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Standard Average European

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):

  1. Definite and indefinite articles. [W]
  2. Relative clause following the noun, with inflected relative pronoun (e.g. English who [nominative] vs. whose [genitive] vs. whom [accusative]).
  3. Periphrastic perfect formed with 'to have' and past participle. [W]
  4. Experiencers in nominative case (e.g. English I like music).
  5. Passive formed with 'to be' and past participle.
  6. Anticausative prominence: the intransitive verb is derived from the transitive: The flame melts the ice -> The ice melts.
  7. External possessors in dative case (e.g. German Die Mutter wusch dem Kind die Haare 'the mother washed the child's hair').
  8. Verbal negation with negative indefinite (e.g. English Nobody listened). [W]
  9. Particle comparatives in comparisons of inequality (e.g. English bigger than an elephant).
  10. Equative constructions based on an adverbial-relative clause structure (e.g. French grand comme un élephant).
  11. Subject person affixes as strict agreement markers, i.e. the verb is inflected for person and number of the subject, but subject pronouns may not be dropped (only in some languages, such as German and French).
  12. Differentiation between intensifiers and reflexive pronouns (e.g. German intensifier selbst vs. reflexive sich).

All these features are typical of many European languages but uncommon outside Europe. Further typical features (according to Haspelmath 2001) are:

  1. Verb-initial order in yes/no questions.
  2. Comparative inflection of adjectives (e.g. English bigger).
  3. Conjunction A and B.
  4. Syncretism of comitative and instrumental cases (e.g. English with my friends vs. with a knife).
  5. Suppletivism in second vs. two.
  6. No distinction between alienable (e.g. legal property) and inalienable (e.g. body part) possession.
  7. No distinction between inclusive ("we and you") and exclusive ("we and not you") first-person plural pronouns.
  8. No productive usage of reduplication.
  9. Topic and focus expressed by intonation and word order.
  10. Word order Subject Verb Object.
  11. Only one gerund; preference for finite subordinate clauses.
  12. Specific "neither-nor" construction.
  13. Phasal adverbs (e.g. English already, still, not yet).
  14. Tendency towards replacement of past tense by perfect tense. [W]

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:

  1. Only pulmonic consonants (no ejectives, implosives or clicks).
  2. Voicing opposition in obstruents (e.g. /p/:/b/).
  3. No phonemic velar/uvular opposition (e.g. /k/:/q/).
  4. At least three degrees of vowel height (minimum inventory /i e a o u/).
  5. Moderately synthetic fusional morphological typology.
  6. Predominantly (but not exclusively) suffixing morphology.
  7. No possessive affixes on nouns.
  8. Accusative morphosyntactic alignment.
  9. Prepositions rather than postpositions.

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.

Why are the SAE languages SAE?

Several theories have been proposed why the languages of Europe share the typological features listed above:

1. Inheritance from Proto-Indo-European

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.

2. Influence from Latin

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.

3. Substratum influence

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.

4. Language contact in historical times

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 Rhiemeier
Last update: 2009-05-10