Colloquium: Does Language Contact Simplify Grammars?

May 12, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Sarah Thomason, University of Michigan

In recent years the old notion that extensive language contact tends to lead to overall simplification of linguistic structure has attracted a new set of adherents, among them Peter Trudgill and John McWhorter. English is frequently cited as an example of a language that has undergone dramatic simplification as a result of language contact, both in the transition from Old English to Middle English and in the emergence of a variety of Englishes all over the world. In this paper I will argue that extensive language contact does not lead predictably to overall grammatical simplification, and that English does not present a historical picture of simplification, whether due to language contact or to internally-motivated change. My main examples will come from contact situations that primarily involve hunter-gatherer communities whose languages have not been standardized, although they often display considerable dialectal variation. I have too little information to assess Trudgill's claim that `low-contact languages' tend to remain complex, but I will argue against his claim that `high-contact languages' tend to become less complex.