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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Synchrony Meets Diachrony: Reconsidering Convergence



Rena Torres Cacoullos


A long-standing issue in historical linguistics is the distinction between internal and external factors in change (Bybee 2015: 237–255; Labov 2007). The bilingual speech community provides the optimal window on contact-induced change, since languages come into contact through the people who speak them. Their speech regularly features a substantial complement of variability. By examining distribution and co-occurrence patterns, the variationist comparative method incorporates systematic variation into the traditional comparative method of historical linguistics (Poplack 2017). The working hypothesis is that integral to grammatical principles and language users’ knowledge is the covariation between linguistic elements that is probabilistic (Bresnan et al. 2001; Cedergren & Sankoff 1974; Labov 1969). The structure of variation—the way linguistic forms are used in discourse—then becomes the tool for measuring grammatical similarity or difference in order to assess first the existence of change, and then its source.

In this talk I capitalize on a new corpus, the New Mexico Spanish-English Bilingual corpus (NMSEB; Torres Cacoullos & Travis 2017) to contextualize candidate contact-induced changes socially and linguistically, i.e. with respect to both the speech community and the grammatical system in which they are embedded (Weinreich et al. 1968; Poplack & Levey 2010). The speakers are members of a longstanding community in New Mexico, USA, where Spanish and English have been in intense contact for over 150 years (Bills & Vigil 2008). Equal portions of Spanish and English are represented in the corpus, allowing for study of both languages, as speakers juxtapose them. Code-switching, illustrated in the excerpt in (1), is copious enough to qualify as a community discourse mode. These conditions make NMSEB the ideal locus to probe contact-induced change: Are grammars in contact different from grammars not in contact?


I don’t have that … energy ya para hacer aquí en la casa como Ø tenía más antes…. porque yo venía del trabajo,

I don’t have that … energy anymore to do things here at home like (I) had before. … because I would come back from work, (NMSEB, 04 Piedras y Gallinas, 48:44–48:51)

The linguistic variable of interest is subject pronoun expression (see (1)), a poster child for convergence of Spanish toward English (cf., Heine & Kuteva 2005:70; Silva- Corvalán 1994:145–165). A commonly entertained prediction is the extension of subject pronouns in the null-subject language on the model of the non-null subject language. However, to assess contact-induced change, similarities due to crosslinguistic tendencies, such as accessibility effects, must first be ruled out. Here we look to language-specific patterns, which enable us to diagnose convergence. Such is the prosodic-initial position restriction on unexpressed (null) subjects that we find for English. And, while the direction of effect for accessibility holds across both languages, accessibility manifested as clause linking turns out to be a relatively stronger probabilistic constraint in English than in Spanish. Variation patterns are compared across four datasets (Figure 1): monolingual benchmarks of both languages and the contact varieties as spoken by the bilinguals themselves. A total of nearly 700,000 words and 10,000 tokens of the variable are analyzed. The results show that bilinguals’ Spanish and English line up with their respective monolingual counterparts and most remarkably, are different from each other. Consideration of not only rates but also the conditioning of subject expression reveals no evidence of convergence: no movement of bilinguals’ Spanish towards English grammar, and no change in their English towards Spanish. Morphosyntactic change is thus far from an inexorable outcome of contact in bilingual communities, where speakers can independently apply language-specific grammatical principles.


Bills, Garland D., & Vigil, Neddy A. (2008). The Spanish language of New Mexico and southern Colorado: A linguistic atlas. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Bresnan, Joan, Dingare, Shipra, & Manning, Christopher D. (2001). Soft constraints mirror hard constraints: Voice and person in English and Lummi. In: M. Butt & T. Hollaway (eds.), Proceedings of the LFG01 Conference. Stanford: CSLI Publications. 13–31.

Bybee, Joan. (2015). Language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cedergren, Henrietta, & Sankoff, David. (1974). Variable rules: Performance as a statistical reflection of competence. Language 50:333–355.

Heine, Bernd, & Kuteva, Tania. (2005). Language contact and grammatical change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William. (1969). Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copula. Language 45(4):715–762.

Labov, William. (2007). Transmission and Diffusion. Language 83(2):344–387.

Poplack, Shana. (2017, To Appear). Borrowing: Loanwords in the speech community and in the grammar Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poplack, Shana, & Levey, Stephen. (2010). Contact-induced grammatical change: A cautionary tale. In: P. Auer & J. E. Schmidt (eds.), Language and Space: An international handbook of linguistic variation, vol. 1. Berlin: De Gruyter. 391–419.

Silva-Corvalán, Carmen. (1994). Language contact and change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Torres Cacoullos, Rena, & Travis, Catherine E. (2017, To Appear). Bilingualism in the community: Code-switching and grammars in contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weinreich, Uriel, Labov, William, & Herzog, Marvin I. (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In: W. P. Lehmann & Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions for historical linguistics: A symposium. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 95–188.

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