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Review of  Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics

Reviewer: Nicoletta Puddu
Book Title: Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics
Book Author: Chia-jung Pan R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.1085

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Aikhenvald, Alexandra and Robert M. W. Dixon, ed. (2001) Areal
Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative
Linguistics, Oxford University Press.

Announced at

Nicoletta Puddu, Dipartimento di Linguistica, University of Pavia


This book proceeds from an International Workshop on ''The connection
between areal diffusion and the genetic model of areal relationship''
held at the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at the Australian
National University in 1998.

As the editors say in the preface, the ''position paper'' was Dixon's
''The rise and Fall of Languages''. In this essay, Dixon proposes his
''punctuated equilibrium'' model, which is summarized in the
introduction. He argues that, during periods of equilibrium, cultural
and linguistic features are more likely to diffuse. On the other side,
when one ethnic group expands, we have a punctuation and, in this
case, languages tend to split. Consequently, the family-tree model is
supposed to be an appropriate tool only to describe periods of
punctuation. However, papers in the volume also deal with other
questions, which are summed up in the introduction. They mainly
concern the definition of linguistic areas, the types of language
contact and the possibility to establish a borrowing hierarchy. The
editors also provide an overview of the volume and a list of
desiderata for future research.

In his paper ''Archaeology and the Historical Determinants of
Punctuation in Language-Family Origins'', Peter Bellwood discusses
Dixon's punctuated equilibrium model of language-family origins in
comparison with a punctuated-equilibrium model of agricultural
dispersal. He supports the hypothesis of an early agricultural
stimulus for language family genesis, assuming that language dispersal
requires a substantial movement of native speakers. Middle East and
China are, in his opinion, the clearest cases of parallel spreading of
languages and agriculture. Bellwood also adds some data from Africa
and America and, in particular, from Uto-Aztecan. He suggests that
''Indo-European, like Austronesian, Bantu and Uto- Aztecan, has its
remote origins in an episode of punctuated population expansion which
can be associated with the regional beginnings of a systematic
agriculture'' (Bellwood, 42).

Calvert Watkins (''An Indo-European Linguistic Area and its
Characteristics: Ancient Anatolia. Areal Diffusion as a Challenge to
the Comparative Method?'') discusses Dixon's model in relation to
Indo- European, with particular reference to ancient Anatolia. As he
points out, Indo- European is usually considered the ''laboratory''
for the traditional comparative method, but actually it is also a very
interesting field for areal studies. A case in point is ancient
Anatolia, where Indo-European languages like Hittite and Luvian came
into contact with non Indo-European languages like Hattic, Old
Assyrian and Hurrian. Watkins argues that the languages of Anatolia
show common innovations, both in phonology and in morphosyntax. As for
phonology, we can find phenomena of convergence in the evolution of
the system of stop consonants, in the preservation of Indo-European
laryngeals, and in the development of the vowel system. As for
morphosyntax, split ergative system, development of enclitic chains of
particles and anaphoric pronouns after the first stressed word of the
sentence and the use of phrase connectors to link all sentences of a
discourse are found only in the Anatolian subgroup within the
Indo-European family. However they are present, in varying degrees,
both in Hattic and Hurrian. As a matter of fact, these convergent
innovations took place between 2200 and 1900/1700 BC. It is indeed a
quite short period and that, however, languages still retained their
individuality. He also deals with phenomena of language contact
between Greek and Anatolian, where there is ''diffusion from one
Indo-European group to another, without the ultimate development of a
real linguistic area'' (Watkins: 56). At least, he discusses Heath's
(1997) model of language change, where, in contrast to Dixon's
terminology, the ''equilibrium'' is referred to situation of static
monolingualism, while the ''punctuation'' occurs under intense
language contact. He concludes that ''Both genetic families and
diffusional areas would have their own distribution of rapid abrupt
and slow gradual change, and here we might see sequences of
punctuation and equilibrium as well'' (Watkins: 63).

R. M. W. Dixon views Australia as a large linguistic area (chapter 4,
''The Australian Linguistic Area''). According to his reconstruction,
once Australia was completely populated it was characterized by an
equilibrium situation with no major punctuation. He lists recurrent
features of Australian languages, and he claims that, within an area,
categories, structures and construction types diffuse more than actual
forms. He indicates the tendency of Australian languages to assimilate
contiguous segments as a case in point. Then, he discusses two
parameters of variation as example of cyclic movement within the
Australian area: the verbal organization and the development of bound
pronouns. Finally, he identifies 37 low-level subgroups, due to minor
punctuations in the recent past, and some small ''relic'' linguistic
areas. In the appendix he discusses the ''Pama-Nyungan idea'',
claiming that ''it cannot be supported as a genetic group. Nor is it a
useful typological grouping, in that it relates to just one
typological parameter'' (Dixon: 97).

Still on Australia, Alan Dench examines the linguistic situation in
the Pilbara Area (''Descent and Diffusion: The Complexity of the
Pilbara Situation''). This area is identified as a distinct ecological
region with respect to the neighbouring areas. Twenty languages are
spoken in the Pilbara area, and there is a close relationship between
ecological regions and linguistic subgrouping. The Pilbara people also
share cultural features, and this implies that there was a long
contact between the people within the area. Moreover, exogamy favours
multilingualism, even if there is a strong tradition of linguistic
integrity, because languages are deeply related to particular areas.
None of the researches carried out so far, with the lexicostatistic
method, the typological method, and the comparative method, have
proved that Pilbara languages represent a genetic unity. Dench
considers various features within this group, like phonological
innovations, morphophonemic alternations and case-marking patterns,
concluding that ''none of the shared innovations described in this
chapter can be considered conclusively to be innovations arising in a
single ancestor'' (Dench: 131). Rather, these innovations seem to have
diffused through contact. Dench finnally points out how difficult it
is, in cases like the Australian one, to identify even low-level

Malcolm Ross discusses ''Contact-Induced Change in Oceanic Languages
in North-East Melanesia''. After a brief introduction on the Oceanic
language family, he studies more in detail the case of Takia (Oceanic)
and Waska (Papuan), both spoken on the island of Karkar, in Papua New
Guinea. Takia has undergone a process of ''metatypy'', due to his
prolonged contact with Waskia, so that its bound morphology and its
lexicon are still Oceanic, but its syntax has converged towards
Papuan. Metatypy, according to Ross's definition, refers to a change
of linguistic type, but it does not imply the borrowing of forms. It
occurs where a group's speakers are polilectal and if a group is open
and tight-knit. It implies different steps: semantic reorganization,
morphosyntactic restructuring, phrasal restructuring and, finally,
reordering of word-internal structure. Lexical borrowing and
phonological assimilation may accompany metatypy, but not necessarily.
Because of metatypy, Takia diverged from its family through language
contact and this can be represented in the form of a family tree. Ross
then discusses Dixon's punctuated equilibrium, concluding that the
family-tree model can also be used during an equilibrium period. He
then drafts a typology of contact-induced changes, based on a paradigm
of parameters stated in Ross (1991, 1997). In his theoretical
framework, metatypy is clearly distinguished from creolization and
imperfect shift, so that it can be defined as an individual type of
contact-induced change.

Alexandra Y Aikenwald deals with problems of subgrouping within an
Amazonian area (''Areal Diffusion, Genetic Inheritance, and Problems
of Subgrouping: A North Arawak Case Study''). She sketches the
linguistic situation of the Amazon basin, which comprises around
fifteen linguistic families. They are highly discontinuous, so that it
is always very tricky to distinguish which features are inherited and
which are due to areal diffusion. She is concerned with the Arawak
family, spoken in six location south of the Amazon and eleven north.
She briefly describes Common Arawak grammar and lexicon, then she
focuses on North Arawak languages and presents two case studies.
Grammatical system of Tariana (North Arawak) spoken in the Vaupés
basin, is influenced by East Tucano (Tucano). However, there is no
lexical borrowing because of cultural inhibition against lexical loans
in this area. On the other side, Resígaro (North Arawak), an
endangered language spoken in the north-eastern corner of Peru, shows
a large number of borrowings from Bora (Bora-Witoto), which has also
strongly influenced its grammar. Bora-Witoto-Resigaro share some
features with the languages of Vaupés (Tariana and
Tucano). Aikhenvald argues that this can be due to areal diffusion,
since in the past they were geographically closer than today. She
concludes that there is no evidence to consider all the North Arawak
languages as a genetic group, but that there is ''a limited stock of
genetically inherited morphemes, overlaid by vast influxes of areally
diffused patterns, due to intensive and prolonged contact with
neighbouring languages'' (Aikhenvald: 190). Areal diffusion in the
North Amazon is then explained through Dixon's model of punctuated

Geoffrey Haig examines contact induced changes in East Anatolia
(''Linguistic diffusion in Present-Day East Anatolia: From Top to
Bottom''). Languages belonging to four different families (Indo-
European, Kartvelian, Semitic and Turkic) are spoken in this area.
After the First World War, Turkish has become the only official
language, so that minority languages have become more and more
subjected to its influence. Haig focuses his attention on the
influence of Turkish on Laz (Kartvelian), Kurmanjî Kurdish and Zazaki
(both Iranian). These four languages differ considerably in their
typological features. However, there are several common structural
parallels within them, like the use of complementizer ''ki'', the
structure of ''nevertheless''-type clauses, the structure of
''either...or'' constructions, ''neither-nor'' constructions etc. He
also discusses some discourse level parallels, such as the use of the
enclitic topic-switch marker and expressive reduplications. Haig
examines then the exits of Turkish influence on the grammatical
domains of the three minority languages mentioned above. He concludes
that ''different contact outcomes may be due to differing grades of
structural compatability (sic!) between Turkish and the minority
languages'' (Haig 210). As a matter of fact, the high degree of
structural compatibility between Turkish and Laz has determined a
stronger influence of Turkish on Laz than on Kurmanjî Kurdish and
Zazaki. Haig argues that, in many cases of language contact, we find
''a clearly discernible drift towards structural isomorphism, a
realignment of various constituents to bring them into line with
comparable elements in the contact language'' (Haig: 218). He calls
this process ''linear alignment'' and distinguishes it from Ross's
''metatypy''. He argues that linear alignment starts at the discourse
level and progresses down through clause coordination, subordination
and constituent order. He finally discusses east- anatolian data
within this perspective.

Chapters from 9 to 12 are dedicated to the South-East Asia.

Randy La Polla discusses ''The role of Migration and Language Contact
in the Development of the Sino-Tibetan language family''. His paper
clearly shows how contact and migrations have been important in the
history of Sino- Tibetan. He gives a detailed account for the history
of migrations in China. Massive movements of Sinitic speakers within
China have deeply influenced the geography of Chinese varieties, but
also the migrations of non-Chinese speakers into China have determined
further changes in Sinitic varieties (see, for instance, the
Altaicization of Northern Chinese). As for the Tibeto-Burman group, he
recalls Matisoff's (1990) distinction between Indosphere and
Sinosphere, and traces the lines of migration of the Tibeto-Burman
speakers. He describes the complex sociolinguistic situation of this
area and the mutual influence between Tibeto-Burman languages and
their neighbours. Then, he stresses the importance of considering
cultural and cognitive classes alongside to linguistic classes. He
gives a series of interesting examples which show how, depending on
the intensity of the contact, speakers can simply borrow a form to
their way of thinking or can change the way they conceptualise
events. He concludes remarking the impossibility of classifying Sino-
Tibetan languages only through a tree-model and, consequently, the
importance of taking into account language contact.

In his paper ''On Genetic and Areal Linguistics in Mainland South
East- Asia (MSEA): Parallel Polyfunctionality of 'acquire''',
N. J. Enfield approaches an area which comprises Vietnam, Cambodia,
Laos, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, parts of North east India and of
south-western China. After providing a geographical and cultural
overview of the area, he gives a brief sketch of the linguistic
situation, and of the main typological traits shared by the five
linguistic families of the MSEA (Austroasiatic, Tai- Kadai, Hmong
Mien, Sinitic and Tibeto- Burman). Then, he focuses on Tai, showing
how areal pressure actuated by Sinitic languages has modified both
phonological and morphosintactic features. His data are mainly taken
from two Tai languages (Lao and Northern Zuang) and three Sinitic
languages (Cantonese, Modern Standard Chinese (MSC) and South-Western
Mandarin). In the core part of the paper, he studies the case of the
verb-like morpheme ACQUIRE, which shows an interesting overlapping of
meaning and functions in the languages under consideration. In the two
Tai languages ACQUIRE is a main transitive verb meaning 'acquire' and
it can be shown that even MSC de and Cantonese dak had originally the
same function. However, ACQUIRE can have different functions in the
sample languages: it is, in all the languages under consideration, a
postverbal modal marker and a manner complement; in the three Tai
languages it is a temporal adverbial complement, while it is an extent
complement and a potential result complement in the three Sinitic
languages; finally, it is a preverbal modal/marker meaning 'get' or
'have to' in all languages but Cantonese. Then, Enfield discusses the
data on the basis of historical and typological considerations, taking
into account also ACQUIRE in Mon Khmer languages. He concludes that,
even if Proto-Tai *tak and Proto- Sinitic *day were genetically
related (despite some etymological problems), their functions cannot
be inherited, but are more likely to be parallel developments
''possibly encouraged by diffusion'' (Enfield: 280). He firmly states
the point that functions may be duplicated without duplication of
phonological forms, and this is, in my opinion, the most interesting
outcome of this contribution. James A. Matisoff's paper (''Genetic
versus Contact Relationship: Prosodic Diffusibility in South-East
Asian Languages''), begins with an introduction on principles to be
used in establishing genetic relationships and outlines the
macro-groupings and the areal features of South-East Asian languages.
Then he focuses on tone, which is, ''perhaps the most striking
phonological feature of the South-East Asian linguistic area''
(Matisoff: 291). He presents the various tone systems of
Tibeto-Burman, discussing more in detail the case of Lahu, Burmese and
Tamang Risiangku. He highlights the interaction between the prosodic
level and changes in manner of initial consonants. Afterwards, he
discusses various hypothesis, both monogenetic and polygenetic, on the
origin of tones in Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto Burman, concluding that a
definitive position cannot be stated. In the following section, he
identifies a ''Sinospheric Tonbund'', showing how Chinese has
influenced Tai-Kadai, Hmong Mien and Vietnamese tone-systems by means
of massive lexical borrowing. The paper ends with numerous theoretical
questions and some desiderata, like ''a world-wide typology of
tone-systems'' and more precise explications for rapid diffusion of
prosodic features throughout an area.

Hilary Chappell deals with ''Language Contact and Areal Diffusion in
Sinitic Languages''. She discusses previous application of the
comparative method to Chinese, especially to its historical phonology.
She lists, then, the typological features of Sinitic, followed by a
brief note on Chinese dialect history and by some considerations on
areal features of South-East Asia. She suggests that stratification,
hybridization and convergence are the three main outcomes of language
contact situations for Sinitic languages. She finally discusses five
sets of data in Sinitic (diminutive suffixes, negative existential
constructions, complementizers, adversative passives and possession),
trying to determinate whether they are: a) the outcome of shared
developments in a language family; b) the result of areal diffusion,
c) universally favourite exits. She concludes that ''to reconstruct
the history of a language family adequately, a model is needed which
is significantly more sophisticated than the family tree based on the
use of comparative method. It needs to incorporate the diffusion and
layering processes as well as other language-contact phenomena such as
convergence, metatypy and hybridization'' (Chappell: 354).

Chapter 13 and 14 are devoted to the African continent.

Gerrit J. Dimmendaal (''Areal Diffusion versus Genetic Inheritance: An
African Perspective'') provides two case studies of areal
diffusion. The first one concerns the influence of Swahili on other
coastal Bantu languages and in particular on Khoti .The second one
deals with the influence of Tirma and Chai (South-Western Mursic) on
Baale, a language belonging to South-East Mursic. In both cases a
prestigious neighbour language has rapidly influenced the ''minor''
one, but, according to Dimmendaal ''there is little evidence, both in
Baale and in Khoti, for extensive grammatical borrowing'' (Dimmendaal:
365). In the second part of the paper he describes the main features
of the Niger-Congo languages (ATR vowel harmony, nasalized vowels,
noun classes and serial verbs). He concludes that there is, on the
whole, little evidence for morphological borrowing in African
languages, while tone and phonological features seem to be prone to
areal diffusion.

Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva give a ''bird's eye view'' on
''Convergence and Divergence in the Development of African
Languages''. First of all, they summarize the features which
characterize Africa as a convergence area of its own, like click
consonants, labiovelar stops etc. Then, they identify some convergence
areas in the continent: the North- eastern Africa, The Kalahari basin,
a large part of West Africa, the Rift Valley Convergence Area. They
stress the fact that we still know very little about areal
relationships in Africa. They examine the case of Nile Nubian
languages and, more in depth, of Dongolawi-Kenuz as a case of
languages which massively underwent to contact-induced change. In the
final part of the paper, they introduce the concept of
''grammaticalizing metatypy'', which is defined as one type of
metatypy (in Ross's terms that leads to the emergence of new
grammatical categories. They argue that people can borrow not simply a
morpheme, but an ''event schema'', that is ''a semantic structure that
tends to be used cross- linguistically for expressing grammatical
functions'' (Heine and Kuteva: 403). In the end, they look at areal
diffusion of comparative constructions and reflexive markers as a case
of event- schemas diffusion.

The paper by Timothy J. Curnow is meant to be a summary of the papers
presented in the volume(''What Language Features Can Be Borrowed?'').
Curnow first discusses the meaning of ''borrowing'', which can also
include phenomena of retention and loss. He underlines the
difficulties in developing ''borrowing categories'' and lists the
three main types of hierarchy of borrowability developed by Haugen
(1950), Ross (1988) and Thomason and Kaufman (1988) respectively. Then
he discusses the main obstacles to the development of constraints on
borrowing: ''the social, political and historical context of the
languages in contact, borrowing versus substratum influence,
emblematicity constraints, the problem of language death, the issue of
the reliability of data, and the problem of multiple causation for
language change'' (Curnow: 434). Finally, he summarizes which features
are more likely to be borrowed under language contact, according to
the data provided by the contributors to the volume. He concludes that
''It is possible that a variety of constraints on borrowing in
particular contexts can be developed. But the attempt to develop any
universal hierarchy of borrowing should perhaps be abandoned'' (Curnow


This book is highly recommended for all those interested in historical
linguistics, linguistic typology, language contact and language
change. The old contrast between ''Stammbaum'' and ''Sprachbund'' is
here reinterpreted in a modern perspective, which takes into account
typological, sociolinguistic and cultural factors. The book covers a
really wide geographic area and gives us a variegated picture of
issues in language contact and language development worldwide. The
question is: is it possible to develop a unique model which accounts
for language development? The model discussed here is, as we said,
Dixon's punctuated equilibrium. It is adopted by Aikhenvald to explain
the complex linguistic situation of Arawak languages and Bellwood
provides a interesting parallel model in archaeology. However, it
seems that this model is not always adequate to describe language
splitting and convergence. As Ross points out, equilibrium and
punctuation processes are not mutually exclusive. Watkins, on his
part, suggests that the formation of linguistic areas can be
relatively rapid and that they can coexist with genetic

It is true, as Aikhenvald and Dixon point out, that the ''family-tree
model'' is not always adequate to describe language development, but I
am not thoroughly convinced that it is an appropriate tool only for
periods of ''punctuation''. On the other side, as Ross says, family
trees usually say ''half the truth'', as they in general do not
provide information on phenomena of language contact. Representing at
the same time both areal phenomena and genetic filiation seems to be
still an open question. To sum up, this book represents a good
opportunity to meditate, on the one side, on models of language
evolution and, on the other side, on actual phenomena of language


p. 210: ''compatability'' should be ''compatibility''
p. 330: ''lan-guage'' should be ''language''


Dixon, R. M. W.: 1997, The Rise and Fall of Languages, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Haugen, E.: 1950, ''The analysis of linguistic borrowing'', in
Language, 26: 210-231.

Heath, J.: 1997, ''Lost wax: abrupt replacement of key morphemes in
Australian agreement complexes'', in Diachronica, 14: 197-232.

Matisoff, J.A.: 1990 ''On megalocomparison'', Language 66: 102-20.

Ross, M. D. 1988: Proto Oceanic and the Austronesian languages of
Western Melanesia, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Australian National

Ross, M. D.: 1991, ''Refining Guy's sociolinguistic types of language
change'', Diachronica 8: 119-129.

Ross, M. D.: 1997 ''Social networks and kinds of speech- community
event'', in Archaeology and Language, vol. 1: Theoretical and
Methodological Orientations, edited by R. Blench and M. Spriggs,
London: Routledge: 209-261.

Thomason, S.G. and Kaufman, T. S.: 1988, Language Contact,
Creolization and Genetic Linguistics, Berkeley: University of
California Press.

Nicoletta Puddu is a PhD student at the University of Pavia,
Italy. She is interested in linguistic typology and historical
linguistics. She is now working on intensifiers and reflexives in
ancient Indo-European languages.

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