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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Inside Contact-Stimulated Grammatical Development: A Peek at Early Steps



Marianne Mithun


It is now generally recognized that language contact is a major force shaping grammar. As Drinka points out, ‘Language contact, rather than representing some sort of deflection from the norm or peripheral chance occurrence, renders to us some of our most essential insights as to how language change occurs’ (2012: 244). It is also now understood that ‘internal’ and ‘external’ processes of language change are usually intertwined; in the words of Heine & Kuteva, ‘language-internal change and language contact are not mutually exclusive; rather, they may work in conspiracy with each other’ (2010: 87). The mounting body of work on contact-induced grammatical change is providing new opportunities for investigation of principles underlying these interactions, at the outset and through subsequent lines of development.

Copied grammatical patterns are rarely perfect replicas of their models. So what tends to be transferred in the early stages, and to what extent are subsequent directions of development constrained? Johanson (2008, 2013) points out that semantic, combinational, and frequential properties of grammatical markers and patterns may be copied together or separately, without their substance. Drinka, Johanson, Heine & Kuteva, and others concur that copies are often less frequent and less grammaticalized than their models, but not the reverse. Heine & Kuteva propose that ‘contact-induced innovations tend to be confined to an increase in frequency of use and extension of existing pieces of discourse structure to new contexts, some of which are associated with novel meanings … Some form of consistency is attained when, as a result of language contact, clusters of discourse pieces turn into new use patterns.’ (2010: 89)

We hypothesize contact effects in similarities across language boundaries when we can rule out common inheritance. We see product of contact, but in the absence of a rich philological record, not necessarily the process behind it. If the similarities extend across multiple languages in an area, however, what has been called by Heine & Kuteva a grammaticalization area, we may gain some insight into the varieties of ways that a particular grammatical feature or structure may enter a language, and the kinds of factors that may affect its subsequent development.

A set of clause-combining constructions sometimes referred to as “switch reference” (Jacobsen 1967, 1983) offer a rich opportunity for the investigation of these questions. In these constructions, dependent clauses carry markers specifying their relation to the matrix clause. The terminology originated in the idea that the markers distinguish coreference or disjoint reference between the subject of the dependent clause and the matrix, though closer examination of spontaneous speech has shown that in many of these systems, subject reference is just one factor in marking events as tightly integrated or more loosely associated. What is interesting is that such systems show strong areality: they are particularly common in certain areas of North America, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, for example. In his survey of switch-reference (SR) in North America, for example, McKenzie (2015: 423) reports:

Concerning the distribution of SR languages in North America, they are almost all in the West, in a mostly contiguous geographic area. Also, many language families only have one or two members that have SR; these members are in that contiguous area. These facts support previous observations that areal diffusion has played a role in its cross-linguistic distribution.

Among the languages of the West cited by McKenzie are those of the Pomoan family, indigenous to an area north of San Francisco. The Pomoan languages all contain highly-developed systems of clause-combining, which distinguish dependent clauses portrayed as elements, with their matrix clause, of a single event (same) from those portrayed as separate but related events (different). Like many similar systems elsewhere in the world, they make further simultaneous/sequential and realis/irrealis distinctions. Markers indicating event cohesion are verb suffixes, while those indicating a looser connection are clause enclitics. The system can be reconstructed for their common parent, Proto-Pomoan, whose time depth has been estimated to be comparable to that of Germanic. The markers occur in a secondary development, the formation of sentence-initial adverbs based on a verb ‘be/do’ followed by a suffix or enclitic, which indicate discourse relations to a previous sentence.

The Pomoan languages are surrounded on three sides by five unrelated languages from three, unrelated families: Yuki and Wappo (long separated from each other geographically but remotely related in the Yukian family), Nisenan and Patwin (Wintun family), and Western Miwok (Utian family). The languages share a number of clearly contact-stimulated grammatical innovations, but show little lexical borrowing. None of them has a well-developed clause-combining system like those of their Pomoan neighbors, but very early effects of contact with the Pomoan systems can be seen in each of them. These effects differ across the languages in interesting ways, even across related languages. As predicted, the most salient effect of contact is the frequency of specification of relations among sentences. Each language has exploited a different native resource to mark the relations, but all have apparently taken as their model apparently more analytic markers, the sentence-initial adverbs, as their models, rather than the more deeply embedded suffixes and clitics. They vary in the number of distinctions made in the system, but none distinguish as many features as their Pomoan models. They vary in the degree to which their markers have become grammaticalized, but none are as advanced as their models.

Taken together, the incipient systems show that an initial step in contact-stimulated grammatical change can indeed be heightened frequency, but that beyond that, there is not a single pathway along which particular grammatical systems must develop.


Drinka, Bridget 2012. The Balkan perfects: Grammaticalization and contact. in Bjorn Wiemer, Bernhard Wälchli, and Björn Hansen (eds).). Grammatical replication and borrowability in language contact. The Hague: Mouton. 511–558.

Heine, Bernd & Tania Kuteva. 2010. Contact and grammaticalization. In Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact, 86–105. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jacobsen, William. 1967. Switch-reference in Hokan-Coahuiltecan. In Dell Hymes & William Bittle (eds.), Studies in Southwestern ethnolinguistics, 238–63. The Hague: Mouton.

Jacobsen, William. 1983. Typological and genetic notes on switch-reference systems in North American Indian languages. In John Haiman & Pamela Munro (eds.), Switch reference and universal grammar, 151–83. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Johanson, Lars. 2008. Remodeling grammar: Copying, conventionalization, grammaticalization. In Peter Siemund & Noemi Kintana (eds), Language contact and contact languages, 61–79. Hamburg Studies on Multilingualism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Johanson, Lars. 2013. Isomorphic processes: Grammaticalization and copying of grammatical elements. In Martine Robbeets & Hubert Cuyckens (eds.), Shared grammaticalization, with special focus on the Transeurasian languages, 101–111. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kuteva, Tania & Bernd Heine. 2012. An integrative model of grammaticalization. In Björn Wiemer, Bernhard Wälchli and Björn Hansen (eds.) 2011, Grammatical replication and grammatical borrowing in language contact. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 159–198.

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