Language contact

From PALaC Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search


contatto linguistico | contact linguistique | Sprachkontakt


By language contact, we indicate any situation in which two linguistic codes are in contact with each other, resulting in the exchange of structural or lexical materials and in changes in one or more of the languages involved. When giving such a general definition, it is impossible to sketch a complete history of the studies. In general, observations on contact go back to the 19th century world of philology and historical linguistics, e.g. with the introduction of the concept of substratum by Ascoli. In the first half of the 20th century, observations of contact phenomena continued, resulting, in 1953, in the publication of the first comprehensive treatment by Weinreich (1953). Weinreich's work highlighted important situations of contact in the modern world, and triggered increasingly fine-grained theoretical frameworks, culminating in the work by Thomason and Kaufman (1988). A more comprehensive and extensive overview on the history of the studies on language contact (and on related problems such as mixed-languages, code-switching or areality) is offered by Matras (2009).

When dealing with ancient corpus-languages, the identification of contact phenomena depends on the recognition of its effect in writing, with the following methodological steps:

  1. identification of standard language
  2. identification of patterns that do not belong to the standard language
  3. recognition of patterns that may derive from monogenetic change and identification of the possible model language
  4. disambiguation between different levels and types of contact:
    1. document-level phenomena that do not necessarily reflect real change in the language:
      1. translation-based interference in multilingual documents
      2. epigraphic contact affecting scribal habits and conventions
    2. phenomena that may indicate real contact-induced change:
      1. lexical interference between languages from neighboring areas
      2. lexical interference in multilingual areas with substratum-superstratum systems
      3. structural interference systemically affecting one or more languages
  5. verification of the hypotheses of contact basing on the historical and geo-cultural information we receive from neighboring disciplines (history, philology, archaeology)


Cases of language contact emerge very frequently in the Ancient Near East. Anderson and Vita (2016) provide a useful summary and three Bronze Age case studies: the contact between Hurrian and Ugaritic in the Syrian city of Ugarit, that between Hurrian and Akkadian in the Upper Mesopotamian city of Nuzi, and that between Canaanite and Akkadian in the Southern Levant. All of these cases exhibit some degree of code-switching, and pertain to areas in which the two languages involved co-existed locally.

In the Anatolian and peri-Anatolian world, examples are also numerous. A famous case of local co-existence of different languages is that of Luwian-Hittite bilingualism in Hattuša, the Hittite capital city, in the Late Bronze Age (a topic extensively discussed by Yakubovich in his 2010 Luwian sociolinguistics). As a matter of fact, imperial Hattuša was a city in which Luwian and Hittite were certainly the main vernaculars, but also co-existed with other languages (certainly Akkadian, which was not only a vehicular language of culture and diplomacy but was probably spoken or at least used in some circles).

In the Iron Age, examples of language contact in and around Anatolia obviously include the Greek-Lycian contact in Lycia, which resulted in the production of several multilingual documents but also in borrowing situations, some of which may have involved grammatical morpehemes, which qualifies the interference as a very strong one.


Matras, Y. 2009. Language contact, Cambridge. Thomason, S. and Kaufman, T. 1988. Language contact, creolization and genetic linguistics, Berkeley. Weinreich, U. 1953. Language contact, finding an problems, New York. Yakubovich, I. 2010. Sociolinguistics of the Luvian Language, Leiden.