Jörg Rhiemeier's Conlang Page
The major languages of western Europe are often referred to as "Standard Average European" (abbreviated SAE; a term coined by B. L. Whorf) - but what is the linguistic meaning of this term? A typological survey of European and non-European languages (I haven't done my own, but relied on work that others - people more qualified than me - have already done, chiefly the World Atlas of Language Structures) reveals some features that European languages tend to have in common. Many of these are common in the world's languages, while others are rare. Some of these traits are found in all of Europe (often excluding the Caucasus and sometimes also the Celtic languages, however), while others (labeled "[W]" in the list below) are more or less restricted to western Europe.
The German linguist Martin Haspelmath has defined an SAE linguistic area by the following features (Haspelmath 2001):
All these features are typical of many European languages but uncommon outside Europe. Further typical features (according to Haspelmath 2001) are:
Further common features (from my own research based on the The World Atlas of Language Structures and other sources) of most SAE languages are the following:
The languages considered SAE by Haspelmath are:
The Balkan sprachbund is thus included. Not all the languages listed above show all the listed features; the western European languages show more SAE features than the eastern and northern ones, with German, Dutch, French, Occitan and the northern dialects of Italian at the core of the sprachbund. All SAE languages except Hungarian are Indo-European languages, but not all Indo-European languages are SAE languages: the Celtic, Armenian and Indo-Iranian languages remain outside the SAE sprachbund, as do the non-Indo-European languages of Europe except Hungarian.
Several theories have been proposed why the languages of Europe share the typological features listed above:
It is sometimes assumed that the SAE features are simply because most languages of Europe are Indo-European, and that they have inherited them from Proto-Indo-European. However, Proto-Indo-European lacked several of the SAE features, and some SAE features are also found in non-Indo-European languages.
The assumption that the SAE languages were grammatically influenced by medieval Latin is unlikely because (1) it overrates the influence of Latin on the European vernaculars and (2) Latin does not show all the SAE features.
This cannot be ruled out with certainty, as we know virtually nothing about the languages of prehistoric Europe. However, most of the SAE features seem to have arisen in the 1st millennium AD or later, making the influence of a non-Indo-European substratum rather unlikely.
This is the likeliest explanation. Many of the SAE features developed during the Völkerwanderung, when many peoples migrated in Europe and intense language contact occured; some have spread in later times. Actually, this is an ongoing process; as Heine and Kuteva (2006) have observed, some eastern European languages that are usually described as lacking certain SAE features such as articles, are currently in the process of acquiring them.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2001. The European linguistic area: Standard Average European. Handbuch der Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft vol. 20.2, pp. 1492-1510.
Haspelmath, Martin, Dryer, Matthew S., Gil, David, and Comrie, Bernard. 2005. The World Atlas of Language Structures. Oxford University Press. (Also accessible online.)
Heine, Bernd and Kuteva, Tania. 2006. The Changing Languages of Europe. Oxford University Press.
WIkipedia: Standard Average European.
© 2008-2009 Jörg
Last update: 2009-05-10