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Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics

Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics


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K. Mattheier

A language enclave or speech island (German
Sprachinsel) is a special type of a linguistic minority.
As in the case of other linguistic minorities, language
enclaves are characterized by the fact that speakers
(or groups of speakers) of a dominant language (i.e.,
the majority language), and speakers of a minority
language live together within an administrative and/
or sociohistorical unit.

1. Types of Linguistic Minorities

Linguistic minorities can be understood in different
ways (see Minority Languages). Statistical minorities
exist in those cases where there are a certain
percentage of speakers of a second (non-dominant)

language within a speech community. More impor-
tant however, is the concept of a sociocultural
linguistic minority. This refers to a specific
sociolinguistic constellation, which is characterized
by the fact that speakers of a different language form
a relatively homogenous settlement and a linguistic
community within a certain geographical area or
territory, and usually show an awareness of their
linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identity. Within this
constellation one can distinguish two societal types of
linguistic minorities. On the one hand, there are those
groups, which are linguistic minorities in the strict
sense of the term. These are isolated, small (or very
small) linguistic communities, which are situated


Language Contact

within the territory of a dominant speech commu-
nity. Examples are, the settlement area of the
Westslavic Serbian speech community in the south-
east of Germany, and the Breton speaking commu-
nity in the west of France. In these cases there exists
no additional political or geographical region where
the minority language is spoken (possibly even as a
dominant language), outside of the particular settle-
ment area. If however there exists in addition to the
minority settlement something like a 'language

then we use the term 'language enclave'
or 'speech island.' Examples of such language
enclaves are the Bhojpuri/Hindi speech communities
in Mauritius and Fiji, the Venetian/Italian-speaking
communities in Mexico, the 'Hunsriickisch' (a Mid-
dle German dialect) and 'Plautdietsch' (Mennonite
Low German) speaking groups in the south of Brazil
and in Russia, and the Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e.,
German) speaking groups all over North America.

2. General Characteristics of Language Enclaves

The concept of language enclaves or speech islands is
particularly common in German linguistics and
dialectology, where it has a research tradition of
more than 100 years (cf. for example, the investiga-
tion of the German-speaking communities in Russia
and Siebenbiirgen, Romania). The study of the
linguistic and historical connections between lan-
guage enclave and 'language homeland' initially
focused largely on questions of ethnic origin. How-
ever, more theoretical implications relating to
sociolinguistic variation can be detected from as
early as Viktor M. Schirmunski's seminal work on
the German dialects in Russia during the 1920s.
Outside of Germany the relationship between the
languages of homeland and the isolated external
settlements has typically been considered from the
perspective of linguistic minority research. However,
there are a number of factors which suggest that it is
useful to consider language enclaves as specific types
of linguistic minorities. On the one hand, there exist
deep historical and social relations between the
language enclave and the homeland. Occasionally
such relations have been reinstated after decades or
even centuries, when—as, for example, in many parts
of the US—folkloristic traditions of the homeland
are again cultivated. Moreover, there can exist, over
long periods of time, on-going immigration from the
native country to the language enclave. There are
also cases in which the native country fulfills more or
less extensive governmental/administrative responsi-
bilities. These can include educational provisions and
the supply of teachers for mothertongue instruction,
cultural support, and even the legal protection of
minority rights. In Germany, these responsibilities
are extended to include the right of return for
descendants of the original settlers (many of whom
had left Germany during the eighteenth century).

Finally, language islands are often characterized by a
national or ethnic sense of belonging to the native
country. This sense of ethnic belonging can inhibit
identification with the new surrounding society (see
Ethnicity and Language). With regard to the German-
speaking minorities in Hungary this has been
described as a 'floating identity.'
All these factors are absent in the case of a
linguistic minority in the strict sense of the term.
Language enclaves and linguistic minorities therefore
exhibit different developmental tendencies. However,
there also exist situations in which a language enclave
largely breaks off contact with the native country
after its foundation. In such historical constellations
the status of a 'speech island' is conceptually
problematic, as in the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch
language enclaves which had no contact with their
area of origin (the Palatinate in Germany) in 1775.
The origin and development of language enclaves
depend on a specific sociohistorical and sociolinguis-
tic constellation, which has so far attracted little
comparative research. Such a constellation was given
in different areas at certain times during history, such
as the large-scale migrations caused by religious
conflicts, which took place after 1550 in Europe, or the
colonial expansion of European nations in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In all these cases
a prerequisite of the process is a motivation of
members of a community to leave the social structures
of their regional or national homeland as a group.
Such motivations can be found in the conditions of the
natural environment (e.g., great natural catastrophes)
and in the ethnic-political context of the dominant
society; moreover they can be of a religious kind or
simply economic. The migrations themselves are often
based on settlement plans and organized voyages,
which significantly shape the settlement structures in
the 'new homeland' and which support the formation
of ethnic or religious solidarity in a clearly specified
territory. The latter constitutes a prerequisite for the
development of an independent identity in opposition
to the new majority society. Moreover, in the process
of establishing the new society one often observes
activities of divergence and dissociation by members of
the speech enclave as well as by members of the
majority society.
Such constellations have been common and are
still common in many regions. Examples are the
language enclaves of Turkish migrants in Germany
or Sweden, and those of South Asian (Indian,
Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan) or Carib-
bean groups in England. In most of these cases, the
language enclave only survives for a limited time and
the development usually concludes with the aban-
donment of the heritage culture. For example, most
of the many Middle-Low German language enclaves
which had emerged since the fourteenth century due
to the activities of the Hanse (an important trade


Language Enclaves

organization) around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea,
had already disappeared in the eighteenth century.

3. Definition and Research Perspectives

Taking into account the considerations outlined in
the previous section regarding the general socio-
historical and sociolinguistic conditions of the
phenomenon 'language enclave,' the following defini-
tion can be formulated:

A language enclave (or speech island) is a communica-
tion community which is separated geographically from
its 'language homeland,' and exists as a linguistic
minority within a linguistically/ethnically different con-
tact society, whose language dominates within the
territory (German Llberdachung). The language enclave
keeps itself apart from the contact society (and is kept
apart by the contact society) because of a number of
objective characteristics or factors which define the
special status of its members. This supports the
emergence of a special sociopsychological disposition
or mentality of the language enclave, which can explain
the prevention or retardation of full linguistic-cultural
assimilation to the contact society.

Within the language enclave we thus find a number
of objective factors (circumstances and influences)
which work together in creating what one might term
a 'language enclave mentality' or a 'language enclave
identity' among the members of the community. The
existence of a 'language enclave consciousness' is the
reason why the normal process of intergenerational
assimilation to the foreign language of the new
environment is interrupted or retarded. Outside of
language enclave constellations, this process of
linguistic-cultural assimilation and acculturation
usually takes place within three or four generations
(see Language Maintenance, Shift, and Death).
The comparative study of language enclaves—also
in contrast to linguistic minorities in the strict sense of
the term—should focus on exactly this relationship,
that is, on the combination of a number of objective
(i.e., economic, demographic, administrative, and
general social) factors and the developing ideas of
an identity within a language enclave, which make
possible the separation from the outside world.
Furthermore, research should study the reactions of
the contact society towards these developments. For
example, in many of the economically motivated,
rural, dialect-dominant, German language enclaves in
the US and Canada, the use of three varieties (a
German dialect as well as the German standard
language and—within limits—English) had consoli-
dated by the late nineteenth century. There were
hardly any signs of language shift and several
indications of the development of a local German-
American language mentality. The spread of indus-
trialization into the rural areas and especially the
outbreak of World War I shattered this identity; the
process of linguistic assimilation towards American

English started with increasing force, and came to an
end in most language enclaves three generations later.
The selection of the range of objective factors,
which are crucial for the formation, and development
of a language enclave has been debated time and
again in the literature (cf. Clyne 1985, 1994, Kloss
1966). In these discussions several language main-
tenance factors have been emphasized. Of central
importance is the field of demography, in particular
in connection with the language and variety profile
within the language enclave and its environment. It is
not entirely clear in this context how small language
enclaves can be with regard to their demographic
structure. One also needs to pay attention to the
regional expansion of language enclaves, especially
their degree of compactness. Pennsylvania Dutch-
speaking groups in the central counties of Pennsyl-
vania never constitute a group of more than
18 percent of the total population. Thus one cannot
speak of a compact settlement. Other formative
influences can be found in the economic structure,
the legal-administrative structure, the social structure
(such as the degree of endogamy), and the socio-
linguistic structure of language and variety use. First
comparative analyses of these factors and their effect
on language maintenance and language loss show
that, for example, in the German-based language
enclaves language maintenance is indicated reliably
by only one factor: the religious orientation of
Anabaptist groups. Only within the conservative
groups of the Old Order Amish, the Mennonites, and
the Old Colony Mennonites, which live in isolation
from 'the world,' is the local dialect (Pennsylvania
Dutch and Plautdietsch, respectively) not endan-
gered. Language maintenance factors other than
those linked to the field of religion are of little
relevance when assessing the development of these
language enclaves. On the other hand, it is metho-
dologically difficult to adequately understand phe-
nomena such as language enclave identity or
mentality. Here comparative analyses of diverse
language enclaves with different heritage languages
and contact or target languages can help to refine our
theoretical ideas and to differentiate between differ-
ent language enclave constellations.

See also: Language Maintenance, Shift, and Death;
Ethnolinguistic Vitality; Migrants and Migration;
Minority Languages; Heritage Languages; Ethnicity
and Language.


Clyne M G 1985 Language maintenance and language shift:
Some data from Australia. In: Wolfson N, Manes J
(eds.) The Language of Inequality. De Gruyter, Berlin
Clyne M G 1994 What can we learn from Sprachinseln?
Some observations on 'Australian German.' In: Berend N,
Mattheier K J (eds.) Sprachinselforsclnmg. Peter Lang,
Frankfurt, Germany


Language Contact

Kloss H 1966 German-American language maintenance
efforts. In: Fishman J A (ed.). Language Loyalty in the
United States. Mouton, The Hague

Mattheier K J 1994 Theorie der Sprachinsel. Voraussetzungen
und Strukturierungen. In: Berend N, Mattheier K J (eds.)
Sprachimelforschung. Peter Lang, Frankfurt, Germany

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