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Importance Of Internal, External And Extra-linguistic Motivations For Language Change

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External motivations are ‘contact-based’ motivations, Weinreich et al (1968) put great emphasis on the need to incorporate external factors into a theory of language change. Hickey (2010) states that while “internal change is that which occurs within a speech community, generally among monolingual speakers, external change is that which is induced by contact with speakers of another language [(or dialect)]” (p.7) commonly regarding bilingual speakers. Geographical and social isolation tends to promote linguistic conservatism (Bloomfield, 1933), whereas “open social networks, often connected with a relatively high population mobility, favour rapid change” (Johanson, 2002, p.307). Milroy’s Belfast study in 1987 supports both statements, she concluded that conservatism of language is based on strong ties and that social networks are norm-enforcement mechanisms, to the extent that they are dense and multiplex (Milroy, 1987).

Language or dialect contact occurs when two varieties interact with each-other and subsequently influence each-other. Language contact is between two mutually unintelligible varieties e.g. English and Spanish, whereas, dialect contact occurs between two mutually intelligible varieties e.g. Yorkshire dialect and Birmingham dialect. “Languages in contact are the result of people in contact” (Clyne, 2003, p.1).

A prime example of language contact occurs under the conditions of migration, whereby people that speak one variety of a language or dialect move to a place where people typically speak a different language or dialect. Kerswill (2006) states that migration is “an extra-linguistic factor that leads to externally-motivated change” (p.1). Migration can lead to relocation diffusion, where innovative forms are carried by speakers migrating to new locations.

When categorising migration, we must consider space, time, motivation and socio-cultural factors (Kerswill, 2006, p.3). In some cases, such as war, environmental impact and slavery, the external motivation to move is involuntary and forced upon them. For others it is socially, politically and economically motivated e.g. to move countries due to a new job.

An example of the effects of migration can be found in Language and dialect contact in Spanish in New York (Otheguy, Zentella, & Livert, 2007). More specifically, focusing on Spanish subject personal pronouns in the six largest Spanish-speaking communities in New York (which account for more than 25% of the New York population). They used a corpus of 63,500 verbs extracted from sociolinguistic interviews of a stratified sample of 142 members (of the New York Spanish-speaking communities) to focus on subject personal pronouns in finite clauses. This is highly variable in Spanish, but in English, it is compulsory in most contexts (Otheguy, Zentella, & Livert, 2007). They analysed null pronouns (absence of pronoun) versus overt pronouns (presence of pronoun) to obtain frequency of overt pronouns as a percentage of all, known as “overt pronoun rate” and hierarchies of linguistic and extra-linguistic factors that influenced the probability of the occurrence. Otheguy, Zentella & Livert (2007) did this using a variationist approach; comparing different dialectal regions (Mainlanders and Caribbeans) and different generations (recently arrived vs. those born and/ or raised in New York).

Overall, they found that language contact plays a role in altering Spanish in New York by levelling the Spanish marked variants and shifting its pattern of pronoun use to become more similar to the English pattern, thus promoting the formation of a New York Spanish speech community in the second generation. Supporting the idea that contact leads to simplification (Trudgill, 2010).

The previous example mentioned the effect of the external motivation, levelling. Levelling is “the reduction or attrition of marked variants” (Trudgill 1986, p.98). A mobile population results in individual acts of accommodation (Giles, Taylor & Bourhis, 1973) that are replicated throughout the community, especially regarding salient forms (Kerswill & Williams, 2002 & Trudgill, 1986). This leads to disappearance of marked local variants and an increased use of variants with a wider geographical and social usage.

An external motivation occurring post-levelling is reallocation. Britain and Trudgill (2003) state that it “occurs where two or more variants in the dialect mix survive the levelling process but are refunctionalised, evolving new social or linguistic functions in the new dialect” (p.245). An example of reallocation can be found in Corby, Northamptonshire (Dyer, 1999). Historically a Scottish variant, the monophthongisation of the GOAT vowel (Wells, 1982) was brought to Corby by contact between the displaced Scottish and indigenous English inhabitants; reallocated to index local identity (Dyer, 1999).

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Dialect contact and koineization in Jakarta, Indonesia carried out by Wouk (1999) has evidence of dialect contact and the external motivation of koineization. Wouk documents the interaction between Standard Indonesian and the native Jakartan variety, Betawi that appears to be developing into a regional dialect. By analysing verb morphology and the effect of register shift on its use, Wouk (1999) found that a process of koineization had taken place to create a nativized koine with “fixed norms of usage” (p.61).

Introduced by Samarin (1971), koineization is one of the main external factors for language change, where the contact of two mutually intelligible varieties results in the formation of a new dialect. Koineization occurs particularly in dialect contact (Trudgill, 1986). Although koines arise from contact between two mutually intelligible languages, next we will look at ‘mixed languages’, where contact between two mutually unintelligible varieties in a bilingual community gives rise to a new language.

Mixed languages consist of entire segments from other languages, Bakker and Matras (2003) state that mixed languages are not just languages that show traces of two or more languages e.g. English, but they are languages showing “particular structural properties [and] similar histories of formation” (p.191). Müller (1861) however asserts that there are no “mixed languages”, nevertheless, Thomason and Kauffman (1988) counterpose Müller’s statement with Schuchardt’s (1884) research on contact-induced language change, that asserts that all languages are “mixed”. Some have accepted Schuchardt’s view but have challenged it by stating that there are no languages that are so mixed that they do not have a traceable linguistic origin or ‘family tree’ (Thomason and Kauffman, 1988, p.2).

According to Thomason and Kauffman (1988) mixed languages come from situations where language assimilation (or “shift”) is resisted, which leads to maintaining parts of the original language while some components are replaced by the new language. Some varieties of mixed languages have verb phrases from one language and noun phrases from another e.g. Light Warlpiri, which is an Australian mixed language which uses English Creole verb phrases and Aboriginal noun phrases (O’Shannessy, 2013). Others have vocabulary from one language and a grammatical structure from another (Bakker (1997) describes this as an “intertwined language”) an example of this is a language in Tanzania known as Ma’a or Mbugu, that combines Bantu grammar with Cushitic vocabulary (Mous, 2003).

The fast emergence of ‘mixed’ languages may be due to the small size of the communities that it occurs in, the intensity of the contact between the two languages and the fact that some researchers suggest that the separate language varieties can be spoken as well as the new ‘mixed’ variety. These cases are not necessarily for communicative purposes but act as a new group identity marker. Similarly, Crowley and Bowern (2010) state that the native population of Papua, known for its distinct language, expressed that they would not like their language to be similar to the varieties spoken nearby. This conscious attitude towards linguistic identity seems to be universal and can motivate language change on all levels or its lack of. Thomason (2001) states that “mixed language genesis is akin to, and in effect actually is, borrowing” (p.158).

Borrowing is an externally motivated change that occurs when languages or speech communities “productively increase and change their lexical stock” by ‘borrowing’ words from other speech varieties (Jones & Singh, 2005, p.22). The main external motivation tends to be based on the social relations between the group doing the borrowing and the group it is borrowing from. When one word used by one language community is perceived as being innovative or ‘trendy’, a separate community tends to ‘borrow’ the prestigious word. This can occur between languages, dialects and even between subgroups e.g. gender and age groups. Although, as Jones and Esch (2002) state, “borrowing” is based on a “deceptive metaphor”, as the language being borrowed from is not then lacking that lexical item, so the term could be misconstrued.

Fischer (2006) states that “frequency determines which linguistic tokens and abstract types (structures) become automated and entrenched within the processing system” (p. 325), it could be argued that phonetic tokens in the form of words are more frequently readily available than any other linguistic feature and thus often lead to borrowing (possibly face-to-face or cultural borrowing). An example of the relationship between borrowing and phonemic inventory changes can be seen in the borrowing of French words e.g. veal and village in Middle English, which led to [v], originally an allophonic variant of [b], becoming a distinct phoneme in English. However, even this example is possibly internally motivated by the loss of final schwas in the 13th century and the simplification of geminate consonants in the 14th (Thomason and Kaufman, 1988). Suggesting that although borrowing is one of the most influential external motivations for change there may be underlying internal motivations too.

Lass (1997) is opposed to the influential accounts about external motivations and language change and judges that discussions about an individual’s circumstance should be ignored in justifications for language change. He states that “neither language-users, nor their internal states ought to be the main focus of attention, if our aim is to explain […] change, since change itself is a built-in property of the kind of system that a human language […] happens to be” (1997, p.386). It seems to be only when there are no internal factors that researchers look for either external contact-based motivations or extra-linguistic motivations. This suggests that all motivations for change are mutually exclusive, however, it is evident throughout research that many if not most evidences of language change can be traced back to more than one of these motivations. This leads me onto Farrar’s (1996) theory of the “either-or” mentality. Which demands that people make a distinction between internal and external motivations when discussing change but Farrar and Jones (2011) suggest that in these cases internal motivations tend to always seem superior.

In conclusion, external motivations though not considered as important as internal motivations are still imperative for language change to occur. Prestige, social network density and functional requirement are influential external factors regarding which features are transferred via contact. But based on the previous discussion it is simple to suggest that the extra-linguistic motivations, including intensity of contact, need for group identity, time-scale of contact and social relations between the two groups in contact, cause external language change (Kerswill & Williams, 2002, p.87). The idea that more than one motivation is involved in the implementation of a change (multiple causation) is not new and occurs mainly in cases of contact-induced change (Léglise & Chamoreau, 2013), Malkiel (1967) presents a valuable introduction to multiple causation.

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Importance Of Internal, External And Extra-linguistic Motivations For Language Change. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
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