Workshop dialect contact

Antwerp in 1565 (Museum Plantin-Moretus)

On 18 January 2022 (9am – 12pm CET), the Historical Sociolinguistics Research Program (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) is organizing an expert workshop on dialect contact.


9:00 – 9:10 Introduction and welcome

Rik Vosters (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

9:10 – 9:35 Joshua Brown (Australian National University)

Dialect contact, standardization, authority

9:35 – 10:00 Randi Neteland (Universitetet i Bergen)

Dialect contact: the role of the broader social context

10:00 – 10:25 David Britain (Universität Bern)

Looking for calm within the storm – dialect contact research and its elephants in the room

10:25 – 10:45 Break
10:45 – 11:05 Project presentation:
Dialect contact and standardization in 16th-century Antwerp

Julie Van Ongeval (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

11:05 – 11:35 Responses by invited experts (10 min. each)
11:35 – 12:00 General discussion and conclusions

The workshop will take place online. Send an email to Julie (dot) Van (dot) Ongeval (at) vub (dot) be to receive the link if you wish to attend.


Dialect contact, standardization, authority (Joshua Brown)

This brief talk will consider some methodological questions researchers face when dealing with questions of dialect contact, standardization, and authority in the past. Social events during the early modern period, such as mass emigration, constant war, increased trade, and rapid urbanization, are characteristic of many locations across Europe. In Italy, these phenomena brought speakers of different ‘dialects’ into contact at the same time as a standard was evolving. A parallel development saw the rise of linguistic academies endowed with particular authority to make linguistic pronouncements, in an (often futile) attempt at inducing what was believed to be appropriate linguistic behaviour. How is one best placed to deal with dialect contact, standardization, and authority, when these terms are often ambiguous in the research literature, in different linguistic traditions, and across varied European contexts?

This talk considers what ‘dialect contact’ might mean and how it can be usefully applied to the other two terms in the title. I consider how data from northern Italy, in particular 1pl. verb ending –emo, can be considered as both dialectal and standard, according to the relative status assigned in the conflicting norm. This status, in turn, leads to the ongoing question of different types of standards, such as ‘incipient standard’ (Ammon 2003: 2), ‘informal standardization’ (Tuten 2001: 327), ‘ideology’ (Milroy 1991: 19), ‘failed standardization’ (Brown 2020), or standards with a ‘pluricentric base’ (Grübl 2013). The aim of the talk is to show how forms of dialect contact in the past can be interpreted in different ways according to the socio-spatial dynamics of the historic context, but also the theoretical framing of the questions posed by the researcher.


Ammon, Ulrich. 2003. On the social forces that determine what is standard in a language and on conditions of successful implementation. Sociolinguistica 17. 1–10.

Brown, Joshua. 2020. Language history from below. Standardization and koineization in Renaissance Italy. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics. 6(1): 1-28.

Grübl, Klaus. 2013. La standardisation du français au Moyen Âge: point de vue scriptologique. Revue de Linguistique Romane 77. 343–383.

Milroy, James & Lesley Milroy. 1991. Authority in language: Investigating language prescription and standardisation. London: Routledge.

Tuten, Donald. 2001. Modeling Koineization. In Laurel J. Brinton (ed.), Historical linguistics 1999: Selected papers from the 14th international conference on historical linguistics, Vancouver, 9-13 August 1999, 325–336. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dialect contact: the role of the broader social context (Randi Neteland)

In my research on dialect contact I have mainly worked on new dialect formation in industrial towns in Norway. New dialect formation is often considered a special case of dialect contact, as a new dialect formation situation is characterized by a sudden rise in the degree of linguistic variation in the local community, for example due to high immigration rates over a short timespan. It is also documented that most koine formation process follow a particular pattern where the various dialects in contact are levelled out, over a few generations, and a new dialect emerge. The formation of the new dialects in my research also conform to this pattern. However, when looking at the linguistic outcome of the koine formation processes, it is quite clear that the features that succeed in the levelling process are not necessarily majority variants in the feature pool of the dialects in contact; they may also be traditional local variants or standard language variants. In my opinion, this is because the contact situation is not set in a social vacuum, but happens in a broader social context of language use in the region or the nation. The language ideologies and language use patterns of the society at large, as well as ongoing linguistic changes, influence which features are used locally, i.e. the feature pool, and the new dialect that is formed is not only influenced by the dialects in contact, but also by these contextual factors. In my presentation I will give a few examples from my ongoing research on new dialect formation in Narvik and Kiruna, “twin” towns on the border of Norway and Sweden, to highlight how the different standard language ideologies and differences in standard language use in the two countries, influenced the linguistic outcome of the new dialect formation in these two towns.

Looking for calm within the storm – dialect contact research and its elephants in the room (David Britain)

The now 40+ year old research focus on contact approaches to dialectology (e.g. Trudgill 1986, Siegel 1985) has in some respects embraced, both methodologically and theoretically, some of the criticisms of the highly sedentarist and authenticist approaches to language variation that preceded it (and which continue to compete with it). Rather than entirely shunning mobile people (as traditional dialectology did and much of variationist sociolinguistics still does), it has investigated what happens when speaker contact, of different kinds, and of different durations, often motivated by mobility, brings distinct dialects together in interaction. Today, we have a rich understanding of the kinds of linguistic processes that typically occur in these contexts, and we have used these to help explain, for example, historical colonial dialect formation, supralocal regional dialect formation, second dialect acquisition, innovation diffusion, new dialect genesis and so on (see Britain 2018 for a summary). In so doing, contact dialectologists have been at the cutting edge of work aiming to describe dialect in ways that better represent how contemporary communities are made up.

Here I want to reflect, both theoretically and methodologically, however, on dialect contact research’s elephants in the room: “large presences that we collectively ignore, issues that we set aside in order to get on with our research enterprise. One might say we can’t do research without elephants, for if we didn’t take some things as given, we’d never be able to investigate anything. But eventually we have to look at those givens” (Eckert 2003: 392). What is it that we continue to tidy up and sanitise, what is it that we continue to ignore or put to one side, in order to try and find order in dialect diffuseness, to find descriptive ‘calm’ in the ‘storm’ of speakers and their speech communities in contact?

Dialect contact research, I will argue, still embodies some of the sedentarist tendencies of our predecessors in traditional dialectology, and of our colleagues in variationist sociolinguistics – it makes assumptions we need to question, assumptions which rely on stasis as the norm, rather than on mobility. Mobility is still seen as ‘special’ rather than as banale, rather than as ordinary, rather than as to be expected. My aim is not to undermine what has been achieved, but, following Eckert, to reflect upon what our achievements in the field have helped us take for granted, and upon the challenges that still face us.


Britain, David. (2018). Dialect contact and new dialect formation. In Charles Boberg, John Nerbonne & Dominic Watt (eds.), Handbook of dialectology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. 143–158

Eckert, Penelope. (2003). Elephants in the room. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7: 392–7.

Siegel, Jeff. 1985. Koines and koineization. Language in Society 14. 357–378.

Trudgill, Peter. (1986). Dialects in Contact. Oxford: Blackwell.


Julie Van Ongeval (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Rik Vosters (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Bart Lambert (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Chris De Wulf (Universität Zürich)