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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: August 2013

9 - Language spread, shift and maintenance: how groups choose their language


Languages, like organic species can be classified into groups and subgroups… Dominant languages and dialects spread and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex

The lure of English has not left us. And until it goes, our own languages will remain paupers.

Mohandas Gandhi (1965)

Outline of the chapter

Some societies are characterized by relatively stable language arrangements; others are more volatile. This chapter addresses the questions of how and why language choices by individuals and groups bring about incremental change of sociolinguistic arrangements in language-contact settings. By way of conceptualizing the inequality of the world’s languages, it provides a brief review of their distribution and offers a five-tiered scheme as a general orientation. It then goes on to consider language-demographic statistics, explaining the difficulties of obtaining reliable data. The concepts of language loyalty, ethnolinguistic vitality, territories and domains, and utility are introduced as the most promising theoretical tools for analysing unstable language arrangements. By way of illustration, reference is made to the spread of languages on the Internet and to the ascent of English to the status of global language.

Further reading
Brenzinger, Matthias. 1992. Patterns of language shift in East Africa. In Herbert, Robert (ed.), Language and Society in Africa. Cape Town: Witwatersrand University Press, 287–303.
Coulmas, Florian. 2010. The ethics of language choice in immigration. Policy Innovations.
Clyne, Michael. 1991. Community Languages: The Australian Experience. Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge University Press.
Extra, Guus. 2010. Mapping linguistic diversity in multicultural contexts: demolinguistics perspectives. In Fishman, J. A. and Garcia, O. (eds.), Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press, 107–22.
Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Hyltenstam, Kenneth and Viberg, Åke (eds.) 1993. Progression and Regression in Language. Cambridge University Press.