Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Ask a linguist - Message details

Subject: Could an 'Atlantic Sprachbund' Exist?
The Balkan Sprachbund (or ''Speech Union'') consisting of Albanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Modern Greek and several Rom (Gypsy) dialects has been fairly well-studied and seems to be accepted by most linguists as valid.

However, according to some linguists I've read, there is also a so-called ''Nordic Sprachbund'' which consists of Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Several North German dialects. In addition, just a few linguists have suggested an ''Atlantic Sprachbund'' consisting of Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, Basque and all of the modern Celtic languages of Western Europe. However this one is much less accepted at the present time.

Sprachbunds consist of languages which may belong to either the same linguistic families or different linguistic families. However, they all share some lexical, morphological and syntactical characteristics in common with each other as a result their geographical proximity to each other and their mutual interaction with each other over a long period of time.

My question is two-fold:

1) Are Estonian (a Finno-Ugrian) language and Polabian (a Slavic language spoken in North Central Germany until about 1750) also considered members of the Nordic Sprachbund?

2) Do you think that the proposal for an Atlantic Sprachbund by a few linguists is sound in any way?

I would enjoy reading any of your perceptions or comments on this. I still don't really know what a professional linguist's view of it is.

Thank you very much for your answers!


1) Some examples for possible inclusion of Estonain and Polabian in the Nordic Sprachbund: Estonian Klar ilm, Polabian Klora vedrü ''Clear weather'' -Norwegian klar vaer; Nor. røve, Sw. röva, Est. roovima, Pol. [email protected] ''to rob'' - all from Low German 'roven' ''to rob, to steal.''

Four examples (although random) which tend to support the Atlantic Sprachbund theory:

1) Dutch broek for ''trousers.'' This word has various cognates in English: breech, britches; Irish Gaelic briste ''pants,'' Scotch Gaelic briogais; Scots English breeks ''trousers,'' Breton bragou ''pants,'' and Spanish braga ''panties; knickers'' but German has HOSEN.

2)Dutch ''Pijnboom'' is lexically and/or morphologically similar to English ''Pine (Tree),'' Welsh ''Pinwydden'', French ''pin'' and Spanish ''pino'' but German has KIEFER.

3) Irish oibrí (worker) is similar to the Spanish and Portuguese words for worker: obrero and obreiro. Vulgar Latin cuctillus later became the word for ''knife'' in Spanish (el cuchillo), French (Le couteau) and Welsh (y gyllell < cyllel ''knife'');

4) English: I beg your pardon; Excuse me. French Excusez-moi; Pardonnez-moi, Dutch Excuseer; Pardon but German Entschuldigen Sie, Verzeihung.

Re the Balkan Sprachbund, you might want to include Rumanian too. It shares a number of features with other Balkan languages but differs from its Romance "sisters" in those ways.

About Polabian and Baltofinnic, I have no opinion. But there might be something to say for the notion that Western Europe is something of a Sprachbund and that has been suggested. It strikes me a little weak, however, particularly if one considers the other Germanic languages besides English.

Most of the examples you cite are lexical -- i.e. they consist of words borrowed back and forth. Phrases like "Pardon me." are idiomatic and therefore lexical. They thus really dont count as shared morphological or syntactic patterns.

Two possible examples of Sprachbund-like parallels may be
the following:

1. English uses the interrogative pronouns as relative pronouns, Who?,... the man who,,,, "Which? the book which.....

This is very Romance but very unGermanicl. Note incidentally that English in America among the middle aged and young seems to be losing this and is using the man/book that.... for a relativizer.

2. The use in English of an auxiliary BE + a present participle to indicate a momentary, or ongoing activity of a verb -- the so-called "progressive" aspect.
I am reading.

Now, this is very unGermanic and very unRomance (doesnt occur in French or Rumanian -- Italian and Portuguese I dont know about.) But it is very Spanish and very very very Celtic. And very English. So we have Welsh
Dw'i'n darllen.
am I predicate reading

and Spanish
Estoy leyendo.
am:1sg reading.

U of Cincinnati
Dept of Anthropology

Reply From: Joseph F Foster     click here to access email
Date: Dec-04-2006
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Could an 'Atlantic Sprachbund' Exist?   Elizabeth J Pyatt    (Dec-04-2006)
  2. Re: Could an 'Atlantic Sprachbund' Exist?   Geoffrey Sampson    (Dec-06-2006)

Back to Recent Message