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29 October 2014
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Language change
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Pidgins and creoles
Dialects in contact

When languages collide by Philippa Law

Dialects in contact
Language contact doesn't have to be as dramatic as the example on the last page. All of us, perhaps excluding the most isolated tribespeople, will come across people who don't talk quite the same way as us. In fact, most of the world's people live in areas where lots of languages are spoken, and bi- or multilingualism is the norm. Any regular contact with speakers of another language or dialect can have an effect on the way we speak.

Borrowing words is very common: contact between English and French speakers, for example, has resulted in terms like 'cul-de-sac' and 'café' in English, and 'le weekend' and 'le camping' in French. Change isn't limited to words, of course - the grammar and sounds of a language can be influenced by external contact too.If two languages or dialects come into contact, where one is socially or politically dominant, for instance where Scots and English co-exist in Scotland, this can sometimes result in the less socially powerful variety declining or disappearing in favour of the dominant one.Where very similar dialects of one language are involved, the effects of language contact can be much less obvious.
"...the spread of urban varieties of English means some local dialects are being lost and replaced by wider regional varieties."
One major effect of increased mobility and migration, and therefore more contact between speakers, has been what linguists call 'dialect levelling'. In other words, the spread of urban varieties of English means some local dialects are being lost and replaced by wider regional varieties. Dialect contact doesn't always mean a loss of diversity, however. Whilst it's sometimes tempting to think we're all about to be over-run by London-talk (or American English or whatever), in reality, brand new dialects of British English are still springing up as a result of contact.New towns are a hotbed of innovation. When places like Corby, Peterborough and Milton Keynes were first populated, people with all kinds of different dialects moved in, and began talking to each other on a regular basis. In some new towns, linguists have spotted new dialects that have arisen from existing ones mixing together.Any area that admits migrants can be the same. David Britain has found evidence of dialect mixing in the Fens, the area of reclaimed land north of Cambridge and west of Norwich. Before the 17th century, the area was uninhabitable marshland, so there was relatively little contact between people on the east and west sides of the region. Once the land had been drained, the area allowed people from the east and west sides to meet regularly, and also attracted migrants from other parts of the country. The result was a new dialect influenced by those on either side of the area.In the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, where over half the school-age population is of Bangladeshi origin, Sue Fox has recently uncovered new dialect formation among (particularly male) adolescents. Following linguistic contact between previously separate communities, Bangladeshi, mixed-race and white boys alike now speak the same dialect of English.Further reading
New-Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes by Peter Trudgill

Phoenix from the ashes?: The death, contact and birth of dialects in England, by David Britain


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