Phonological complexity in heritage Bernese of Ohio and Misiones (Argentina): Examining the role of transfer

by Robert Klosinski (Pennsylvania State University)

Overview. Polinsky (2018) argues, that transfer by itself “cannot fully account for all the changes in the weaker language”, i.e. the heritage language. Does transfer, broadly defined, contribute to a decline in complexity of the phonological systems of heritage grammars? This question is further pursued here investigating two heritage varieties of a language that are respectively under constant contact with different languages. Misionero Swiss German (MSG) and Ohio Swiss German (OSG) are two moribund heritage varieties of Swiss German spoken in the Misiones Province of Northeastern Argentina and in Ohio, USA respectively. While OSG has been subject to limited investigations, MSG has not been the subject to any known linguistic investigations. This presentation highlights the phonological complexity of three MSG and seven OSG speakers of Bernese descent. The current study examines the maintenance of two of the most salient phenomena of Bernese phonology: (i) the l-vocalization (e.g. [esʊ] (Esel, ‘donkey’) and (ii) the velarization of -nd to [ŋ], as in [xɪŋ] (Kind ‘child’).

Research questions. i) Is there change in the complexity of phonological phenomena in heritage Bernese of Misiones or Ohio? ii) if a change is found, can this be attributed to transfer or to other factors, such as typological tendencies or external factors (such as literacy in a closely-related language)?

Method. More than 18 hours and 32 hours of recordings were conducted in Misiones and Ohio, respectively. Bilinguals were recruited and interviewed in their respective home area and a picture-naming as well as semi-structured elicitation tasks were conducted. A subset of ten bilinguals’ responses is analyzed here.

Results. These preliminary results suggest that there while there is change that is likely due to transfer, other contributing factors independent of the dominant language can also be found (e.g. point 3, below). Additionally, influence not only from the surrounding dominant languages but also from other German dialects, as it is the case in Misiones, can be seen. More specifically, MSG speakers are in contact with Hunsrik (spoken in Brazil) and other Palatinate dialect-origin speakers which could be a contributing factor. At this point, the generalizations attained from this study are the following:

  1. Velarization of -nd to [ŋ] occurs in OSG, but not in MSG, which is likely a consequence of having learned to read and write in a German school.
  2. However, l-vocalization, which is part of the continental variety of Bernese is maintained in both varieties.
  3. An interesting note on lexical items: MSG seems to resemble the contemporary Bernese more closely than OSG. This is, however, unsurprising considering that the Swiss immigration to Misiones occurred much more recently (at the beginning of the 20th century) than to Ohio (beginning of the 19th century). 

Transfer from the societal-dominant language does not appear to play a dominant role regarding the maintenance of the Bernese-specific phonological phenomena in these two communities. External factors (such as schooling) drive a change in phonology complexity and independent factors (such as typological tendencies to reduce marked forms) are likely to be responsible for the maintenance of phonological complexity.


Polinsky, M. (2018). Heritage Languages and their Speakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Published: Sunday, May 24, 2020