Cumming on monolinguals (fwd)

Susanna Cumming cumming at HUMANITAS.UCSB.EDU
Fri Mar 8 02:54:33 UTC 1996

In response to Bill Stokoe's message (below), I certainly didn't mean to
imply that there isn't any fuzziness! Not only on the question of what it
means to be multilingual as opposed to multidialectal, but also on the
question of how competent in another language one has to be to be really

Nonetheless neither of these points weakens the argument about the rarity
or nonexsistence of "pure" varieties, since we know that dialects in
contact influence each other (as Trudgill among others has convincingly
demonstrated), and that you don't need true multilingualism for language
contact to result in language change (as Thomason & Kaufman among others
have convincingly demonstrated).

Tom's original point had to do with the elicitation language influencing
the grammar of elicited sentences. I'm sure that this is a very real
phenomenon; I've seen grammars of Indonesian languages where the word
order of all the sentence examples matched the word order of the eliciting
language (Indonesian), but was different from the vast majority of
sentences in the accompanying texts. I agree that this particular problem
can be minimized by focusing on natural discourse (preferably recorded by
a community member with the linguist absent) as a data source. But this of
course does not eliminate the more general issue of language and dialect

 ---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 07 Mar 1996 19:37:43 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Cumming on monolinguals

What Susanna Cumming says about language contact strikes me as provocative and
reminds me that I haven't seen a watertight definition of the boundary between
languages that distinguishes languages from dialects. Everybody we encounter
talks a little differently, but when does the difference amount to a language
difference and when is it difference between very different dialects of one
language? I frequently encounter speakers who are they think speaking English
but whom I can't understand even with two or three repetitions of an utterance.
And in the end, are monolingual and bilingual formally separate categories
or is there some fuzzy logic in there somewhere?
Bill Stokoe
P.S. I meant to send this to funknet but copied your address instead; you are
welcome to send it on if you see fit. Regards,


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