LINGUIST List 14.1077

Fri Apr 11 2003

Review: Socioling/Psycholing: Myers-Scotton (2002)

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  • Naima Boussofara Omar, Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes

    Message 1: Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes

    Date: Wed, 09 Apr 2003 16:10:23 +0000
    From: Naima Boussofara Omar <>
    Subject: Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes

    Myers-Scotton, Carol (2002) Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes, Oxford University Press.

    Announced at

    Naima Boussofara Omar, Department of African & African-American Studies, University of Kansas


    1. Introduction

    In this chapter, Myers-Scotton clearly states that this book is concerned with grammatical structure of language when speakers, through their speech, bring together two or more languages. She then provides an overview of language contact research. Her main premise is that the same principles underlie all language contact phenomena. What makes the surface realization different is the role of the sociopolitical and psycholinguistic conditions. She also introduces the Matrix Language Frame model (MLF) and its recently added sub-models: the 4-M model and the Abstract Level model, as well as some new principles, and a new hypothesis e.g. the Uniform Structure Principle, the Asymmetry Principle, the Morpheme Sorting principle, and the Differential Access Hypothesis.

    2. The Roots of Language Contact

    This chapter is the only chapter that deals with the social motivations for codeswitching. Myers-Scotton first makes a distinction between what she calls individual bilingualism and societal bilingualism which, she states, are of relevance to this volume. Then she discusses such issues as bilingual competence, motivations for bilingualism, and language shift. She also reviews briefly previous research on social motivations for codeswitching in which she includes the re-articulation of her Markedness model as Rational Choice Model.

    3. Explaining the Models and Their Uses

    In her efforts to elaborate on the principles of the refined version of the MLF model and to clarify its hypotheses, Myers-Scotton rearticulates its provisions and explains how applying the MLF model together with its two new sub-models (i.e. the 4-M model and the Abstract Level model) results in better explanations for not only classic codeswitching but also other contact phenomena.

    In this chapter, Myers-Scotton explains why she has changed the unit of analysis from discourse to sentence to CP (i.e. projection of complementizers). Because the model, in its original version (1993) as well the fine-tuned version (1997), is based on the pivotal concept of hierarchies between the ML and EL on the one hand, and the content morphemes and system morphemes on the other, Myers-Scotton meticulously addresses the problematic issue of the identification of the ML (matrix language) and explains why she uses the content/system morpheme distinction rather than the open/closed class that many other researchers use.

    In her explanation of the 4-M model, she basically argues that it is a model that explains how morphemes are activated and accessed during speech production. The main argument is centered upon the notion that different lemmas underlying different types of morphemes become salient at different levels. One type of system morphemes is called 'early system' morphemes. The other type comprises two kinds of later system morphemes ('bridge' and 'outsider system' morphemes). Myers-Scotton also revisits what she calls 'misunderstandings' of the system morpheme principle and enunciates the Early System Morpheme Hypothesis to explain double morphology in classic codeswitching better. In her explanation of the Abstract Level model, she states two major points. The first is that all lemmas contain three levels of abstract lexical structure: the levels of lexical-conceptual structure, predicate-argument structure, and morphological realization patterns. The second point is that those three levels can be split and recombined resulting in what Myers-Scotton calls a 'composite' ML.

    4. Considering Problematic Codeswitching Data and Other Approaches

    In this chapter, Myers-Scotton reviews the main theoretical premises of the MLF model, explains classic codeswitching, and reiterates the claim that the stability of bilingual communities bear significant influence on the stability of the ML. Then, she considers some classic codeswitching problematic data at length and in detail with special focus on bare forms and Embedded Language islands in light of the Uniform Structural Principle. She also discusses the issue of distinguishing borrowing from codeswitching in light of Government and Binding, and the Minimalist Program model.

    5. Convergence and Attrition

    Chapter 5 is devoted to convergence and attrition with a main focus on the latter. First, Myers-Scotton surveys major claims of the contact literature on L1 attrition then she suggests theoretical assumptions that predict the grammatical features of a speaker's language when it displays attrition. In her discussion of the theoretical framework that she proposes to study convergence and attrition, she draws on the Abstract Level model and the 4-M model. Her basic argument from the Abstract Level model is that convergence and attrition result when the three levels of abstract grammatical structure in any lemma in the mental lexicon from language A are split and recombined with the levels in a lemma from language B. The argument that she develops from the 4-M model is that the type of morpheme has an effect on the extent to which attrition affects an L1. Hence her claim that splitting and recombining is an earlier attrition feature for [+conceptually activated] morphemes, i.e. early system morphemes and content morphemes.

    6. Lexical Borrowing, Split (Mixed) Languages, and Creole Formation

    In this chapter, Myers-Scotton discusses three types of language contact phenomena. First, she discusses lexical borrowings with a brief review of previous research on borrowing, and a special focus on motivations for borrowing, and types of lexical borrowing. Second, she discusses split languages by describing and analyzing three examples languages: Michif, Mednyj Aleut, and Ma'a (Mbugu). She basically argues that split languages arise when there is a Matrix Language turnover that fossilizes at a certain point. Split languages, too, Myers-Scotton claims, have a composite Matrix Language. But what makes the difference between a composite Matrix Language (Recall that it is composite because the abstract structure comes from one source) and a split language is not readily answered. However, in her efforts to explain the conditions under which a split language arises, Myers-Scotton invokes 'sociopolitical' and socio-psychological' factors, all of which can also promote a shift in the dominant language.

    The last contact phenomenon that Myers-Scotton discusses is Creole formation. She first examines how Creole developed, then she presents a brief overview of research on Creoles and Creole structuring, and finally she proposes five hypotheses to account for Creole structuring. The major claim that Myers-Scotton makes in this chapter is that the form of the three contact phenomena, although these phenomena are different, is constrained.

    7. Concluding Remarks: The Out of Sight in Contact Linguistics

    In her concluding remarks, Myers-Scotton emphasizes two major topics. The first concerns the theoretical notion that the same structures and principles regulate all language phenomena (e.g. codeswitching, convergence and attrition, lexical borrowing, split languages, and Creole development), and language in general, for that matter. The second relates to the MLF (Myers-Scotton 1993a, [1997]), the 4-M model and the Abstract Level model (Myers-Scotton and Jake 2000a, b, 2001) as theoretical frameworks to explain with precision classic codeswitching and language contact phenomena. She concludes the book by proposing a set of hypotheses with two major ones. The first relates to the asymmetry between participating languages in contact phenomena. The second hypothesis concerns the unequal distribution between content and system morphemes on the one hand, and between early and late system morphemes on the other. The asymmetry in the distribution is due to the differential access and election of morphemes. Recall that early system morphemes and content morphemes share the feature [+conceptually activated]. Early system morphemes, however, are indirectly elected. Late system morphemes are [+structurally assigned]. They are accessed at a different stage in the production process from early system morphemes and content morphemes. More precisely, they are claimed to be accessed when the lemmas underlying content morphemes send directions to the Formulator about how larger constituents are to be put together.


    This volume is definitely an engaging discussion of far more challenging issues than just bilingualism, language contact phenomena, syntax, and morphology, to which the book is principally devoted. It is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of ways to link a theory of language to a theory of language processing. The discussion demonstrates how challenging the task is and will be in future research. The MLF model, the 4-M model, and the Abstract Level model emphasize the notion that codeswitching is based on abstract cognitive processes. In light of these models, codeswitching is not investigated solely by explaining surface configurations but by ''go[ing] beyond the observed behavior of CS itself [and] investigating the linguistic knowledge that underlies CS (Myers-Scotton and Jake, 2001: 84). However, in this book, the link between what is realized at the surface level and the theoretical constructs and processes that Myers-Scotton claims she has established (in this book) remains unconvincing. I will illustrate my comment by pointing to three problems. The first concerns her initial definition of the ML and its re-articulation. The second problems concerns her notion of congruency and the last problem relates to her notion of categorical/partial application of major principles.

    One of the major early criticisms leveled against the MLF model, as initially articulated (1993a), was the circularity of her definition of the ML. Such a definition is significant because it allows us identify the ML and hence test the System Morpheme Principle.

    In this book Myers-Scotton (p. 61) first acknowledges that her initial claim that the Matrix Language can be identified as the source of more morphemes in a discourse was abandoned. I think the claim was re-articulated but the unit of analysis (i.e. the discourse) was abandoned because she still maintains that it is the language that ''supplies more morphemes in a bilingual CP'' but she adds that ''this is not always the case'' (61-62). In fact this was a response to what Myers-Scotton called 'atypical' examples. These examples were reported in the literature by researchers who applied the MLF model (1993a version) not to classic codeswitching only but to language contact phenomena as well. Recall that the MLF model was claimed to be universal. In the examples cited in the literature, both participating languages supply system morphemes. Hence they are clear violations of the System Morpheme Principle.

    In her explanation of why she abandoned her initial definition of the Matrix Language she states that what she had in mind was the notion of ''dominant language'' as understood in psycholinguistic and bilingual child language literature, and ''unmarked choice'' in her Markedness Model (Myers-Scotton 1993c). It seems to me that Myers-Scotton conjures up notions of abstract constructs that are not directly testable when she deals with violations of any principle or hypothesis she puts forward in her model. Her re-articulation of the notion of the ML is a good illustration of this point. In her re-articulation, she argues: ''The Matrix Language is not to be equated with an existing language; rather one should view the Matrix language as an abstract frame for the morphosyntax of the bilingual CP'' (66). What makes her explanation ambiguous if not confusing is that in her own analysis of some examples, she identifies the Matrix Language as the language that supplies system morphemes. One may wonder why the ML is identified as a language (i.e. a linguistic source of the morphosyntactic frame of ML + EL constituents) but conceptualized as a theoretical construct in language contact phenomena? The second question to pose: How can the ML be identified in a CP where both languages participate in the frame, as I have demonstrated in my discussion of some problematic cases in Arabic diglossic switching (Boussofara-Omar 1999, 2003). Does this claim not weaken or violate the ML/EL hierarchy and their differential activation? Do not the access and election of an EL early system morpheme along with content morphemes at the conceptual level constrain the access and election of late system morphemes at the Formulator level?

    Myers-Scotton states: ''If the bilingual CP contains a mixed constituent, with one or more singly occurring Embedded Language content morphemes that are fully morphosyntactically integrated into the Matrix Language, then, yes, the Matrix Language is entirely identical with the morphosyntax of one of the source language'' (Myers-Scotton 2000:67).

    I have a problem understanding the meaning and application of such vague concepts as ''fully morphosyntactically integrated'' (which she invokes to explain when the Matrix Language may be the same as the language that supplies more system morphemes), or ''sufficient congruence'' (to explain how certain constructions are possible), or ''sufficient access'' to the morphosyntax of a desired target for the ML (to explain the conditions under which a composite ML arises). One may wonder first how sufficient/ insufficient congruence/access, total/partial proficiency can be determined, and second what hinders speakers' access to the grammar of a language (or abstract frame for that matter) that they have chosen as an ML to frame their bilingual utterance?

    A further problem I have is Myers-Scotton's argument or hypothesis that the Morpheme Order and System Morpheme Principles may not be applied *categorically* (my emphasis) in order to explain the composite ML. Why does she apply these two principles categorically and in unison in some cases (i.e. in classic CS) but partially in language contact phenomena? The last issue that I wish to raise is Myers-Scotton's recourse to extra-linguistic factors to explain some bilingual patterns and configurations that obtain. I am aware (as Myers-Scotton clearly argues in the Preface and chapter two) that this volume is totally devoted to structural analysis but it is puzzling that she invokes the extra-linguistic factors when there are no linguistic 'constraints' available to explain some of the puzzling patterns, namely those patterns that violate the System Morpheme Principle, for example. In order to explain the simultaneous participation of the ML and EL in providing system morphemes (a clear violation of the System Morpheme Principle), she first posits the composite ML and then she invokes the notion of sufficient/insufficient proficiency in a language and its varying degrees of stability. It seems to me that the calls for research that focuses on the intersection between the grammatical and the social to explain switching patterns have yet to be heard. Serious attention to the interplay between the linguistic and the extra-linguistic factors in shaping the switching patterns would encourage much needed rethinking of our models in order to re-conceptualize the dialectical relationship between the two types of factors in a more consistent manner.


    Boussofara-Omar, Naima (1999) Arabic Diglossic Switching in Tunisia: An Application of Myers-Scotton's Matrix Language Frame Model. Unpublished PhD. Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin.

    Boussofara-Omar, Naima (to appear in 2003) Revisiting Arabic Diglossic Switching in Light of the MLF and its Sub-models: The 4-M and the Abstract Level models. Bilingualism: Language & Cognition 6(1) pp. 1-13.

    Myers-Scotton, Carole (1993a [1997]). Dueling Languages: Grammatical Structure in Codeswitching (1997 editions with a new Afterword). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Myers-Scotton, Carole (2001) 'Explaining Aspects of Codeswitching and their Implications, in Janet Nicol (ed.), One Mind, Two Languages: Bilingual Language Procession, 84-116. Oxford: Blackwell.


    Naima Boussofara Omar is an Assistant professor at the Department of African & African-American Studies at the University of Kansas, USA. She is trained in Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include language change, and variation in the Arab World, language ideologies and identity in Arab political discourse, and teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language.