Language border

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Language boundary of Brittany between Celtic-speaking (west) and Romance-speaking Brittany (east).

A language border or language boundary is the line separating two language areas. The term is generally meant to imply a lack of mutual intelligibility between the two languages. If two adjacent languages or dialects are mutually intelligible, no firm border will develop, because the two languages can continually exchange linguistic inventions; this is known as a dialect continuum. A "language island" is a language area that is completely surrounded by a language border.

Important concepts

The concept of mutual intelligibility is vague. More important, the ability to distinguish languages from one another can also be difficult, since some languages share writing systems but are spoken differently and some are identical when spoken but are written using different alphabets. There are often also shared terms between two languages even between languages that have nothing to do with each other.[1]

For example, Spanish is spoken in most Central American and South American countries, but also in Spain. There are subtle but recognizable differences between the dialects, but there are different dialects even within the country of Spain. In many cultures there are still subtle differences between the terminology (called the register) used when talking to your boss and talking to your mother or talking to your friends.[2] So where are the language borders?


Röstigraben in Switzerland

There can also be people within a country who speak the "native" language of a different country, some of whom may be bilingual.[1] Also, an inherited language may evolve and perhaps absorb some of the characteristics or terms of the new area's predominant language. In cases such as these, it becomes even more difficult to identify specific languages.[1]

When speakers have a foreign accent, they are often perceived to be less intelligent and are less likely to be hired.[1][3] It is the same with an accent from a peripheral area, rather than the accent from the urbanized core: a peripheral person is typically perceived as speaking a "less correct" by those who are more educated,[2][3][4] while those who are not as educated do not perceive any difference in the "correctness".[3] Colonial histories could also help this phenomenon.[4]

A well-known example of a language border is the border between Romance languages and Germanic languages that stretches through Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

Politics and language borders

European expansion

However, it is important to remember that language borders do not always reflect political borders; the tendency to correlate language with ethnicity is a common error[4] that seems to have its basis during the period of 19th century European expansion[1][4] (e.g., the term Anglo in Mexico and the southeastern U.S., or the term Angrez--literally, "English"--in India). The usage of a particular language can reflect positively or negatively on its speaker depending upon the situation. For example, there is perception that only English speakers are American and only non-Americans are non-English-speakers.[1] It is suspected that this assumption began because states would have "official" languages for the purposes of book publishing and therefore for the purposes of education, so intelligence would come to be associated with speaking the language that was written.[1][4] Because of this idea, there are also often social benefits which result from being able to speak English.[3] A prime example of this is the prevalence of bilingualism near the U.S.-Mexican border,[1][3] which also indicates the porosity of the border and illustrates the difficulty of drawing a "border" around all speakers of a given language, especially because there is not usually much correlation between ethnicity and language.[3] Such common bilingualism leads to the practice of code-switching, or the changing freely between languages while speaking[1] although this trait is somewhat looked down upon[2] because those living in areas of frequent code-switching seem to develop a sort of language loyalty.[3]


Another example of the difference between language borders and political borders is the spread of languages via colonialism, causing languages to be spoken in multiple, not necessarily adjacent countries.[4]

Other examples

Although language borders and political borders do not always agree, there have been instances where political leadership has attempted to enforce language borders.[4] One instance of this is the passing of Bill 101 in Quebec, Canada, which declared French to be the only official language of the area.[1] Another similar example is that of Ciudad Juarez on the American–Mexican border, where social efforts have been made to curb the amount of American influence taking place—but at the same time, as in other foreign cultures, the class benefits of English proficiency are acknowledged and to this end schools teach in English and many television channels are in English.[2][3] There are also instances of intolerance to the speaking of Native American languages at some schools, thus forcing those students to create small communities in which they can speak their native language, thereby creating "language boundaries" on a very small scale.[1] Examples like these illustrate the impact that language boundaries can have on cultural boundaries, even if they are not necessarily one and the same.[4]

Annotated bibliography

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Urciuoli, Bonnie. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24, (1995), pp. 525–546. This article discusses the role of language and nationalistic identity and its role near the border. It explores whether or not people tend to make a connection between nationalism and language.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Eastman, Carol M. Codeswitching. Multilingual Matters Ltd. 1992. Discusses the implications of codeswitching and its acceptability based upon where the utterance occurs. Indicates the mixture of languages and borrowing of words throughout any area. Explores the differences between codeswitching and borrowing, and the views that speakers have on these two phenomena.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Language Contact, Language Loyalty, and Language Prejudice on the Mexican Border Margarita Hidalgo Language in Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 193–220. This article is about the role of language and code-switching in Juarez, Mexico. It researches the impact of English versus Spanish and their roles in society, including the social ramifications of language usage and the prevalence of codeswitching. It includes interviews of many Juarez residents concerning their feelings toward the use of English and Spanish.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Woolard, Kathryn A. and Bambi B. Schieffelin. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 23, (1994), pp. 55–82. This article explores the role of language in ideological and political identity. It researches the ways in which dialects and grammar can affect perceptions in society. It investigates the implications of using a particular type of communication in a certain setting.

See also