Linkage (linguistics)

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In historical linguistics, a linkage is a group of related languages that is formed when a proto-language breaks up into a network of dialects that gradually differentiates into separate languages.[1] This term was introduced by Malcolm Ross in his study of the Western Oceanic languages (Ross 1988); it is contrasted with a family, which arises when the proto-language speech community separates into groups that are isolated from each other, rather than forming a network.[2]


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 converged.[a] In any dialect continuum, innovations are shared between neighbouring dialects in intersecting patterns; the patterns of intersecting innovations continue to be evident as the dialect continuum turns into a linkage.

According to the comparative method, a group of languages that exclusively shares a set of innovations constitutes a "(genealogical) subgroup"; thus, a linkage is usually characterised by the presence of intersecting subgroups.[3] The tree model does not allow for the existence of intersecting subgroups and so is ill-suited to represent linkages: they are better approached using the wave model.[4][5]

The cladistic approach underlying the tree model requires that the common ancestor of each subgroup be discontiguous from other related languages and cannot share any innovation with them after their "separation". Such an assumption is absent from Ross and François's approach to linkages: their genealogical subgroups also consist of languages descended from a common ancestor (as defined by a set of exclusively shared innovations), but that common ancestor does not have to be discretely separated from its neighbours. For example, a chain of dialects {A B C D E F} may undergo a number of linguistic innovations, some affecting {BCD}, others {CDE}, others {DEF}.[5] Insofar as each of these sets of dialects were mutually intelligible at the time of the innovations, each can be seen as forming a language. Among them, Proto-BCD will be the language ancestral to the subgroup BCD, Proto-CDE the language ancestral to CDE, etc. As for the language descended from dialect D, it will belong simultaneously to three "intersecting subgroups" (BCD, CDE and DEF). In both the tree and the linkage approaches, genealogical subgroups are strictly defined by their shared inheritance from a common ancestor. Simply, although trees entail that all proto-languages must be discretely separated, the linkage model refuses to make that assumption.

François additionally claims that a tree can be considered a special case of a linkage in which all subgroups happen to be nested and temporally ordered from broadest to narrowest.[3]


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).[6] 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, whereas 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 distinct from proto-Central-Eastern MP 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. The features common to Eastern MP can be assumed to have been present in a single ancestral language, but that is not the case for Central MP.

This scenario does not amount to a denial of a common ancestry of the Central MP languages, only a reinterpretation of the age of this relationship as equally old to their relationship to the Eastern MP languages.

François (2014, p. 171) suggests that most of the world's language families are really linkages, made up of intersecting, rather than nested 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.

See also[edit]


  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.


  1. ^ "I use the term linkage to refer to a group of communalects [i.e. dialects or languages] which have arisen by dialect differentiation" (Ross 1988, p. 8).
  2. ^ "I use the term family to refer to a group of communalects which have diversified from a single language by separation, rather than by dialect differentiation" (Ross 1988, p. 8).
  3. ^ a b See François (2014):171–172.
  4. ^ See Heggarty, Maguire & McMahon (2010), François (2014).
  5. ^ a b See Lynch, Ross & Crowley (2002):92–93).
  6. ^ "Banda Sea". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved 2007-01-15.