Domains and domain loss

Hartmut Haberland


The domain concept, originally suggested by Schmidt-Rohr in the 1930s (as credited in Fishman’s writings in the 1970s), was an attempt to sort out different areas of language use in multilingual societies, which are relevant for language choice. In Fishman’s version, domains were considered as theoretical constructs that can explain language choice which were supposed to be a more powerful explanatory tool than more obvious (and observable) parameters like topic, place (setting) and interlocutor. In the meantime, at least in Scandinavia, the term ‘domain’ has been taken up in the debate among politicians and in the media, especially in the discussion whether some languages undergo ‘domain loss’ vis-à-vis powerful international languages like English. A first objection that has been raised is that domains, as originally conceived, are parameters of language choice and not properties of languages, hence languages do not ‘have’ domains, and therefore cannot lose them. A second objection is that the classical domain concept is not necessarily applicable to the present Danish sociolinguistic situation, since stable multilingualism for in-group communication is absent at least for the dominant group of Danish speakers. A further objection is concerned with the applicability of the domain concept to actual patterns of language choice in multilingual settings. Especially Pádraig Ó Riagáin has claimed that at least some multilingual situations are best not described in terms of domains, and recent research e.g. about the multilingual communities in the Danish-German border area seems to confirm this.

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