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A sprachbund (German: [ˈʃpʁaːxbʊnt], lit. "language federation"), also known as a linguistic area, area of linguistic convergence, diffusion area or language crossroads, is a group of languages that share areal features resulting from geographical proximity and language contact. The languages may be genetically unrelated, or only distantly related, but the sprachbund characteristics might give a false appearance of relatedness.


In a 1904 paper, Jan Baudouin de Courtenay emphasised the need to distinguish between language similarities arising from a genetic relationship (rodstvo) and those arising from convergence due to language contact (srodstvo).[1][2] Nikolai Trubetzkoy introduced the Russian term языковой союз (yazykovoy soyuz; "language union") in a 1923 article.[3] In a paper presented to the first International Congress of Linguists in 1928, he used a German calque of this term, Sprachbund, defining it as a group of languages with similarities in syntax, morphological structure, cultural vocabulary and sound systems, but without systematic sound correspondences, shared basic morphology or shared basic vocabulary.[4][2] Later workers, starting with Trubetzkoy's colleague Roman Jakobson,[5][6] have relaxed the requirement of similarities in all four of the areas stipulated by Trubetzkoy.[7][8][9]


The Balkans[edit]

The idea of areal convergence is commonly attributed to Jernej Kopitar's description in 1830 of Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian as giving the impression of "nur eine Sprachform ... mit dreierlei Sprachmaterie",[10] which has been rendered by Victor Friedman as "one grammar with the three lexicons".[11][12] The Balkan Sprachbund comprises Albanian, Romanian, the South Slavic languages of the southern Balkans (Bulgarian, Macedonian and to a lesser degree Serbo-Croatian), Greek, Balkan Turkish, and Romani. All but one of these are Indo-European languages but from very divergent branches, and Turkish is a Turkic language. Yet they have exhibited several signs of grammatical convergence, such as avoidance of the infinitive, future tense formation, and others. The same features are not found in other languages that are otherwise closely related, such as the other Romance languages in relation to Romanian, and the other Slavic languages such as Polish in relation to Bulgaro-Macedonian.[8][12]

Indian subcontinent[edit]

In a classic 1956 paper titled "India as a Linguistic Area", Murray Emeneau laid the groundwork for the general acceptance of the concept of a sprachbund. In the paper, Emeneau observed that the subcontinent's Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages shared a number of features that were not inherited from a common source, but were areal features, the result of diffusion during sustained contact. These include retroflex consonants, echo words, subject–object–verb word order, discourse markers, and the quotative.[13]

Emeneau specified the tools to establish that language and culture had fused for centuries on the Indian soil to produce an integrated mosaic of structural convergence of four distinct language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Munda and Tibeto-Burman. This concept provided scholarly substance for explaining the underlying Indian-ness of apparently divergent cultural and linguistic patterns. With his further contributions, this area has now become a major field of research in language contact and convergence.[8][14][15]

Mainland Southeast Asia[edit]

The Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area is one of the most dramatic of linguistic areas in terms of the surface similarity of the languages involved, to the extent that early linguists tended to group them all into a single family, although the modern consensus places them into numerous unrelated families. The area stretches from Thailand to China and is home to speakers of languages of the Sino-Tibetan, Hmong–Mien (or Miao–Yao), Tai–Kadai, Austronesian (represented by Chamic) and Mon–Khmer families.[16]

Neighbouring languages across these families, though presumed unrelated, often have similar features, which are believed to have spread by diffusion. A well-known example is the similar tone systems in Sinitic languages (Sino-Tibetan), Hmong–Mien, Tai languages (Kadai) and Vietnamese (Mon–Khmer). Most of these languages passed through an earlier stage with three tones on most syllables (but no tonal distinctions on checked syllables ending in a stop consonant), which was followed by a tone split where the distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants disappeared but in compensation the number of tones doubled. These parallels led to confusion over the classification of these languages, until André-Georges Haudricourt showed in 1954 that tone was not an invariant feature, by demonstrating that Vietnamese tones corresponded to certain final consonants in other languages of the Mon–Khmer family, and proposed that tone in the other languages had a similar origin.[16]

Similarly, the unrelated Khmer (Mon–Khmer), Cham (Austronesian) and Lao (Kadai) languages have almost identical vowel systems. Many languages in the region are of the isolating (or analytic) type, with mostly monosyllabic morphemes and little use of inflection or affixes, though a number of Mon–Khmer languages have derivational morphology. Shared syntactic features include classifiers, object–verb order and topic–comment structure, though in each case there are exceptions in branches of one or more families.[16]

Northeast Asia[edit]

Some linguists, such as Matthias Castrén, G. J. Ramstedt, Nicholas Poppe and Pentti Aalto supported the idea that the Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic families of Asia (and some small parts of Europe) are genetically related, in a controversial group they call Altaic. Koreanic and Japonic languages, which are also hypothetically related according to some scholars like William George Aston, Shōsaburō Kanazawa, Samuel Martin and Sergei Starostin, are sometimes included as part of the purported Altaic family. This latter hypothesis was supported by people including Roy Andrew Miller, John C. Street and Karl Heinrich Menges. Gerard Clauson, Gerhard Doerfer, Juha Janhunen, Stefan Georg and others dispute or reject this. A common alternative explanation for similarities between said Altaic languages such as vowel harmony and agglutination is that they are due to areal diffusion.[17]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Courtenay, Jan Baudouin (1904), "Jazykoznanie" [Linguistics], in Brokhaus, F.A.; Efron, I.A. (eds.), Enciklopedičeskij slovarʹ, 31.
  2. ^ a b c Chirikba, Viacheslav A. (2008), "The problem of the Caucasian Sprachbund", in Muysken, Pieter (ed.), From linguistic areas to areal linguistics, Amsterdam–Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 25–94, ISBN 978-90-272-3100-0.
  3. ^ Trubetzkoy, Nikolai S. (1923), "Vavilonskaja bašnja i smešenie jazykov" [The tower of Babel and the confusion of languages], Evrazijskij vremennik, 3: 107–124.
  4. ^ Trubetzkoy, Nikolai S. (1930), "Proposition 16. Über den Sprachbund", Actes du premier congrès international des linguistes à la Haye, du 10-15 avril 1928, Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, pp. 17–18.
  5. ^ Jakobson, Roman (1931), "Über die phonologischen Sprachbünde", Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague, 4: 234–240; reprinted in R. Jakobson: Selected writings, vol. 1: Phonological Studies. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1971, pp. 137–148.
  6. ^ Jakobson, Roman (1938), "Sur la théorie des affinités phonologiques entre les langues", Actes du quatrième congrès international de linguistes tenu à Copenhague du 27 aout au 1er septembre, 1936, New York: Kraus Reprints, pp. 351–365.
  7. ^ a b Tuite, Kevin (1999), "The myth of the Caucasian Sprachbund: The case of ergativity" (PDF), Lingua, 108 (1): 1–29, doi:10.1016/S0024-3841(98)00037-0.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Thomason, Sarah (2000), "Linguistic areas and language history" (PDF), in Gilbers, Dicky; Nerbonne, John; Schaeken, Jos (eds.), Languages in Contact, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 311–327, ISBN 978-90-420-1322-3.
  9. ^ Campbell, Lyle (2002), "Areal Linguistics: a Closer Scrutiny", 5th NWCL International Conference: Linguistic Areas, Convergence, and Language Change.
  10. ^ Jernej K. Kopitar, “Albanische, walachische und bulgarische Sprache”, Wiener Jahrbücher der Literatur 46 (1830): 59–106.
  11. ^ Friedman, Victor A. (1997), "One Grammar, Three Lexicons: Ideological Overtones and Underpinnings in the Balkan Sprachbund", Papers from the 33rd Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (PDF), Chicago Linguistic Society.
  12. ^ a b Friedman, Victor A. (2000), "After 170 years of Balkan Linguistics: Whither the Millennium?" (PDF), Mediterranean Language Review, 12: 1–15.
  13. ^ Emeneau, Murray (1956), "India as a Linguistic Area", Language, 32 (1): 3–16, doi:10.2307/410649.
  14. ^ Emeneau, Murray; Dil, Anwar (1980), Language and Linguistic Area: Essays by Murray B. Emeneau, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, ISBN 978-0-8047-1047-3.
  15. ^ Thomason, Sarah Grey (2001), Language contact, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 114–117, ISBN 978-0-7486-0719-8.
  16. ^ a b c Enfield, N.J. (2005), "Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia" (PDF), Annual Review of Anthropology, 34 (1): 181–206, doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120406.
  17. ^ Schönig, Claus (2003), "Turko-Mongolic Relations", in Janhunen, Juha (ed.), The Mongolic Languages, London: Routledge, pp. 403–419, ISBN 978-0-7007-1133-8.
  18. ^ Deutscher, Guy (2007), Syntactic Change in Akkadian: The Evolution of Sentential Complementation, Oxford University Press US, pp. 20–21, ISBN 978-0-19-953222-3.
  19. ^ Ferguson, Charles (1970), "The Ethiopian Language Area", The Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 8 (2): 67–80.
  20. ^ Ferguson, Charles (1976), "The Ethiopian Language Area" (PDF), in Bender, M.L.; Bowen, J.D.; Cooper, R.L.; et al. (eds.), Language in Ethiopia, Oxford University Press, pp. 63–76, ISBN 978-0-19-436102-6.
  21. ^ Elena, Toro Lillo. "La invasión árabe. Los árabes y el elemento árabe en español". www.cervantesvirtual.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  22. ^ Haspelmath, Martin; König, Ekkehard; Oesterreicher, Wulf; et al., eds. (2001), "The European linguistic area: Standard Average European", Language typology and language universals, Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 1492–1510, ISBN 978-3-11-017154-9.
  23. ^ Dixon, R.M.W. (2001), "The Australian Linguistic Area", in Dixon, R.M.W; Aikhenvald, Alexandra (eds.), Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics, Oxford University Press, pp. 64–104, ISBN 978-0-19-829981-3.
  24. ^ Campbell, Lyle; Kaufman, Terrence; Smith-Stark, Thomas C. (1986), "Meso-America as a Linguistic Area", Language, 62 (3): 530–570, doi:10.2307/415477.
  25. ^ Klamer, Marian; Reesink, Ger; van Staden, Miriam (2008), "East Nusantara as a linguistic area", in Muysken, Pieter (ed.), From Linguistic Areas to Areal Linguistics, John Benjamins, pp. 95–149, ISBN 978-90-272-3100-0.
  26. ^ Haig, Geoffrey (2014). "East Anatolia as a linguistic area? Conceptual and empirical issues". In Behzadi, Lale; Franke, Patrick; Haig, Geoffrey; Herzog, Christoph; Hoffmann, Birgitt; Korn, Lorenz; Talabardon, Susanne (eds.). Bamberger Orientstudien. University of Bamberg Press. pp. 13–31. ISBN 978-3-86309-286-3.