Language is often taken for granted, viewed simply as a tool to help us communicate and express ourselves. Yet it is filled with little windows into the past. It is a reflection of all that its speakers have experienced and endured over the centuries. One phenomenon that demonstrates this perfectly is the Sprachbund.
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Sprachbund, a German word which translates directly to “language federation”, describes a group of languages sharing many similarities in linguistic foundations, influenced by geographic proximity and language contact but without any genetic or origin commonalities.
Only discovered in the 1990s, the Indo-European Sprachbund is a relatively new phenomenon. According to linguist Martin Haspelmath, the Indo-European sprachbund, also known as Standard Average European (SAE) languages, share twelve main characteristics:
- Definite and indefinite articles
- Relative clauses with relative pronouns
- ‘Have’ perfect
- Nominative experiencers
- Participle passive
- Anticausative prominence
- Dative external possessors
- Negative pronouns and lack of verbal negation
- Particles in comparative constructions
- Relative-based equative constructions
- Subject person affixes as strict agreement markers
- Intensifier-reflexive differentiation
Let’s look at a few of the most important ones below.
Only a third of the world’s languages use any form of articles. Comparing the 7,000+ languages spoken around the world, it is even more rare to see a language using both definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a”) articles. Languages using both definite and indefinite articles include Norwegian, Swedish, English, Dutch, German, French, Breton, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian, Albanian, Modern Greek, Hungarian, and Romanian. Geographically peripheral languages where only definite articles feature include Icelandic, Irish, Welsh, Basque, Bulgarian and Maltese.
An example of relative clauses with relative pronouns in use in English is “the charming gentleman whom I described”. Similar grammatical constructions are found in Icelandic, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Armenian, Georgian, Ukranian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Serbian/Croatian, Polish, and Czech as well as all the above-listed countries that use both indefinite and definite pronouns.
The ‘have’ perfect is simply formed with the word ‘have’ and a passive participle, i.e. “I have driven”. In Europe, this linguistic characteristic only exists in Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, English, Dutch, German, Czech, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian, Albanian, Modern Greek and Romanian.
Examples of negative pronouns lacking verbal negation can be found in English in a sentence such as: “nobody arrives”. Languages that lack verbal negation with a negative indefinite article include Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian and Albanian.
The use of particles in comparative constructions is to say something like “X is bigger than” something else. Such constructions are present in Scottish Gaelic, English, Dutch, Finnish, Latvian, Russian, French, Basque, Hungarian, Albanian, Modern Greek and Latin.
Haspelmath explains that “intensifiers are words like English ‘self’, German ‘selbst’, French ‘meme’ and Russian ‘sam’ that characterize a noun phrase referent as central as opposed to an implicit or explicit periphery (e.g., ‘The Pope himself gave us an audience’).” Languages where this can be seen include Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, Ukranian, German, Czech, French, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian, Serbian/Croatian, Italian, Sardinian, Romanian, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Modern Greek.
The French and German languages possess most of these 12 linguistic features making them the strongest examples of the Sprachbund phenomenon – nine. While Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian and Albanian feature eight.
So, are you curious how this Sprachbund came about?
It would be great to have a simple, straight-forward answer, but history is always more complicated than that. Haspelmath explains, “linguistic areas arise through language contact, but precisely which contact situation gave rise to SAE is not immediately clear.”
According to Haspelmath, one of the best possible explanations for the genesis of the Standard Average Europe sprachbund is the great migrations that took place between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The use of the constructions specified above were “by and large absent in the written classical languages but seem to be well in place once the vernacular languages appear in the written record toward the end of the first millenium CE,” he explains.
In addition, “language contact must have been particularly intensive and effective during the great migrations, and in the case of French and northern Italian we have ample records of the lexical effects of these contacts.” However, as he admits, “the correct picture is likely to be much more complicated than we can imagine at the moment, let alone discuss in an article.”
This mystery and intrigue only adds to the beauty and wonder of languages and words. One thing we can say for sure, they enrich our existence in countless ways. I hope we always remain in their spell.