Research in Focus: Kari Kinn

Over a series of blogs we have been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from  network member Kari Kinn, of the University of Oslo.

My research is not about Medieval English; I currently work on Norwegian as spoken in North America. This is, however, more relevant to the study of Medieval English in a multilingual context than one might think; I will come back to that towards the end of this post.


In the 19th and 20th centuries 800,000 people emigrated from Norway to the USA and Canada; some of the descendants of these people still speak Norwegian as a heritage language. The term heritage language refers to a language which is acquired by children as a first language in the home, but which is not the majority language of the larger society. Heritage speakers are bilinguals and also speak the majority language; in our case, the majority language is English.

Settlers’ houses at Norskedalen Museum, Wisconsin. (Photo: Janne Bondi Johannessen)

Heritage languages exist more or less in isolation from the speech community of the homeland (in our case, Norway), and under intense contact with a majority language. What happens under these circumstances? Differences between heritage languages and their homeland counterparts range from borrowing of words from the majority language to structural differences in the way that words are inflected (morphology) and how phrases and sentences are constructed (syntax). Morphology and syntax tend to be more stable than the vocabulary, but changes happen even here; in what follows, I will focus on syntactic change.

The perhaps least surprising type of change involves cross-linguistic influence, or transfer, from the majority language into the heritage language. In American Norwegian, there are not many examples of syntactic transfer from English, but some speakers use an English-like pattern in constructions describing a person’s profession or nationality. The English pattern involves the indefinite article a(n): He is a teacher. In homeland Norwegian, the indefinite article is not used; the equivalent construction would be Han er lærer, literally ‘He is teacher’. However, in a forthcoming paper, I show that occasionally, some American Norwegian speakers use the (Norwegian) indefinite article in a way that resembles English: Han er en lærer.

Cross-linguistic transfer is a well-known phenomenon. What is perhaps less widely known is that language contact can sometimes also have an almost opposite effect. This effect is referred to as cross-linguistic overcorrection; in American Norwegian, this has been observed for constructions expressing possession (See full article by Anderssen, Lundquist and Westergaard). In possessive constructions such as my bike in English, homeland Norwegian has two possible word orders. One is similar to English, with the possessor before the noun: min sykkel, literally ‘my bike’. This word order is not the most widely used one, though; instead, speakers very often put the possessor after the noun, yielding patterns like sykkelen min, literallybike-the my’. American Norwegian speakers generally stick with the latter pattern which has no clear parallel in English; in fact, they use this option even more than Norwegian speakers in Norway. Thus, it looks like contact with English has yielded a “hyper-Norwegian” result.

American Norwegian speaker serving home-made cake. (Photo: Janne Bondi Johannessen)

Transfer and cross-linguistic overcorrection involve extension of patterns that already exist in either the homeland language or the majority language. However, changes in heritage languages can also be independent of this. For example, many speakers of American Norwegian under certain circumstances put the negation word ikke ‘not’ in a different position than homeland Norwegian speakers. This is neither cross-linguistic transfer nor overcorrection; instead, heritage speakers have created a system that differs both from English and (standard) homeland Norwegian. Their patterns are, however, similar to patterns found in the language of children in Norway, which suggests that the change has arisen during the acquisition process: heritage speakers have not fully generalised a syntactic rule that applies in homeland Norwegian  (see full article by Larsson and Johannessen).

Now, how does all of this relate to the Medieval English and the MEMC network? On a general level, the findings from American Norwegian and other heritage languages highlight the fact that language contact can lead to a number of different outcomes; cross-linguistic transfer is only one of them. This insight is not new, but it is an important one when starting new research on any language in a multilingual context. Furthermore, there are some more direct parallels between modern heritage languages and the languages spoken on the British Isles in the past. In collaboration with George Walkden, another member of the MEMC network, I plan to study one such case from a heritage language perspective, namely Norn. Norn was spoken in Shetland and Orkney until the mid/late 1700s. Like Norwegian, Norn descends from Old Norse (it is not quite clear when it developed into a distinct variety). And like American Norwegian, Norn co-existed with another language, in this case Scots, which gradually gained status as the majority language of the larger society. Recent research on heritage languages gives us a new lens through which we can look at the remaining sources of Norn – we are looking forward to seeing where this will take us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s