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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

Superdiverse repertoires

Jan Blommaert & Ad Backus

Babylon, Tilburg University

From competence to knowledge
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
Jan’s repertoire of functionally organised linguistic resources: repertoire as indexical biography

  • ‘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 of functionally organised linguistic resources: repertoire as indexical biography

  • 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
The point... of functionally organised linguistic resources: repertoire as indexical biography

  • 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 own perspective
My of functionally organised linguistic resources: repertoire as indexical biographyownperspective

Language Contact Theories

Linguistic Theories


Usage based approach
Usage-based approach contact and change

  • 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 approach1
Usage-based approach contact and change

  • 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 approach2
Usage-based approach contact and change

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.

Entrenchment contact and change

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 approach3
Usage-based contact and changeapproach


  • 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
Beyond Linguistics contact and change

  • 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
Language = Cultural domain contact and change

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 *

Variation contact and change

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
Synchrony and diachrony in general linguistics contact and change

  • 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
Synchrony and contact and changediachrony: 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
Communicative factors contact and change

  • 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

Propagation contact and change

  • 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
    Describing a norm contact and change

    • 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
    Why study language contact phenomena? contact and change

    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
    Norms and normativity contact and change

    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
    Kinds of norms/yardsticks contact and change

    • 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
    What do we have norms about? contact and change

    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
    Why do we have norms? contact and change

    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
    What are contact and changelinguistic 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
    Norms in contact situations contact and change

    • 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
    Judgment data contact and change

    Asked Dutch Turks acceptability judgments of:

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

    • NL-Turkish piyano oynamak (‘play’)

    Judgment data1
    Judgment data contact and change

    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
    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
    Linguistic external norms and purism syntactic constructions

    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
    Expressions of anxiety (1) syntactic constructions

    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
    Expressions of anxiety (2) syntactic constructions

    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
    Expressions of anxiety (3) syntactic constructions

    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
    What is language? syntactic constructions

    • 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.