Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Justin Spence (UC Berkeley) "Linguistic Convergence and Maintenance in Pacific Coast Athabaskan"

Mon, February 18, 2013 | CLA 1.302E

3:00 PM - 4:30 PM


Justin Spence is a candidate for a position in Historical Linguistics.

One of the fundamental issues addressed by historical linguistics is the life cycle of linguistic phylogenies. On the one hand, variation within a speech community sometimes leads to the emergence of new dialects and eventually languages, but other times fails to do so; on the other hand, established phylogenetic units that come into contact with each other may blur the boundaries separating them to a greater or lesser extent, or maintain their differences over many generations. The present study focuses on the latter scenario, considering the Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages of northern California and southern Oregon as a case in point. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Athabaskan-speaking populations of the region were dispossessed and consolidated on a small number of reservations, and speakers of shallowly-differentiated varieties came into intensive daily contact with one another. While in some settings (Hoopa Valley, California) the varieties in contact underwent fairly rapid convergence, elsewhere (Siletz, Oregon) some groups participated in processes of koinéization while others, even small minorities, maintained their linguistic distinctiveness. 

These findings are of interest first of all because Athabaskan languages are well-known for being conservative with respect to borrowing from non-Athabaskan groups. The fact that koinéization occurred at all suggests that linguistic conservatism did not necessarily apply in contact within the language family, suggesting a refinement of Hill’s (2001) theory of “distributed” versus “localist” stances with respect to variation. That some groups maintained their distinctive linguistic features sheds light on the social nature of koinéization and bears on one of the key debates in the literature on language contact: the extent to which structural versus social factors are the principal determinants of the outcomes of contact. In particular, it is argued that the largely asocial, deterministic theory of contact advocated by Trudgill (2004) cannot be correct, even in the limited range of cases he considers; rather, the social configurations in which contact occurs must be taken into account as well.

Bookmark and Share