Language is often taken for granted, viewed simply as a tool to help us communicate and better 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. And one phenomenon that demonstrates this perfectly is sprachbund.
Jennifer is a Berlin-based freelance copywriter. She loves writing about food, language, technology, and culture.
Sprachbund, a German word which translates directly to “language federation”, describes a group of languages that share many similarities in linguistic foundations, influenced by geographic proximity and language contact but in the absence of any genetic or origin commonalities.
The sprachbund of Indo-Europe is a relatively new phenomenon, having only been discovered in the 1990s. According to linguist Martin Haspelmath, the Indo-European sprachbund, also known as Standard Average European languages, share twelve main characteristic features. They are:
- 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 breakdown a few of the most important ones below.
Only a third of the world’s languages use any form of articles. It is even more rare to see a language using both the definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a”) articles; this is in comparison to the 7,000+ languages spoken around the world. Languages in this group in which both definite and indefinite articles are present are Norwegian, Swedish, English, Dutch, German, French, Breton, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian, Albanian, Modern Greek, Hungarian, and Romanian. Geographically peripheral languages that feature only definite articles are 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”. This phenomenon can be seen in Icelandic, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Armenian, Georgian, Ukranian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Serbian/Croatian, Polish, and Czech in addition to all the countries previously listed that feature 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 and lack of verbal negation is, in English, “nobody arrives”. Languages that lack verbal negation with a negative indefinite article present are Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian and Albanian.
The use of particles in comparative constructions is saying, for example, something 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 are 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.
In total, the French and German languages possess most of these 12 features making them the strongest demonstrators of the Sprachbund phenomenon – nine. While Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Sardinian, Italian and Albanian feature eight.
So, are you wondering yet what caused such a phenomenon to occur?
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.” Drat!
But according to Haspelmath, one of the best potential possibilities to explain how the Standard Average Europe sprachbund formed is due to 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.” But of course, as he says himself, “the correct picture is likely to be much more complicated than we can imagine at the moment, let alone discuss in this article.”
This mystery and intrigue only adds to the beauty and wonder of languages and words, and may we always be enchanted by them, as they enrich our existence in countless ways.