Language contact and change in Canada's official languages

Principal Investigator: Shana Poplack
Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada
Research Grant #435-2012-1696 [2012–2017]

Spoken vernaculars have always represented an easy target for normative critiques, especially when perceived deviations from the standard are numerous, salient and associated with “bad” grammar. This is particularly true of transplanted and/or minority languages, which are often assumed to have changed, whether because of relative isolation from the conservative influence of the metropolis, long-term contact with a majority language, or both. But our work on many such situations shows that such inferences hinge crucially on 1) how change is defined, 2) the capacity to identify it, especially when it is “in progress”, and 3) the benchmark against which the outcome of the putative change is compared. Inspection of the relevant literature reveals that many reports of change involve the garden-variety linguistic variability inherent in all spoken language. When the benchmark is a prescribed standard, change is a natural (if naive) inference, because non-standard variants are prescriptively inadmissible. If a superficially similar construction exists in a neighbouring language, the simplest conclusion is that the change is contact-induced. And this inference is bolstered if speakers happen to incorporate words or phrases from that language when speaking the variety in question. How can we ascertain whether alternation among variant forms is the result of change? How can we determine whether it was contact-induced?

The overarching objective of the proposed research is to address these questions, through a wide-ranging research program aiming to elucidate the multifarious nature of language change. Many key issues remain poorly understood, including how to identify, date and document the mechanisms and trajectories of change, and of particular importance in the Canadian context, how to distinguish contact-induced change from internal evolution.

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