Linkage (linguistics)

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For other uses, see Linkage.

In linguistics, a linkage is a group of undoubtedly related languages for which no proto-language can be reconstructed. Malcolm Ross, who coined the term, defined it as “a group of communalects which have arisen by dialect differentiation” (Ross 1988, p. 8).


Linkages are formed when languages emerged historically from the diversification of an earlier dialect continuum: it may be that its members diverged while sharing subsequent innovations, or that such dialects came into contact and converge.[1] Common to linkages are defining features absent from its geographic extremes.

A linkage is made up of a chain of intersecting subgroups, each of which is defined by a set of linguistic innovations shared by its members. Because the Tree model cannot handle such intersecting subgroups, it is ill-designed to represent linkages: these are better approached using the Wave model.[2]


An example of a linkage is the one formed the Central Malayo-Polynesian languages of the Banda Sea (a sea in the South Moluccas in Indonesia).[3] The Central–Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages are commonly divided into two branches, Central MP and Eastern MP, each having certain defining features that unify them and distinguish them from the other. However, while proto-Eastern and proto-Central–Eastern MP languages can be reconstructed (the sibling and parent of Central MP, respectively), a proto-Central MP language reconstruction does not seem feasible. It may be that the branches of Central MP are each as old as Eastern MP, but that they went on to exchange features that are now considered to define them as a family. In Eastern MP, common features can be assumed to have been present in the ancestral language, but this is not the case for Central MP.

François (2014, p.171) suggests that most of the world's language families are really linkages – that is, are made up of intersecting, rather than nested, genealogical subgroups. He cites the Oceanic languages of northern Vanuatu as well as those of Fiji and of Polynesia; and at least some sections of the Pama-Nyungan, Athabaskan, Semitic, Sinitic, and Indo-European families. Within Indo-European, Indo-Aryan, Western Romance and Germanic in turn form linkages of their own.


  1. ^ Ross's concept of a linkage differs from R. M. W. Dixon, who posits that, over long periods, unrelated languages in contact may converge until they appear to be related.
  2. ^ See François (2014).
  3. ^ "Banda Sea". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved 2007-01-15.