Superdiverse repertoires
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Superdiverse repertoires. Jan Blommaert & Ad Backus Babylon, Tilburg University. From competence to knowledge. What is it to know a language? ‘maximal’ knowledge: fluency in multi-genres and varieties, ‘voice’ ‘intermediate’ knowledge: specific genres, registers, varieties

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Superdiverse repertoires

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Superdiverse repertoires

Jan Blommaert & Ad Backus

Babylon, Tilburg University

From competence to knowledge

  • What is it to know a language?

    • ‘maximal’ knowledge: fluency in multi-genres and varieties, ‘voice’

    • ‘intermediate’ knowledge: specific genres, registers, varieties

    • ‘temporary’ learning (age groups or e.g. via traveling)

    • ‘minimal’ knowledge: single-word, restricted registers and functions (« sayonara », « hasta la vista »…)

    • ‘recognizing’ language: attributive identity functions

  • All of this belongs to a repertoire: a biographical complex of functionally organised linguistic resources: repertoire as indexical biography

  • And is the result of entirely different modes of acquisition

    • From ‘encountering’ language (in informal learning environment)

    • To ‘learning’ language (in formal learning environment)

    • Increasing density of ‘ephemeral’ learning processes (e.g. tourism, Facebook etc)

Jan’s repertoire

  • ‘Maximum’: Dutch, English

  • ‘Intermediate’: French, German, Latin, Spanish, Swahili

  • ‘Minimal’: Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Finnish, Russian, Portuguese, a number of African languages…

  • ‘Recognising’: Turkish, Arabic, Korean, Northern Sami, Gaelic, Berber, Polish, Albanian, Hungarian, Czech, Serbo-Kroatian, Thai, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Schwytsertüütsch, several African languages…

  • Ephemeral learning modes

  • You take whatever is (cheaply) available

  • Assemble it into a functionally adequate variety

  • Always ‘incomplete’ and by degrees

  • Functions:

    • Linguistic, communicative

    • Indexical

    • Emblematic

    • Aesthetic …

The point...

  • Definition of ‘language’

  • Definition of ‘competence’

  • Understanding specific forms of diversity – not as deviation/transgression/’bad language’/wrong

  • UG not a great basis for any of this

  • Usage-based linguistics is

My ownperspective

Language Contact Theories

Linguistic Theories


Usage-based theory about language, including language contact and change

Usage-based approach

  • Typical approach of Cognitive Linguistics

  • Linguistic competence is usage-based

    • ‘you are what you say and hear’

    • competence is not independent of usage

  • Linguistic competence is an inventory of specific and schematic units

  • Basic aim: theory of mental representation

    • No different from other linguistic theories

  • Language use results from cognitive processes

  • Therefore: mental representation is always part of the explanation

Usage-based approach

  • Basic hypothesis: mental representation built up on the basis of usage

  • Ingredients: human cognitive skills and linguistic experience

    • Cognitive skills: storage in memory, pattern recognition, focusing joint attention, intention reading, cooperation

    • Linguistic experience (interaction): exposure (‘input’) and use (‘output’)

  • Competence is continuously updated; i.e. it is dynamic

    • Repeated neuromotor routines ease processing: increasing entrenchment

  • Competence varies between individuals, but not too much (we understand each other)

Usage-based approach

Two important characteristics:

1) no strict division between lexicon and syntax;

2) diachronic issues (as well as synchronic variation) put back in the center of linguistic theory.

Historical linguistics and sociolinguistics not seen as separate disciplines anymore

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov & Marvin Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In Winfried P. Lehmann & Yakov Malkiel (eds.), Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium, 95–195. Austin: University of Texas Press.


What determines degree of entrenchment?

  • Usage frequency (corpus frequencies)

    Entrenchment (online measures)

    (e.g. Arnon, 2009; Bannard & Matthews, 2008; Bybee & Scheibman, 1999; Caldwell-Harris & Morris, 2008; Ellis & Simpson-Vlach, 2009; Tremblay, 2009)

Usage-based approach


  • To language (Langacker, Croft, Bybee, Fillmore, Goldberg, Gries, ...)

  • To many other things: fashion, trends in TV series, how to order a drink ... (e.g. Bakhtin, Stockwell)

    Bybee, Joan (2010). Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Stockwell, Peter (2002). Cognitive poetics. An introduction. London: Routledge.

Beyond Linguistics

  • Memory is not just for language

  • Usage-based approach to linguistic representation may morph into usage-based approach to knowledge representation

    • Including ‘cultural knowledge’ (the ‘brought along’ of anthropology)

  • Domains would include everything that requires cognitive control

Language = Cultural domain

Other domains where we establish routines (* = requires communication):

  • Fixed route to your office

  • Order a drink in a bar *

  • Establish a running route

  • Dance moves *

  • What to have for breakfast

  • Where to sit in class *

  • Crossing a street *

  • Whether or not to make stupid little jokes during a presentation *


Idiolectal and group differences to be expected:

Linguists: metathesis, codeswitching, X-bar, usage-based model

Mechanics : ….

Linguistic competence varies from person to person

This is a consequence of:

That knowledge is usage-based

Our differing lives

Requires synchronic and diachronic perspectives combined

Synchrony and diachrony in general linguistics

  • Descriptive linguistics: tends to be strictly synchronic

  • Sociolinguistics: tends to be synchronic

    • If change is studied, it’s ‘change in progress’, read off from synchronic variation

    • Interactional analyses often based on agency: what is someone doing at a particular moment in time (e.g. in a particular communicative situation)?

  • Usage-based linguistics: both perspectives needed

Synchrony and diachrony: change

  • Example from Dutch Turkish: the Dutch word gedoogpartner

  • Interference: synchronic phenomenon: first use of the word in Turkish

  • Continuous selection of the ‘interference’ variant: decreasing sense of cross-linguistic influence: increasing entrenchment

  • ‘Interference’ variant becomes part of the language: change in progress: any Turkish equivalent is ousted

  • Endpoint: change (loanword)

Communicative factors

  • Change results from selection in communication

  • Asymmetry influences communicative decisions

    • Language choice

    • Choices within interaction, within utterances

  • Choices may be

    • Intentionally creative (‘proposing’ an innovation)

    • Intentionally marked (propagating a change in progress)

    • Unintentionally propagating a change in progress, changing the norm without knowing it

      • Based on entrenchment

        • Long-term: storage in memory

        • Short-term: priming; alignment in conversation


  • Language Change = change in what is unmarked (in what is the norm)

  • Norm/Definition of ‘language’: a structured inventory of linguistic (specific and schematic) units

    • Specific units equivalent to words

    • Schematic units equivalent to rules

  • Basic hypothesis: everything is stored

    • Memory traces that match current update get entrenched further

  • Disuse leads to decay: degree of entrenchment is lowered

  • Challenges:

    • Does storage take place without conscious attention?

    • Every usage event is unique: when does it count as ‘the same’?

  • Describing a norm

    • Serious empirical problem!

    • Language = inventory of linguistic units in the mind of the speaker.

    • Technically, one could describe one’s complete inventory, no?

    • Wrong: language is a ‘moving target’. Any complete inventory, if such were possible, would be obsolete the next second. Besides, there is no reason to privilege that one individual.

    • Better to have a good theory that combines synchrony and diachrony

    • Better to have a good theory that operates at a more cumulative level: describe the common ground (conventions) that most people (in a community) share.

    Why study language contact phenomena?

    The interesting thing about contact phenomena is that they illustrate that languages change all the time, that they are dynamic

    My claims:

    Understanding change means understanding how competence or knowledge is formed(usage-based)

    Understanding how knowledge is formed means understanding normativity

    Norms and normativity

    Language change =

    Change in conventions = Change in norm

    Interesting thing about linguistic norms: on either side of the border of awareness (or conscious control)

    (Blommaert, Jan & Ad Backus 2011). Repertoires revisited: ‘Knowing language’ in superdiversity, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies Paper 67)

    Kinds of norms/yardsticks

    • Individual internal norms (entrenchment)

    • Cumulative shared internal norms (common ground)

      (Clark, Herbert 1996. Using language. Cambridge University Press)

    • External norms (‘norm’ in the everyday sense of the word)- often codified

    What do we have norms about?

    Any behavior that’s under cognitive control

    Linguistic examples:

    • Genre conventions (e.g. fairy tale, school/academic register, service encounters, etc. >> cf. Clark, Bakhtin, Bourdieu)

      (Briggs, Charles & Bauman, Richard (1992). Genre, intertextuality, and social power. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2 (2): 131-172)

    • Syntactic structures (jury still out?)

    • Whether or not it’s okay to use particular foreign word

    • Anything, really

      Perhaps best source of evidence: expectancy violations, creativity, discourse about correctness

    Why do we have norms?

    Group cohesion, culture, being normal, to belong, ...

    • ‘Soft’ mechanisms 1: Coercion, Peer pressure, Accommodation, Admiring imitation, ‘just’ imitation

      (Eckert, Penelope (2012). Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of variation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41: 87-100)

    • ‘Hard’ mechanisms: Enforcement of standards (‘policing’)

    • But: grey area between hard and soft

    What are linguistic norms like?

    • Many linguistic norms are adhered to automatically

      • They are very entrenched

        • Especially what’s very frequent

    • Deviations are more or less easily spot

      • Depends on how set in stone the norm is

        E.g. Ungrammatical word order, use of ain’t, expressions that are too formal for the situation, ...

    • Norms can easily be brought to attention

    Norms in contact situations

    • So deviation from the norm is easy to spot

      • Conscious awareness always just around the corner

    • Interpreted in bilingual settings as: loss/attrition, poor proficiency, influence from another language (interference)

    • Negative associations cause anxiety

    Judgment data

    Asked Dutch Turks acceptability judgments of:

    • TR-Turkish piyano çalmak (‘hit’); and

    • NL-Turkish piyano oynamak (‘play’)

    Judgment data

    Asked Dutch Turks acceptability judgments of:

    • TR-Turkish piyano çalmak (‘hit’); and

    • NL-Turkish piyano oynamak (‘play’)

      And what did they say?:

    • It should be piyano oynamak, certainly notpiyano çalmak

    Judgment data on acceptability of NL-Turkish and TR-Turkish syntactic constructions

    • Dutch-dominant bilinguals give:

    • lower ratings to conventional Turkish sentences, and

    • higher ratings to unconventional sentences.

    Linguistic external norms and purism

    Deviations trigger purism.

    And purism can be annoying, or harmful.

    • Tariana: you get laughed at if you use a foreign word (Aikhenvald)

    • Nahuatl: Hispanicized form looked at negatively; result: people hesitate to use the language, and language dies (Hill & Hill)

      But who cares anymore about French influence on English?

      Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2002. Language Contact in Amazonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

      Hill, Jane & Kenneth Hill. 1986. Speaking Mexicano. Dynamics of Syncretic Language in Central Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

    Expressions of anxiety (1)

    Since my Turkish is bad, I can’t express myself very well in Turkish. Some words don’t come to mind. I don’t feel comfortable when I’m talking and I get stuck. I can explain everything in Dutch better than in Turkish, that’s why I prefer to speak Dutch all the time.

    Backus, Ad, Derya Demirçay & Yeşim Sevinç (Forthc.) Converging evidence on contact effects on second and third generation Immigrant Turkish. To appear in Ad Backus, Carol W. Pfaff & Annette Herkenrath (eds.),Turkish in Northwestern Europe versus Turkish in Turkey. Copenhagen: Copenhagen University.

    Expressions of anxiety (2)

    I feel comfortable while talking Dutch. I feel bad when I have to speak only Turkish, I can’t remember the words in Turkish.

    (Backus, Demirçay & Sevinç forthc.)

    Expressions of anxiety (3)

    Sometimes, I try to play with my cousin’s friends there [i.e. in Turkey], and I attempt to say something but I stop. I can’t talk most of the time, because the people there know Turkish very well, but I don’t. And they mostly don’t understand what I say. And it gets worse. When I can’t explain it in Turkish, I call my mother or father and tell them in Dutch. Then, they talk to the people. That happens in Turkey often.

    (Backus, Demirçay & Sevinç forthc.)

    What is language?

    • No such thing as “a language”, as commonly understood.

    • Knowing Finnish is not the same as knowing all of Finnish

    • Language is not distinct and discreetly bounded: one’s Finnish may be full of Swedish and English

    • Talking is a cognitive activity, and since it’s done in interaction it’s also a socio-cultural activity

    • Relies on wide inventory of resources (conventions) and abilities

    • Everybody talks a bit differently

    • Enough similarity safeguards communication, but it’s on a cline: all communication is ‘intercultural’ and all change is ‘contact-induced’

    • Abstracting away from differences and imposing artificial boundaries gives us ‘languages’: products of socialization (equally for registers)

    • But there are also built-in mechanisms that work towards similarity: accommodation, alignment, need to be understood, cooperation (from Grice to Tomasello). Result: speech communities.

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