Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Eva M. Fernández

Subject Categories



bilingualism, convergence, language contact and change, linguistic innovations, Spanish, structural priming


This dissertation explores the hypothesis that structural priming is an internal mechanism motivating processes of convergence in bilinguals. The focus of the investigation is linguistic innovations in Spanish produced by Spanish-English bilinguals. Innovations involve both changes in the frequency of alternative constructions and existing patterns produced in new contexts modeled on English equivalents. From structural priming techniques that model convergence, the data assess the extent of English influence on Spanish, in a contact setting (New York, United States) and a non-contact setting (Córdoba, Argentina).

In the field of language contact, convergence may manifest itself as an increase in the use of native language patterns shared with the contact language. Another outcome of convergence is grammatical replication, where native language structures acquire a new context of use resembling the contact language. Structural priming is the tendency for speakers to repeat previously processed structures. Cross-linguistic priming has been shown to increase the use of shared constructions; this investigation tests the applicability of priming to the study of grammatical replication.

Three experiments examine the voice, reciprocal, and dative alternations. First, a picture description task in Spanish and English establishes baseline frequencies: the voice and reciprocal alternations have a similar distribution in English and Spanish; the dative alternation, however, differs between the two languages. Second, a within-language priming task (Spanish-to-Spanish) confirms strong priming effects for all three alternations and yields extremely low rates of grammatical replication. Third, a cross-language priming task demonstrates that English primes Spanish and increases grammatical replication rates, only with the alternations that have similar cross-linguistic distributions (voice, reciprocal). The priming effect did not differ between the contact and non-contact groups, but the bilinguals in the contact setting had higher grammatical replication rates.

The data support the view that structural priming could be a catalyst facilitating language change in bilingual communities. We argue that this process is better explained with priming as implicit learning and suggest additional considerations. The data also support models of contact as an accelerant of processes already in motion in the native language, rather than as a trigger of the creation of completely new patterns.

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