Stratum (linguistics)

This article is about the term in linguistics. For other uses, see Stratum (disambiguation).
"Substratum" redirects here. For other uses, see substrate (disambiguation).

In linguistics, a stratum (Latin for "layer") or strate is a language that influences, or is influenced by another through contact. A substratum or substrate is a language which has lower power or prestige than another, while a superstratum or superstrate is the language that has higher power or prestige. Both substratum and superstratum languages influence each other, but in different ways. An adstratum or adstrate refers to a language that is in contact with another language in a neighbor population without having identifiably higher or lower prestige. The notion of "strata" has first been developed by the Italian linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli (1829–1907), and became known in the English-speaking world by two different authors in 1932.[1]

Thus, both terms refer to a situation where an intrusive language establishes itself in the territory of another, typically as the result of migration. Whether the superstratum case (the local language persists and the intrusive language disappears) or the substratum one (the local language disappears and the intrusive language persists) applies will normally only be evident after several generations, during which the intrusive language exists within a diaspora culture. In order for the intrusive language to persist (substratum case), the immigrant population will either need to take the position of a political elite or immigrate in significant numbers relative to the local population (i. e., the intrusion qualifies as an invasion or colonisation; an example would be the Roman Empire giving rise to Romance languages outside of Italy, displacing Gaulish and many other languages). The superstratum case refers to migratory elite populations which eventually adopt the local language (an example would be the Burgundians and Franks in France, who eventually abandoned their Germanic dialects in favor of Romance).


A substratum (plural: substrata) or substrate is a language that influences an intrusive language that supplants it. The term is also used of substrate interference; i.e. the influence the substratum language exerts on the replacing language. According to some classifications, this is one of three main types of linguistic interference: substratum interference differs from both adstratum, which involves no language replacement but rather mutual borrowing between languages of equal "value", and superstratum, which refers to the influence a socially dominating language has on another, receding language that might eventually be relegated to the status of a substratum language.

In a typical case of substrate interference, a Language A occupies a given territory and another Language B arrives in the same territory (brought, for example, with migrations of population). Language B then begins to supplant language A: the speakers of Language A abandon their own language in favor of the other language, generally because they believe that it will help them achieve certain goals within government, the workplace, and in social settings. During the language shift, however, the receding language A still influences language B (for example, through the transfer of loanwords, place names, or grammatical patterns from A to B).

One example of a substrate language is Gaulish, from the ancient Celtic people the Gauls. The Gauls lived in the modern French-speaking territory before the arrival of the Romans, namely the invasion of Julius Caesar's army. Given the cultural, economic and political advantages that came with being a Latin speaker, the Gauls eventually abandoned their language in favor of the language brought to them by the Romans, which evolved in this region until eventually it took the form of the French language that is known today. The Gaulish speech disappeared, but remnants of its vocabulary survive in some French words (approximately 150) as well as place-names of Gaulish origin.

Another example is the influence of the now extinct North Germanic Norn language on the Scots dialects of the Shetland and Orkney islands.

In the Arab Middle East and North Africa, colloquial Arabic dialects, most especially Levantine, Egyptian, and Maghreb dialects, often exhibit significant substrata from other regional Semitic, Iranian, and Berber languages.

Linguistic substrata may be difficult to detect, especially if the substrate language and its nearest relatives are extinct. For example, the earliest form of the Germanic languages may have been influenced by a non-Indo-European language, purportedly the source of about one quarter of the most ancient Germanic vocabulary. There are similar arguments for a Sanskrit substrate, and a Greek one.

Typically, Creole languages have multiple substrata, with the actual influence of such languages being indeterminate.


A superstratum (plural: superstrata) or superstrate offers the counterpart to a substratum. When one language succeeds another, linguists label the succeeding language a superstratum and the earlier language a substratum.

A superstrate may also represent an imposed linguistic element akin to what occurred with English and Norman after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when use of the English language carried low prestige. The international scientific vocabulary coinages from Greek and Latin roots adopted by European languages (and subsequently by other languages) to describe scientific topics (sociology, zoology, philosophy, botany, medicine, all "-logy" words, etc.) can also be termed a superstratum, although for this last case, "adstratum" might be a better designation (despite the prestige of science and of its language). In the case of French, for example, Latin is the superstrate and Gaulish the substrate.

Some linguists contend that Japanese (and Japonic languages in general) consists of an Altaic superstratum projected onto an Austronesian substratum.[2] Some scholars also argue for the existence of Altaic superstrate influences on varieties of Chinese spoken in Northern China. In this case, however, the superstratum refers to influence, not language succession. Alternate views detect substrate effects.[3]


An adstratum (plural: adstrata) or adstrate is a language which through its prestige is a source of lexical borrowings to another. Generally, the term is used about languages in particular geolinguistic or geopolitical contexts. For example, early in England's history, Old Norse contributed an adstrate to the lexical structure of Old English.[4]

The phenomenon is less common today in standardized linguistic varieties and more common in colloquial forms of speech since modern nations tend to favour one single linguistic variety (often corresponding to the dialect of the capital and other important regions) over others. In India, where dozens of languages are widespread, many languages could be said to share an adstratal relationship, but Hindi is certainly a dominant adstrate in North India. A different example would be the sociolinguistic situation in Belgium, where the French and Dutch languages have roughly the same status, and could justifiably be called adstrates to each other having each one provided a remarkable set of lexical specifications to the other.

The term is also used to identify systematic influences or a layer of borrowings in a given language from another language independently of whether the two languages continue coexisting as separate entities. Many modern languages have an appreciable adstratum from English due to the economic preponderance of the United States on international markets. The Greek and Latin coinages adopted by European languages (including English and now languages worldwide) to describe scientific topics (sociology, medicine, anatomy, biology, all the '-logy' words, etc.) are also justifiably called adstrata. Another example is found in Spanish and Portuguese, which contain a heavy Semitic (particularly Arabic) adstratum; and Yiddish, which is a linguistic variety of High German with adstrata from Hebrew and Aramaic, mostly in the sphere of religion, and Slavic languages, by reason of the geopolitical contexts Yiddish speaking villages lived through for centuries before disappearing during the Holocaust.

Notable examples of substrate or superstrate influence

Substrate influence on superstrate

Area Resultant language Substrate Superstrate Superstrate introduced by
Eastern MediterraneanLevantine Arabic Western Aramaic language, Phoenician language Classical Arabic Arabs during the Muslim conquests
EgyptEgyptian ArabicCoptic language
IranKhuzestani ArabicPersian
Mesopotamia (Iraq), northwest Syria, southeastern Turkey/western Armenia, and southwestern IranMesopotamian ArabicAramaic, Akkadian, Sumerian, Kurdish, Persian
Maghreb (North Africa)Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan, and Tunisian ArabicBerber languages, Punic language, and Vulgar Latin
EthiopiaAmharic Central Cushitic languages South Semitic languages Bronze Age Semitic expansion
Eritrea/EthiopiaTigrinya, Tigré and Ge'ezCentral Cushitic and North Cushitic languages
EnglandOld EnglishCommon Brittonic (from pre-Roman natives of England) and British Latin (from Romans)Anglo-Saxon languageGermanic peoples during migration period
IcelandIcelandic languageGaelic language (brought by Irish slaves)Old Norse language
IrelandIrish EnglishIrish (Gaelic)Early Modern Englishthe English during the Plantations of Ireland in the 16th century
ScotlandScottish EnglishScots and Scottish Gaelic languagesthe English during Scottish Reformation in the 16th century
Sápmi (Lapland)Sami languagesLocal Paleo-European languagesEarly Proto-Finnic
SingaporeSingaporean MandarinSouthern Chinese varieties: Min Nan, Teochew, Cantonese, HainaneseStandard Mandarin Singapore Government during the Speak Mandarin Campaign
ItalyItalianItalic languagesVulgar Latin, later Ostrogothic and Lombardic languagesRomans during the Roman Empire, later various Germanic peoples during the Migration Period
FranceFrenchGaulishVulgar Latin, later Old Frankish[5]
PortugalPortugueseGallaecian and Lusitanian languages Vulgar Latin, later Visigothic
SpainSpanish Paleohispanic languages (including especially Basque and Celtiberian languages) Vulgar Latin, later Visigothic
AndalusiaAndalusian SpanishMozarabic, later Arabic (Andalusi Arabic which was based on Classical Arabic)Spanish of the advance of the ReconquistaCastilians during the advance of the Reconquista
Canary IslandsCanarian SpanishAmazighAndalusian Spanish in the incorporation of the Canary Islands into the Crown of CastileAndalusians during the incorporation of the Canary Islands into the Crown of Castile
MexicoMexican Spanish Nahuatl and Mayan languages, and other languages local to the area (Zapotec language, Mixtec language, etc.) Spanish of the 15th century Spaniards during the Spanish Conquest
of the 15th century
ParaguayParaguayan SpanishGuaraní language
Central AndesAndean SpanishQuechua language, Aymara language
PhilippinesChavacanoTagalog, Ilokano, Hiligaynon, Cebuano, Bangingi, Sama, Tausug, Yakan, and Malay
BrazilBrazilian PortugueseTupi languages, African languages, Italian language, German languagePortuguese of the 15th centurythe Portuguese during the colonial period
AngolaAngolan PortugueseUmbundu, Kimbundu, and KikongoPortuguese of the 15th centurythe Portuguese during the colonial rule in Africa
MozambiqueMozambican PortugueseSwahili, Makhuwa, Sena, Ndau, Shangaan (Tsonga), Lomwe, Makonde, Chopi, Chuwabu, Ronga, Kimwani, Zulu, and Tswa
RomaniaRomanianDacian languageVulgar Latin, later Slavic languages, Hungarian language, German language, Turkish language Romans during the Roman Empire, later various tribes (Goths, Huns, Slavic peoples) during the Migration Period
JamaicaJamaican Patois African languages of transported African slavesEarly Modern English the English during the British Empire
IndiaIndian Englishvarious language substrates from Indian languages, especially HindiEarly Modern English
IsraelStandard Modern Israeli HebrewMishnaic Hebrew, Old Aramaic, Galilean Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Akkadian, Persian, Greek, Yiddish, Judeo-ArabicBiblical HebrewJewish emigrants in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries
who revived then re-introduced Hebrew, originally a Canaanite language
Shetland and OrkneyInsular ScotsNornScotsAcquisition by Scotland in the 15th century
NorwayBokmålOld NorwegianDanishUnion with Danish crown, 1380–1814.

Superstrate influence on substrate

Area Resultant language Substrate Superstrate Superstrate introduced by
FranceOld FrenchLow LatinOld Frankish Merovingians' dominance of Gaul around 500
EnglandMiddle EnglishOld EnglishOld French Normans during the Norman conquest
NorwayBokmålOld NorwegianDanishUnion with Danish crown, 1380–1814.

See also

Look up stratum, substratum, substrate, superstratum, or superstrate in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. "Why Don't the English Speak Welsh?" Hildegard Tristram, in The Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, N. J. Higham (ed.), The Boydell Press, pp. 192–214.
  2. Benedict (1990), Lewin (1976), Matsumoto (1975), Miller (1967), Murayama (1976), Shibatani (1990).
  3. Hashimoto (1986), Janhunen (1996), McWhorter (2007).
  4. For example, take replaced earlier niman in the lexical slot of a transitive verb for "to take", though archaic forms of to nim survived in England.
  5. Michaelis, Susanne (2008). Roots of Creole structures: weighing the contribution of substrates and superstrates. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. XVI. ISBN 9789027252555. Retrieved 2010-01-20.

Further reading

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