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date: 05 December 2023

Language Contactlocked

Language Contactlocked

  • Sandhya NarayananSandhya NarayananUniversity of Nevada, Reno


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Language contact highlights the social dynamics that are crucial to any understanding of language change and the emergence of linguistic variation and complexity over time. As an analytic approach and field of anthropological and linguistic inquiry, it reminds us that the study of language cannot be separated from an in-depth understanding of the speakers and communities that these varieties come from, highlighting the need to center the analysis of human social practices, interactional dynamics, and broader ideological frameworks in any inquiry into linguistic and social change.

Observing and analyzing language change as an outcome of contact between two or more linguistic varieties can occur across different grammatical domains. Closer attention to the kinds of structural changes that occur because of contact can challenge current theoretical models of language change. As such, contact-induced structural changes speak to the ways that different linguistic systems can influence each other, producing small-scale changes such as borrowing of grammatical elements, to larger and more structurally encompassing transformations such as the emergence of mixed linguistic varieties, pidgins, and creoles. However, change should not always be expected from language contact situations, opening the possibility to also consider the significance of no change occurring, or for linguistic forms to become further differentiated from each other.

At the same time, linguistic change, in any form, cannot be abstracted away from social practices and social changes. Yet understanding these social processes requires us to think less about individual linguistic forms, and more about the range of linguistic practices that emerge in zones of language contact. Because language and communication are another form of social action, attention to the social dynamics of contact—which include the cultural contingencies of contact between speakers of different linguistic varieties, the interactions that emerge and constitute a zone of contact, and the ideological frameworks that shape these interactions—is equally important in shaping language change and linguistic complexity over time. Understanding these social processes and grounding language contact within the broader ethnographic context of the encounter provides a different vantage point to address questions concerning the nature of language as a product of social practices and moments of interactive, intersubjective creativity and innovation.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology