LINGUIST List 12.2413

Fri Sep 28 2001

Review: Gilbers et al., Languages in Contact

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  1. Lotfi Sayahi, Review of Gilbers et al., Languages in Contact

Message 1: Review of Gilbers et al., Languages in Contact

Date: Wed, 26 Sep 2001 11:17:34 -0700
From: Lotfi Sayahi <>
Subject: Review of Gilbers et al., Languages in Contact

Gilbers, Dicky, John Nerbonne, and Jos Schaeken, ed. (2000)
Languages in Contact. Rodopi, hardback ISBN 90-420-1322-2,
viii+339pp, $64.00, Studies in Slavic and General Linguistics 28.

Lotfi Sayahi, University at Albany, State University of New York

Languages in Contact is a collection of thirty articles presented
at a conference bearing the same title which held in 1999 at the
University of Groningen. It celebrated the awarding of a honorary
doctorate by the University of St. Petersburg to Tjeerd De Graaf
(Professor of phonetics at the University of Groningen and author
of a large body of publications on phonetics aspects of
bilingualism and language contact). In addition to these
numerous contributions, the editors include an introduction that
outlines the major topics exposed.

The present volume under review is not divided into sections or
chapters. However; in the introduction, the editors attempted to
group the articles under the linguistic area they cover. A wide
range of coverage is dedicated to Eurasia, with a special
attention to Russian in contact with several languages of the ex
URSS, the Balkan Sprachbund (one of the best known and studied
linguistic areas), the Scandinavian languages and dialects, and
the Dutch/ German dialectal contact. Another group of articles
deal with the Pacific area studying the language contact in New
Guinea. The third group study two linguistic areas referred to by
the editors as "The New World": the Pacific Northwest, and the
Andean Amazonian area. The fourth group, Africa, is covered by
one article by P. A. Mather.

It would be too space-consuming to review every single
contribution made to this encompassing volume. Therefore, I will
limit my review then to a few articles that I find theoretically
stimulating in order to discuss the main foci and the future
directions of Sprachbund studies without going into too much
specific structural detail which would be inevitable when
reviewing case studies.

The first article, entitled "Linguistic areas and language
history", is written by Sarah G. Thomason, who previously co-
authored with T. Kaufman (1988) a classic reference book on
language contact. Her article exposes the state of the art in
language contact studies by defining the object of this sub-
discipline and surveying the main Sprachb�nde studied. By
definition and according to Thomason, "a linguistic area is a
geographical region containing a group of three or more languages
that share some structural features as a result of contact rather
than as a result of accident or inheritance from common
ancestor." (p. 311). The fact that more than two languages are
needed in order to speak of a Sprachbund as such is a way to
distinguish areal linguistics from the studies that cover the
very frequent bilingual contact situations. In addition, the
focus on "structural features" is to avoid the inclusion, in a
certain Sprachbund, of all the languages that may have borrowed
lexical items from languages belonging to the area in question
without undertaking a close direct contact. The stress on contact
as the catalyst for structural convergence in areal linguistics
is the very raison d'�tre of this field since many cross-
linguistic features may be shared among languages, which may not
be in direct contact nor linked genetically, either by conforming
to some Universal Grammar principles or simply by accident.
Thomason proceeds to survey the most controversial issues
involving areal linguistics studies and she formulates some
conclusions that could be summarized as follows:

1. Not all the members of a determined Sprachbund are necessarily
structurally related between themselves.

2. More than one structural feature should be shared as evidence
for a Sprachbund.

3. The shared structural features are not required to be present
in all the member languages.

4. The distinguishing shared features may not be exclusive to the
determined Sprachbund and may exist in other linguistic areas as

5. Several social and cultural factors condition the emergence of
a Sprachbund out of close contact between more than two language
for a long time.

Thomason then attempts to answer two important questions central
to the study of language contact: "How do linguistics areas
arise? And how are their linguistic features to be interpreted
historically?" (p. 315). She underscores the social and cultural
specificity of each case both for the arising of a Sprachbund and
for the adequate historical interpretation of its shared
features. In order to illustrate these assumptions, she surveys
five well-known Sprachb�nde: The Balkan Sprachbund, the Sepik
River Basin, the Pacific Northwest, the Ethiopian Highlands, and
South Asia.

The fact that a lot has still to be done in areal linguistics
makes the answer to where the areal features come from not an
easy one, since it is not obvious in all the cases what the
original source language was and how the processes of contact and
change took place.

The second article that I find of special interest and
complimentary to the article by Thomason is the one by Pieter
Muysken, "From Linguistic areas to areal linguistics". While
Thomason's article reviews and consolidates the foundations and
the theoretical framework in the present areal linguistics
research showing where we presently stand, Muysken aims at the
future and the upcoming areal linguistic research by suggesting
possible directions of study. He maintains the need to combine
the efforts of genetic, areal and typological linguistics for a
better understanding of linguistic areas.

In addition to the possible scenarios for the formation of
linguistic areas presented by Thomason and Kaufman (maintenance
and borrowing/ shift and transfer) which lead to "outer form
shared features" (p. 267). Muysken proposes two additional
scenarios: surface convergence (for example convergence at the
word order level) and relexification "the word for word and even
morpheme for morpheme modeling of one language upon another, so
that roughly the structure comes from the one and at least the
content lexicon from the other language" (p. 266). These types of
scenarios lead to "inner form syntactic and discourse features"
(267). Both inner form and outer form shared features may exist
when we have convergence and coexistence. In the light of these
interpretations, Muysken discusses the areal features in the
Andean/Amazon transition area. He argues that unlike the Balkan
linguistic area, there exist two main language groups with the
Quechua-Aymara group on the one side and the Western Amazonian
languages at the other. On going detailed research in the area is
expected to shed more light on the relationship between both
groups and the type of shared features. The general claim of the
article is the "shift from linguistic areas as fixed entities to
areal linguistics, the study of the distribution of linguistic
features in space and time" (p. 274)

R. Alexander investigates the word order within the Balkan
linguistic area in order to prove whether it is of a convergent
aspect or not. Complex as the Balkan linguistic area is, it is
hard to distinguish between the features that have been contact-
induced and those that have occurred out of internal structural
change, even though the combination of both phenomena is quite
frequent. Alexander stresses the important role that South Slavic
languages (Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Macedonian, and
Bulgarian) play as a good source for possible investigation of
several features due to the fact that they contain both Balkan
and non-Balkan features. While in non-Balkan Slavic the clitic
is placed after the negated verb, Balkan south Slavic requires
the clitic to be inserted between the negative particle and the
negated verb which is similar to the order implanted in Balkan
languages. The claim she makes is that the Balkan Slavic word
order is innovative. Another innovation concerns the fact that in
Balkan Slavic clitics are required to precede the verb even if
this means that they have to occupy the first place in word order
which is not allowed in many other linguistic systems. Based on a
comparison of Balkan south Slavic and non-Balkan South Slavic
features and examination of early South Slavic manuscripts,
Alexander reaches the conclusion that the clitic ordering in
Balkan languages originated in Slavic and was borrowed by the
rest of the Balkan languages which means that it is more probable
to be a contact-induced feature rather than a convergent one. But
she still draws our attention to the fact that the interpretation
of the appearance of a certain shared structural feature may vary
according to the point of view of each linguist, she makes a
strong call to find a "correct balance" (p. 25) between both
approximations: convergence and internal factors. A different
point of view is expressed by Lindstedt who seems to be inclined
towards the idea that the different areal Balkan features could
not be a result of "internal drift" (p. 242), or at least not
exclusively, but rather they are the result of "mutual
reinforcement" (p. 242) meaning that the sin quo no of the
linguistic balkanization is the contact situation which is after
all the subject matter of Sprachbund studies in general.

Another interesting theoretical approach is developed by Comrie
in his article "Language contact, lexical, borrowing, and
semantic fields". He investigates whether the convergence in
"semantic fields", not in syntactic structures as we have seen
above, are the outcome of genetic relations or a close linguistic
contact. Several structural similarities between Haruai and Aramo
(a variety of Hagahai which is a Kalamic language), such as verb
morphology, allow for genetic connections between Haruai and
Hagahai that do not exist between Haruai and Kobon (a Kalamic
language too) showing that the shared similarities between the
last two is a result of borrowing "[...] from Kobon into Haruai,
since the borrowed words are shared by Kobon and Haruai but not
in general by Hagahai" (p. 79). This is caused partly by the need
of Haruai to make up for the extensive gap left by the systematic
word tabooing in this speech community and the later
incorporation into the language (especially kinship words since
every speaker may have some words that are taboo for him only
such as the names of his in-laws (p. 80)); but also the
incorporation of words "relating to the outside world" (p. 83).
The loans, therefore, are not really limited to determined
semantic domains but functionally they go beyond that to cause
permanent lexical changes in the language as stated by Comrie:
"In general, in Haruai it is not possible to identify particular
semantic domains that have been affected by borrowing from Kobon;
such borrowing pervades the whole lexicon" (p. 84)

In general, the inclusion of so many articles with different
scopes is very useful in allowing the reader to get a good grasp
of the most up-to-date research in the field but with the risk of
getting overwhelmed by so much information and so many case
studies. Sometimes it may seem hard to come to grip with all the
viewpoints especially since some articles are not elaborated
enough (some are as brief as four pages) and the reader may lack
the necessary information required to follow the arguments made.
Another critical points, which does not relate to this volume
only but to contact linguistics in general, is to decentralize
the classical Eurasian Sprachb�nde and direct more extensive
research into the other areas as well (only one article referred
to Africa in the present volume).

A more active editorial effort was needed to make the general
layout of the book clearly structured with, perhaps, the more
general theoretical articles in the beginning (especially the
article by Thomason which could have served as an introduction to
the whole volume) and the articles classified in chapters
according to their scope, the features studied (syntactic,
morphological, lexical or phonetic), or the methodology
implanted, etc. In this way, it would have been much more
accessible as a reference book.

To sum up, Languages in Contact is a large encompassing
collection of good scholarly contributions on Sprachbund studies
with both theoretical articles offering the needed framework and
well-documented case studies offering insight into original data.
The contributors made it clear that there is still a lot to be
done and almost every article promised or opened the door for
more systematic future research.

Thomason, Sarah Grey and Terence Kaufman (1988). Language
contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.

[No biographical statement provided --Eds.]
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