Language Shift in the Case of Dialect and Language Making Essay

Language Shift in the Case of Dialect and Language Making Essay

Language shift is arguably one of the most interesting phenomena in linguistics. Studying it means studying languages in development and interaction as they progress from one state to another. No language has ever been steady and constant. External influences, social and technical progress and internal evolution make languages continuously change. Such changes include transfer, replacement and assimilation of words, constructions and entire languages and they are in general called “language shift”. It is impossible to discuss every aspect of language shift even briefly in this short paper, so I will concentrate on language shifts in the process of creation of new dialects and languages. I shall refer to dialect-making models, “creolization” as necessary stage of dialect-making and socio-cultural factors contributing to making new dialects and languages. I shall also attempt to tie the dialect-making theory to modern life situations.

There are several basic processes leading to shift of languages towards new dialects. Steels determined a model for development of dialects that includes casual circularity effect, polysemy effect, changes in pronunciation. Casual circularity effect occurs when separated groups of individuals speaking the same language start using different synonyms for same objects and so different words for one and same object appears in those two groups. Polysemy effect occurs when speakers start using many words for an object, which has not earlier been known to them. Additionally, often speakers start pronouncing sounds a bit differently gradually changing their phonetics so that finally a newly pronounced word replaces the old one. This model is applicable for the “pure” cases when a language develops in isolation and without outside influences, for example, like in the case of Icelandic that evolved from language spoken by Scandinavian settlers.

However, more frequently dialects emerge from interaction of multiple languages inside a community. Auer, Hinskens and Kerswill emphasized the following stages of dialect evolution in Multilanguage communities: 1. Mixing that occurs when individuals in the population speak different dialects; 2. Leveling meaning selection of acceptable forms from the mix; 3. Interdialect development – at this stage new forms emerge that can not be attributed to either of the mother-dialects; 4. Reallocation when certain forms in the emerging dialect become related to a particular profession, social group, class, etc,; 5. Focusing, meaning that new dialectic norms become stable and commonly used.

A dialect formed out of two languages or dialects is usually referred as Creole language and the development of a dialect is known as creolization. According to Holm, creolization passes two or three major stages: pidginization, creolization and post-creolization. “Pidgin” language is a jargon that has no native speakers. Its function is to provide a communication mean for the members of multilanguage community, so its vocabulary is reduced to the simplest terms. Complicated language forms are usually avoided, the syntax is kept simple, and the word order is different dependently on the word order in the native language of a particular speaker. In Holm’s model languages, forming pidgin language are often marked as substrate and superstrate. Superstrate is a language, which prevails in language formation, and which grammar and order forms are digested by speakers of a more “vulnerable” language – substrate. This should not be confused with substitution, since superstrate language is well influenced by substrate. It can also survive as language for official conversation or language of a particular social group. In case the community of people, using pidgin language in their everyday life appears to be stable and pidgin is learned by the children of the community, it usually becomes fixed and obtains more complex structure, with fixed grammar, phonetics, morphology and syntax. It may also have some local innovations, which could not be found in “mother” languages.

One can observe that formation of a new dialect by creolization is an extremely complicated process. It is not just mixing of languages. Rather it is gradual reduction of language differentiation in a region where different dialects are spoken. Casual use of new dialectic forms may correlate with the person’s social status, group or even gender. For example, Gal concluded that “young women are more advanced or further along in the direction of linguistic change than older people and young men…In many cases women, as compared to men of the same social class, use more of the new non-prestigious forms in casual speech while moving towards prestige models in formal speech”.

When a dialect derives from several dialects the words from the “mother” dialect become “coded”. Gal explored a German-Hungarian pidgin spoken in some areas of Austria and concluded that German words became associated with money and prestige while Hungarian symbolized peasant status. No German-Hungarian dialect eventually appeared since German language appeared to be much more prestigious and children in the bilingual couples used to learn only German, while use of Hungarian words has been discouraged. To my opinion, however, this does not necessarily mean that the dialect could not appear. After all, modern English language appeared in a very similar situation from mixture of French and Anglo-Saxon languages.

The process of dialect-making and subsequent language making is usually quite lengthy and complicated. According to Gal, multilanguage communities “are best characterized as a set of covarying linguistic variables which have their own appropriate social uses and connotation”. To this Kerswill and Trudgill add that “linguistic choices made collectively by people at this stage are necessarily crucial to the outcome of koineisation, since they provide the input to the next (or a subsequent) generation’s focused variety in which the number of available features has been wittled down until final selections are made”.

Kerswill and Trudgill proposed a “from melting pot to speech community” model. The development of a dialect starts with simple mixing of words in a pidgin language in a “melting pot” of a multilanguage community, passes through leveling stage when certain words and language constructions are used in particular cases and when rules for their use become stable and ends when a new dialect or language takes steady forms. The process ends when a community becomes “linguistically marked”, in other words when members of this community lose their original language identity and begin to associate themselves with their dialect. In this case a new dialect or language is born.

Modern America, in my estimation, is exactly the kind of a melting pot that will probably give birth to a new language within several decades. “Classical” English can hardly be found in this country where speakers of different languages have to interact every day. We are currently passing through the stage of simplification described by Holm and Gal when speakers of different languages (mostly English and Spanish speakers) attempt to communicate without profound learning of the superstrate English language. The situation is even more complicated by the specific modern jargons like Internet slang or professional jargons. This comic strip.

looks ridiculous, but it clearly demonstrates the status of the English language in America. Children use simplified grammatical forms that shock the teacher, however, these forms are much more usual for these children and, probably, for the teacher herself. Attempts to teach formal English in the community where this language is never applied are similar to learning Latin in medieval Europe where French, Spanish and Italian languages were emerging from “spoiled” Latin. American vocabulary and phonetics are obviously different from the British ones. Now the language shifts affected the most basic structure of every language – grammar. To my opinion, it’s time to openly talk of a new American language that requires further study and development of own spelling and grammar rules.


  1. Gal S. (1998) Peasant Men Can’t Get Wives: Language Change and Sex Roles in a Bilingual Community. In Coates J. (Ed.) Language and gender. pp. 147-160. Wiley-Blackwell;

  2. Hinskens F., Auer P., kerswill P. (2005). The Study of Dialect Convergence: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. Auer P., Hinskens F., Kerswill P. (eds.) Dialect change: convergence and divergence in European languages. pp. 1-33. Cambridge University Press;

  3. Holm J.A. (2000), An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;

  4. Kerswill P., Trudgill P (2005). The Birth of New Dialects. Auer P., Hinskens F., Kerswill P. (eds.) Dialect change: convergence and divergence in European languages. pp. 196-207. Cambridge University Press;

  5. Steels L. (2006), The puzzle of Language evolution, Kognitionswissenschaft, 8(4):143-150. Retreived July 26, 2009 from:;

  6. Image retrieved July 26, 2009 from

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