieties of English in the US to the 'foreign worker German' of immigrant laborers in Germany. Very similar principles and mechanisms seem to be involved in the creation of these and other types of contact vernacular, despite the differences in the actual outcomes. Eventually, linguists hope to explain how different social and linguistic ingredients combine in varying ways to produce this typology of contact outcomes.

The variety of contact vernaculars surveyed here demonstrates that there is in principle no limit to what speakers of different languages will borrow or transfer from each other, given the right opportunity. One of the great challenges facing linguists is to account for both the social forces and the linguistic mechanisms and constraints which operate jointly to determine what particular outcome emerges from the contact. The study of language contact can lead to great benefits, both practical and theoretical. Research on its social aspects can lead to insights on group relationships and group identities, and how they are shaped by processes of accommodation in some circumstances and by divergence and conflict in others. Understanding of the social forces that guide and constrain language use is of vital importance both to language planning in areas like education, politics, and social welfare and to understanding the ways languages change. Research on the linguistic aspects of language contact leads uto insight on the nature of linguistic systems, the mechanisms by which they interact to produce new strategies of communication, the creativity of human beings in adopting and adapting new materials to be reshaped into new manifestations of the human faculty of language.

by Donald Winford

Suggested Readings

Appel, R., and Pieter Muysken. 1987. Language contact and bilingualism. London: Edward Arnold.

Görlach, Manfred. 1991. Englishes: Studies in varieties of English 1984-1988.Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Muysken, P., J. Arends, and N. Smith (eds). 1995. Pidgins and creoles: An introduction.Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Myers-Scotton, Carol. 1993. Social motivations for codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Romaine, Suzanne. 1989. Bilingualism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Thomason, Sarah, and Terrence Kaufmann. 1988. Language contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Todd, Loreto. 1990. Pidgins and creoles. London: Routledge.

Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in contact: Findings and problems. The Hague: Mouton. 2nd edn.