I am new to linguistics, and have just started reading about sociolinguistics. I'm interested in language change and motivations for it. There are three terms that I have come across, but am struggling to create a definition for them, and their differences. Would anybody be able to help?

These are: internal motivations external motivations extra-linguistic motivations.

I understand that internal motivations are linguistic things, like how easy it is for a language to merge with another because of similar features. I've also read that external motivations concern usually involve geographical and social factors. The last is more troublesome. I've heard that it also involves social attitudes and factors, so how is this different to extra-linguistic motivation?

It would also be great if anyone could point me in the direction of studies that relate to each of these. I've been reading Labov's department store study, and how social class dictates if pre-vocalic r's are pronounced. Would this be a study demonstrating external or extra-linguistic change though?

Thanks for any help!

  • Lexical borrowings would be "external", since by definition they come from outside the language, but would be "linguistic", not extra-linguistics, as the phenomenon involves languages. Jun 3, 2017 at 12:40

1 Answer 1


Hickey (2010:7) has a clear definition of internal and external changes:

"Internal change is that which occurs within a speech community, generally among monolingual speakers, and external change is that which is induced by contact with speakers of another language."

I think in your description, both the terms 'internal' and 'external' should be used for what you call 'linguistic things'. The difference between the two is that internal change is a change that could occur in a monolingual environment even if there were no contact with other languages at all (e.g. reanalysis of two adjacent morphemes into a single morpheme), whereas external change is change that has been triggered by contact with another language (Thomason 2010:34 later in the same volume discusses conditions that need to be met for a change to count as language contact).

For a series of studies in different types of change, take a look at: "Language change: the interplay of internal, external and extra-linguistic factors". Johanson (2002:306) of that volume gives examples of extra-linguistic factors as "dominance relations in terms of social, political and/or economic strength."

Under these definitions, 'social attitudes and factors' would fall more under 'extra-linguistic change'. It could still be 'external change', e.g. if change was caused by contact through two varieties used in different communities (i.e. still related to social attitudes, but as a result of two different language systems being used and a feature from one spreading into the other), but would be 'extra-linguistic change' if social attitude was the driving factor in change, e.g. a word being stigmatised and falling out of use.

Hickey, R. (2010). Language Contact: Reconsideration and Reassessment. In Hickey, R. 'The Handbook of Language Contact'. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 1-28.

Thomason, S.. (2010). Contact Explanations in Linguistics. In Hickey, R. 'The Handbook of Language Contact'. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 31-47.

Johanson (2002). Contact-induced change in a code-copying framework. In Jones, M. 'Language Contact'. De Gruyter: Berlin, pp. 285-314.

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