It's common for the language of an area to have replaced an older language previously spoken there. The new language typically will have a few words which can be traced to the old language, the latter being called a "substrate". For instance, Romanian has several words believed to be from Dacian.

But are there known cases of a language taking on traits pertaining to grammar – or anything besides lexical items – from the substrate?

6 Answers 6


Theo Vennemann claims that this is, in fact, what happened to English. According to him,

dozens of Celtic features have been identified in English, that which has been most discussed being the early rise of the progressive aspect, the difference between Peter works and Peter is working, which no other Germanic language has developed as early and as thouroughly as English and which is formally and functionally the same as in Welsh.

These would be specific cases of a more general phenomenon, summarized by two rules:

  • Superstrate rule: Superstrata give words to their substrata, less so structure.

  • Substrate rule: Substrata give structure to their superstrata, less so words.

  • 1
    Theo is quite extreme in his views, and it leads him to attract a lot of criticism based on his theories relating to Arabic and Basque, but the 'Celtic Hypothesis' does have wider backing by well-renowned linguists such as John McWhorter. I just wanted to add this so it's not automatically assumed that just because Theo Vennenmann is criticised, that so is this theory because the more I read about it (which is a lot!) the more I'm siding with the idea that there really is something to the Celtic Hypothesis (which supports this but also many other changes in English). Glad you mentioned this!
    – Alxmrphi
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 1:07
  • John McWhorter is known for his work on creoles. His views on the Celtic influences on English aren't widely accepted in the linguistic community.
    – Anubhav C
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 8:43

The Balkan sprachbund is a group of languages which have interspersed grammatical features among each other. The concept of "superstrate" and "substrate" is less than clear here, since that implies a definitive movement from one language to another rather than the (sometimes uneasy) long-term coexistence of Balkan languages. But it is an example of fairly extensive "horizontal" (in the taxonomic sense) structural influence.

  • I am actually travelling through the Balkans right now. I am fascinated by the Balkan sprachbund and have read a bit on it but had not noticed the theory that some of it may be due to influence from a substrate. That's interesting. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 8:13

The terms "substrate" and "superstrate" are usually used in reference to Creole formation. Superstrate languages are the languages of the colonisers (so usually French/English/German) and the substrate languages are the local indigenous or imported labourers. In the traditional view of creolisation it's usually the superstrate language that provides the lexicon and the substrate languages that brings many grammatical structures. See the wikipedia article on Creole languages:

Most often, the vocabulary comes from the dominant group and the grammar from the subordinate group, where such stratification exists.

I know it's not exactly the same situation that you're referring to, but it gives an indication that substrate languages can influence language in more than just the lexicon.

  • 1
    That's interesting. I mostly know the term "substrate" in relation to the lost languages of Europe from pre-Roman times, which were barely documented, but of which traces remain in modern languages. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 1:09
  • That's a usage that I wasn't aware of - I've not done a lot of European historical stuff - so we all get to learn something!
    – LaurenG
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 1:24
  • Here's a few Google snippets of the kind of usage I was thinking of. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 1:27

This article from Britannica talks about Indo-Aryan languages borrowing grammatical features from Dravidian languages, and Dravidian languages borrowing vocabulary from Indo-Aryan languages. Sadly, it does not give examples of what it's talking about.

This paper supplies relevant examples, but I have not read it myself, and don't know how good or bad the paper is.

Background info: Indo-Aryan and Dravidian are the two major language families of India.

  • The article doesn't seem to mention substrates though. Are you confusing with borrowing or does the article use some term besides "substrate"? It sounds counterintuitive that two language familes could provide substrate to each other. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 0:54
  • @hippietrail: The Britannica article was written for a general audience. A brief scan of the paper (that I've linked to in a subsequent edit) gives me the impression that it answers some of the points you raised. From Wikipedia: "The terms substrate and superstrate are often used when two languages interact. However, the meaning of these terms is reasonably well-defined only in second language acquisition or language replacement events, when the native speakers of a certain source language (the substrate) are somehow compelled to abandon it for another target language (the superstrate)."
    – prash
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 1:16
  • The use of "इति" in Sanskrit as a quotative particle might be an example of a Dravidian substratum, as well as the presence of an absolutive (for example, "गत्वा" in Sanskrit, or "जाकर" in Hindi).
    – user67444
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 22:17

There are a few examples of substrate influence in the varieties of English in the UK. For a phonological influence, you can look at how old-fashioned speech in some communities of Wales, where Welsh is still widely spoken. The speech here, especially of older people, can maintain features like rhoticity (not found in most of Wales, but present in Welsh) and also being devoiced, so that older speakers may have cars pronounced with [s] rather than the standard [z], probably due to the absence of such a distinction in Welsh. As for grammatical functions, you could look at Shetland Scots, where Norn, an extinct Norse language has a substrate influence. For example, Shetland Scots maintains a T-V distinction, with two different forms for the formal and informal form of the second person personal pronoun.


Prepositions and subordinators (aka. subjunctions) are readily borrowed into other languages provided that they lack them, and such borrowing sometimes also pulls in the necessary syntactic structures. Several Southern American languages have borrowed subordinators from Spanish, and the idea of an explicit subordinating marker with them. Hm, I read this recently, from Cristofaro (2003) "Subordination" possibly?

  • You seem to be discussing a superstrate here rather than a substrate. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 19:12
  • The example may be superstrate but the idea holds.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 19:22
  • 1
    Really? I would've expected substrates and superstrates to have somewhat different influences. I might have to ask a new question just about that (-: Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 19:27
  • The thing is: when a grammatical feature is very handy, it doesn't really matter where you steal it from :) I for one would like to use evidentials... handy little tykes!
    – kaleissin
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 19:30

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