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The onset of borrowing: Somali and English

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Alison Biggs.

Over the last decade, we have gained numerous new insights into the types and frequencies of loans. Large typological surveys, including Matras & Sakel (2007) on grammatical borrowing, Haspelmath & Tadmor (2009) on lexical borrowing and most recently Michaelis et al. (2013) on pidgin and creole languages have given us insights into frequent, or even typical loans across the languages of the world and across different contact situations.

Yet, we still know little about why these tendencies exist, and how most of these loans have come about, for which we would need to look at ongoing language change. We can only theorise about specific forms, e.g. Matras’ (2009) sub-hierarchy of borrowing but > or > and, which he convincingly links to speakers’ language processing during monitoring and directing tasks. The contact situations in these surveys are generally well established, often with “stable” bilingualism and distributions of languages across various domains. For example, in the Matras & Sakel (2007) study, we deliberately excluded instances of new contact phenomena and second language acquisition.

One of the reasons for this is, of course, that ongoing contact situations are highly changeable, and that it is difficult to study these phenomena systematically. One speaker may do something they’ll never do again. A new structure may be picked up by others – or not. Yet, the types of loans that appear at this stage, and whether they become integrated into a language, can shed further light on the underlying mechanisms of language contact.

In this talk, I focus on one specific situation of ongoing contact, namely the language use of speakers of Somali heritage in Britain. I look at bidirectional transfer and contact phenomena in Somali and English, seeking to identify which grammatical categories are affected by contact in both languages, and across different generations of speakers.

Among the larger immigrant languages in Britain, Somali is relatively new. Prior to the beginning of the civil war in the early 1990s, there were much smaller numbers of people of Somali heritage in Britain. Today, Somali is one of the major immigrant languages, in particular in the some areas of the country. The speakers differ substantially across the generations, with older first generation speakers usually acquiring English, while the younger first generation and second generation show signs of incomplete acquisition of Somali.

I will be focusing on the interference in and acquisition of subordination structures of speakers of different generations and immigration backgrounds, looking at the mechanisms behind borrowing subordination structures from other languages, and the ways in which these are employed.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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