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Inherited similarity and contact-induced change in Mayan Languages

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Similarity has been cited, generally anecdotally, as a significant factor shaping the outcomes of language contact. A detailed investigation of long-term contact among more than a dozen related Lowland Mayan languages has yielded specific examples of contact-induced language changes that, I argue, were facilitated by the systematic similarities shared by these languages because of genetic relatedness. Three factors that seem to have been particularly relevant in the Mayan case are 1) the high degree of overlap in linguistic structure, which would have allowed significant interlingual conflation, the collapsing of language boundaries at points of similarity between the languages, 2) the paradigmatic interchangeability of particular elements of related languages without the need for adaptation or accommodation, which facilitated the borrowing of various kinds of linguistic material, particularly bound morphemes, that in other contexts have been found to be highly resistant to borrowing, and 3) contact-induced drift, parallel secondary developments in more than one language that were triggered by contact-induced innovations but subsequently proceeded along similar paths of change after contact because of the preexisting structural similarities that the languages shared as a result of their common inheritance. I argue that these processes of change are much less likely, if not impossible, in situations of contact between unrelated languages, and suggest specific ways in which contact between genetically related languages can be qualitatively different from contact between unrelated languages.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University,


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