On-going questioning
the dynamics of the language, linguistic change and contact.

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The current situation.


The current situation.

Studies of language contact in the widest sense (including languages mixing, non-linear descent, areas of convergence and borrowing) have long been marginalized. But recent work on mixed languages, pidgins, and creoles, backed up by research on stable and changing multilingual contexts in general (studies of language change and preservation, etc.), now shows that such issues need to be dealt with on a far less incidental basis than hitherto.

While there has never been any outright rejection, there have been two strategies which have been used as a sort of "safety barrier " to prevent such issues from coming to the fore.

Such procedures may well provide a way of accounting for the data and enriching theory, since contextualized description often gives rise to the elaboration of concepts (thus "pidgin", "pidginization", "pidginization process" and so forth). To this extent, they are no more than ordinary stages in the development of knowledge. Nevertheless, they are also instances of something we might refer to as "patching". The theoretical framework is modified piecewise to account for new phenomena without much thought for overall balance or consideration of whether some important language function might thereby be masked to the detriment of general understanding.

We believe such explanatory procedures should ultimately be submitted to theoretical reevaluation bringing into play all aspects (linguistic, historical, anthropological, and cognitive) which might be relevant to situating "language contact" with respect to a wider view of the development of languages and language use.

Our objective here will be to move beyond the erection of safety barriers and the application of patches in search of more appropriate theoretical tools. This will involve an "analytical shift" wide enough in scope to transform our outlook and stimulate the collective rethinking which we feel is indispensable.


The following remarks, based on a few elementary observations, will illustrate what we mean by an "analytical shift". There will, of course, be no attempt to define a unique framework for the study of language contact, rather simply to show the need for theoretical reflection in correlation with various empirical approaches.

Normative "multicodism".

Any language may be viewed as an object, whether ideologically, structurally, symbolically, or in some other way. Such unitary representations nevertheless clash with the empirical observation that the ordinary data of normal communication invariably include evidence of multilingualism and multidialectalism. At the very least, there is some objective trace of a multiplicity of codes which is an essential part of how a language operates. Whenever there is a communicative exchange, there is also evidence of the manipulation of more than one code, even in extreme cases involving so-called monolingual groups which reject (whether explicitly or not) all departures from the norm.

This fact obliges us to take a plurality of available codes as an essential component of any attempt to explain language use. Whether those codes represent different "languages" or not is of little significance. The important thing is without doubt the recognition of the fact that they are available and that we have the ability to work them up over time. It is this possibility of working up codes continually within a discursive setting which enables them to be meaningful and provides the framework for the establishment and material transformation of the languages involved.

The language continuum.

There is one other evident fact: material change of individual languages arises through their ordinary use as means of communication (and through the specific processes which constrain such use). There is nothing original in this, yet it gives us occasion to remark that there are no grounds beyond voluntary theoretical choice and methodological practice for dissociating phenomena of change in language use from those of change in the languages themselves. The introduction of such a dissociation modifies our perception of the phenomena involved and our grasp of their interaction. This is therefore not the best route towards an understanding of the processes affecting both language and discourse which result in the plurality of codes and language change.

The heterogeneity condition.

The communities within which languages are used and change have no homogeneity. They are by definition non-homogeneous settings for contact and their individual features naturally predetermine the kinds of communication which take place within them. Consequently, the primary object of study should not be linguistic structure as homogeneous but rather exchange and contact between languages and varieties of languages appearing in the form of an interplay of available repertories of codes within organized communities. The general condition of heterogeneity must therefore be an elementary principle of language use.

The discursive horizon.

Whatever the nature of the exchange, speech is always governed by a discursive framework which establishes its nature and validity. There is no language without a discursive framework and there is no discursive framework without historical reference, without constraint and the construction of a history. For us, the importance of this construction lies in the fact that it is not confined to any given language but clearly stems from a collective judgment. It reflects a general framework built from a variety of exchanges involving normativity, yet sharing conditions of discursive development.

We may therefore reorient our theoretical perspectives along these four axes: normative multicodism, language continuum, heterogeneity, and discursive horizon, and concentrate our attention on the resulting array of empirical applications and modelizations of contact phenomena. This reorganization will divest language contact of its marginal status and establish it as central to the understanding of language development and change. Drawing the necessary conclusions from little appreciated facts, we thus envisage a broad review of our understanding of language.