ELFA project

On dialects, similects, and the <i>-lishes</i>


Billard” by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the major lines of English as a lingua franca (ELF) research is how to describe the features of English in interaction between second-language users. With the multitude of accents and variable usage of English you find in the world today, the most obvious quality of ELF talk is its diversity (some say it’s even superdiversity, though I’m campaigning for the shamelessly hyperbolic ultra-mega-diversity-squared). At the same time, people notice that speakers of the same first language (or L1, such as Finnish) often share similar features when speaking English. Thus, you encounter folk linguistic descriptions of L1-specific -lishes – “Finglish”, “Swenglish”, “Spanglish”, etc.

I personally avoid these typically muddled labels, as the only thing that unifies them all is their negative overtone. The term “Finglish” is most likely trotted out when mocking a public figure’s “Bad English” when speaking in international media. But there’s still something to it. It’s a well-studied fact that a person’s first language will influence the learning and use of other languages. Some features of Finnish are commonly heard when Finns speak English; for example, words starting with p, t and k sounds aren’t aspirated in Finnish, and they’re likely not aspirated when Finns speak English. On the grammatical side, you might hear a Finn say “I’m waiting the bus” or “Let’s discuss about this”, which reflect the equivalent case endings in Finnish (Odotan bussia; Keskustellaan tästä).

This doesn’t mean all Finns will display these features, nor does it mean that speakers of English from other first-language backgrounds won’t use them as well (in the ELFA corpus, discuss about occurs 20 times, but only half of those come from speakers with Finnish L1). So how do we describe these -lishes? Some would see them as dialects of English, but there’s a crucial difference between the features of English dialects and the features of L1-influenced English. Features of English dialects emerge and spread within a stable community of speakers in interaction with each other. Features of “Finglish” do not emerge or spread through Finns speaking English with each other, which only happens when non-Finns are present (i.e. in a lingua franca setting).

Because Finns normally speak Finnish with other Finns, these L1-influenced English lects cannot be considered dialects in the true sense. To account for this, Anna Mauranen has proposed the term similect for these “similar lects” that arise through shared linguistic histories, not through interaction in English:

The shared features of ‘Finglish’ result from many speakers having the same language combination in their repertoire, and thereby similar transfer from their first language. We cannot simply equate the L1-based lects with dialects, but could speak of them instead as ‘similects’, because they arise in parallel, not in mutual interaction. In short, there is no community of similect speakers (Mauranen 2012: 29).

To return to our example of discuss about, this recognisable tendency in the Finnish similect could be attributed to a combination of L1 influence and the general cognitive process of analogy, whereby talk about, read about, and write about can be naturally extended to discuss. But discuss about does not arise because Finns have “picked it up” in interaction with other Finns. And that’s the difference between a similect and a dialect.

First- and second-order language contact

So what does this mean for ELF? In the first place, the obvious diversity of ELF is explained as contact between similects. When a Finn speaks English with an Italian and a German, for example, three similects come into contact with each other. But this too is a different kind of language contact than what is typically studied in contact linguistics. Language contact between similects in ELF is not a direct contact between, for example, Finnish and Italian, because Finnish and Italian are not being spoken in ELF interactions. The contact between Finnish and Italian is in a sense “mediated” by English, which Mauranen further describes as “second-order language contact”:

The ordinary language contact situation involves speakers of two languages or varieties, who usually choose one of them as their principal means of communication, but sometimes make do with a mix, or a pidgin. Second-order contact means that instead of a typical contact situation where speakers of two different languages use one of them in communication (‘first-order contact’), a large number of languages are each in contact with English, and it is these contact varieties (similects) that are, in turn, in contact with each other (Mauranen 2012: 29-30).

I might clarify these ideas with an illustration. Jamaican Patois emerged as a creole through direct, first-order contact between English and African languages. We could liken this to two billiard balls that directly collide with each other. Continuing with our example of a Finn and an Italian speaking ELF, this second-order contact would be illustrated by the Finnish language billiard ball hitting an English language billiard ball (the Finnish similect), which is propelled toward its meeting with another similect ball, its own trajectory set in motion by the Italian language:

Thanks to Marc Heatley (barkerbaggies) for sharing the billiard ball icons! All credit for the hillbilly graphic design belongs to me and MS Word.

While admittedly simplistic and crude, I think it illustrates the general distinction between first- and second-order language contact. And considering the unpredictable combinations of similects in ELF interactions around the globe, it further underscores the diversity of ELF, which is a giant billiard table indeed. What then about English as a whole? Could these transient ELF encounters between similects influence the trajectory of changes in global English? Mauranen argues that they will (see 2012: 32-33), as features of ELF in specific interactions may indeed be adopted and spread more widely by individuals in these ELF encounters. It should also be kept in mind that English native speakers are not exempt from these contact effects. Native speakers are a large but shrinking minority among English users worldwide, and we not infrequently find ourselves as one of the many lects in contact in otherwise ELF interactions.

As for me, after nine years in Finland, I’m only moderately surprised when I hear myself saying that I’m waiting the metro or that there’s something I want to discuss about. I’ve internalised aspects of the Finnish similect quite naturally through my exposure over the years, and as a I rarely pass up an opportunity to irritate language purists, I’m happy to conform to my linguistic environment. I’m not sure where that places me on the billiard table of global English, but it’s clear that my billiard ball is getting knocked around as much as anyone else’s. And if you language purists see me rolling in your direction, you can assume I’m coming to knock your billiard ball into the 21st century.


Mauranen, Anna (2012) Exploring ELF: Academic English shaped by non-native speakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mauranen, Anna (2015) Second-order language contact: English as an academic lingua franca. In Filppula, M., Klemola, J. & Sharma, D. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199777716.013.010.