Language Shift and Purism: A Comparative Analysis

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  • Topic: English language, Sociolinguistics, Language shift
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Language Shift and Purism: A Comparative Analysis
By Michael A. Haedicke
Since Gal’s (1979) pioneering study of the phenomenon, a number of researchers have considered language shift in communities around the world. Language shift occurs when a group of bilinguals loses or gives up one of their languages, usually the language of their ancestors. Most of these studies follow Gal’s lead by analyzing language shift as “an instance of socially motivated linguistic change” (1979, p. 2). They combine analysis of social determinants of language shift, such as industrialization, urbanization, national linguistic policy, and cultural contact, with an examination of the day to day practices and evaluations of the language by its speakers. This work focuses not only on correlations between social determinants their effects on language, but also on the “process of language shift,” or how social developments affect the linguistic lives of speakers (Gal 1979, p. 3). In spite of the rich ethnographies of language shift offered by Gal (1979, 1984) and scholars like Dorian (1981, 1994) and Hill and Hill (1986), there appears to be a dearth of comparative research about processes of language shift. While the contributions of single-case ethnographic work cannot be overestimated, comparative analysis of a limited set of representative cases is also important. The strengths of comparative analysis lie in its ability to explore and analyze patterns of diversity and difference among different cases of the same phenomenon and to advance general theory (Ragin, pp. 108-112). A notable exception to the focus on single case ethnography is the work of Hill (1993), which considers language shift among indigenous populations in Australia, Mexico and North America. Hill concludes that 2 efforts to protect the languages of these communities give rise to purist practices, which, ironically, restrict the use of the languages and facilitate language shift. This paper proposes a comparative framework to examine three cases of language shift. Two processes of language shift are defined, one of which is organized by purist discourse, and one of which is not. The argument is that purist discourse prevails only under certain conditions, through the activation of certain sociological mechanisms. Possible problems with the analysis and directions for future research are also explored. While I believe that this analysis makes a contribution to the study of language shift, I do not mean to deprecate the contributions made already by single-case ethnographies. One of the shortcomings often faced by comparative research that it does not examine each case in detail. While I have tried to include the major findings from the ethnographies of the cases I examine here, I have not been able to replicate their detailed analyses.

Hungarian to German in Oberwart
Gal (1979, 1984) examines the shift from Hungarian/German bilingualism to German monolingualism in the Austrian border town of Oberwart. She finds that language choice among Oberwart bilinguals expresses social identity, and that the language shift has occurred across generations. In other words, the youngest generation uses Hungarian less frequently and in fewer situations than did the older generations when they were young, and then do the older generations at the present time. She concludes that the language shift concurs with changes in the social identity of young Oberwart bilinguals, and that these changes coincide with socioeconomic developments in the town.

The language shift in Oberwart is particularly striking because Oberwart Hungarianspeakers have been surrounded by German monolingual villages for at...
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