Linguistic areas of the world (Sprachbunds)

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Sprachbunds map

World language families map

An overview of the language map of the world would not be complete without looking at linguistic areas.
There’s really two major ways to group languages, and the first is, we looked at before, language families.
Languages that are presumed to be, in a sense, related to each other genetically, and that they have a shared ancestor.
Once there was one language that, over time, broke up into the various daughter languages, and so all the languages can be said to be related, like a family.
And this is the primary way to divide languages, because that’s, I mean, these are the languages themselves, that can be traced back, that can be known to be somehow related.
Any language that is not within the same family, there’s no known relation to any other language.
We can’t trace back their origin in any clear way.
But there is another factor affecting the way languages are, and the way languages are grouped together, and that is these areas called “linguistic areas”, or Sprachbunds, using the German word for a language league, a language federation, language group.
And just like language families, you could say, well, that’s like your families; well, these are you could almost say like language friends, or language communities, language teams, language leagues.
And looking at this map of these Sprachbunds, linguistic areas, it presents a very different picture, but also an extra layer that you can add on top of the basic language family map of the world.
This map is thanks to, a very good linguistic resource I’ll put a link to, that has many maps like this made to show various linguistic distribution around the world.
Lots of good material there.
So here we can compare this map with the language families map, and see how these groups, each of these these linguistic areas, they share some kind of features, and they overlap different families.
So even languages that have no known connection with each other, that appear to be completely unrelated, being in the same area, there’s some kind of cross-influence.
Just as you could say friends or community influencing people even in completely different families.
And so, while the language families here, you can see words matched up, where, you know, they have words that have a common origin, they show that they were traced back to a shared ancestor, when it comes to these linguistic areas, it’s just that they show these surprising similarities.
At least they would be surprising if we didn’t imagine some kind of areal effect.
That’s another term used for this, areal effects, because the effects that languages have on each other, just being spoken in close proximity to each other, they seem to be rubbing off on each other.
Maybe there’s a large number of people who speak more than one of these languages, there’s some kind of cultural connection, cultural contact that causes speakers of these different languages to mix together.
So despite them being very different, there are certain shared properties.
Often these are in sounds, they have certain types of sounds that are shared, and also in the word formation and the grammar, the morphology and syntax, also showing certain shared features that seem to be would be beyond just being a coincidence.
Like almost to the extent that often these linguistic areas can be confused for language families, and they can make it seem like languages are related that are not.
They’re simply heavily influenced by each other.
So we can see some examples of these aerial effects.
Starting over here in northwest North America, we have a variety of indigenous languages here, widely separated, you can see covering a very large area, but sharing certain properties of sounds and grammar.
We have the Mesoamerican area here in yellow, including many different language families, such as the Aztec, Mayan, and so on.
Here’s the Caribbean Creole area, so these creole languages sharing many properties.
Here we have the Andean area, in the Andes Mountains.
Like the old Inca area has the Quechua language, but many other indigenous languages as well, with no known relation, but sharing certain properties.
We see here in southern/southwest Africa, this is where the famous click consonants are popular.
So they appear in the Khoisan languages, but also in Bantu languages as well nearby.
So here comparing back and forth between the language map, the language families map, and the linguistic areas map, and we can see how here’s the Khoisan family, and here’s the Niger-Congo family, primarily the Bantu languages.
Here, this Sprachbund, this linguistic area, overlaps both of them.
So this feature of clicks, among some other features, spread, you could say, or was shared somehow, from one language family to another.
And here with this, with some of these North and South American linguistic areas, you see how they cover many different language families, entirely unrelated, but sharing enough features to be considered an area.
Here in Europe, well, here you see this is called Standard Average Northwest European.
These are all Indo-European languages, all you can see in the light green here, so this is being a little bit more specific, you could say, because, you know, these are actually within the same language family, they are all related.
But here it’s just being more specific, because the indo-European language family is so big, and it’s describing shared properties among different branches, mainly the Germanic and Latin or Romance branches, of this family sharing certain properties here.
And you see the same thing with here the Iberian, northern Iberian.
Includes some sharing between Spanish, Portuguese, and some of the, you know, Catalan, southern French varieties here, and also the independent Basque language.
So here you can see this Basque language, which is famous for being such an outlier, that it doesn’t fit into any other languages of Europe.
It has no genetic or family relation.
But, you know, being surrounded by these other Iberian languages has shared a lot of the properties.
And so there’s some cross-influence there.
Here in red you see the Balkan linguistic area.
So the Balkans, famous for being a large mix of things, even the word ‘balkanization’ referring to breaking down into many independent bits, and this is true with the languages.
Well, here again you see this is also within the Indo-European family, but it includes sort of an overlap of different branches: Slavic, and Latin with Romanian here, and including the Albanian little branch of Indo-European as well.
So all of those showing certain effects within that area.
We also see over here, in the dark red, this is the Caucasus area, the Caucasian Mountains, with a great variety of languages showing up as this sort of splash of colour here.
Many different families in that small area, but they also share certain properties, just by being all in that area.
We have in orange, this is sometimes called the Altaic, the Altaic area.
It’s named after the Altai Mountains, so Altaic, you know, is a way of expressing central Asia.
And this is the area of the Turkic languages, and the Mongolic languages, and some others that are not known to be related, but they all have that shared, certain shared properties of being central Asian languages.
And this is one area that, you know, it’s really many linguists have struggled to try to find some kind of connection.
Some have proposed that there is this Altaic language family that includes Turkic and Mongolic, and possibly even Korean and Japanese – or Koreanic, Japonic – as well, but that appears to be a bit of a stretch.
But certainly there are some shared features there.
So you see, yeah, Korean is proposed as possibly being related to these, or being part of this area.
Then we have here the South Asian or Indian subcontinent region, and of course we have, in India, northern India has Indo-European languages, southern India mainly Dravidian languages, two major language families dividing India.
And as well as some other ones here, some Sino-Tibetan along the border areas, and some other smaller families.
But they all share certain features, being together in this part of the world.
And then you have here you might call the East Asian/Southeast Asian or Chinese/Indochinese language area, and this includes, of course, China, most of the Sino-Tibetan languages, and Tibetan as well, but also these languages of Southeast Asia.
So it includes the Tai-Kadai languages, Thailand, and a whole mix in the highlands here – a great linguistic diversity in these highlands of southwest China and south from there – and the Austroasiatic languages, including Vietnamese.
So yeah, these languages are often mistaken for being related to each other, because they share certain properties, like being highly tonal languages, having what’s called an analytic morphology, where you have many short words joined together, rather than long words.
And so a lot of these properties are probably the result of some kind of mixing of this area, the cultural mixing through this area And finally, we can look at the languages of Australia.
The indigenous languages of Australia show many properties, despite when you try to group them genetically, it becomes essentially impossible to come up with any kind of clear, you know, single Australian language family.
But there are many things that these languages have in common.
So those are some of the major linguistic areas of the world.
When it comes to the details of each one, it gets into the technical points about, you know, specific sounds, specific points of grammar and word formation.
But certainly, you may notice that, as you’re experiencing languages that are within any of these areas, that they show some surprising points in common with others, to the point where you may have to ask: are they even related?
Are they part of the same language family?
Or are they, rather, part of a Sprachbund or a language area, undergoing areal effects, where languages are influencing each other.
Just like you have language families, and then you might call them language friends, or language leagues.

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