LINGUIST List 32.873

Tue Mar 09 2021

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics; Typology: Hickey (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 30-Oct-2020
From: Natalie Operstein <>
Subject: The Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Raymond Hickey
TITLE: The Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Natalie Operstein,


''The Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics'', edited by Raymond Hickey, is divided into an editor's introduction (Chapter 1), ''Issues in Areal Linguistics'' (Chapters 2-8), and ''Case Studies for Areal Linguistics'' (Chapters 9-33).

In his introduction, ''Areas, Areal Features and Areality'' (1-15), Raymond Hickey introduces the subject and the volume. The chapter offers a provisional definition of the concept of a linguistic area, highlights the dynamic nature of areality (''the areal concentration of linguistic features'') by delineating the processes through which it may be promoted or inhibited, and identifies as the central concern of areal linguistics research into the mechanisms through which languages in a given area come to share features.

Two chapters engage with the thorny issue of how to define and delimit a linguistic area. In ''Why Is It So Hard to Define a Linguistic Area?'' (19-39), Lyle Campbell emphasizes the nonuniform nature of the linguistic areas proposed in the literature, which differ not only in substantive terms -- such as their time depth and sociocultural history -- but also in the degree of acceptance among specialists; and he outlines the criteria that have been used for defining linguistic areas: the number of shared features, their bundling, their comparative weight, and the degree of relatedness among the participating languages. To overcome the issue of non-overlap between the boundaries of areal traits, some of which may not be found in all of the area's languages while others may extend beyond its geographical boundaries, Campbell advocates a shift of focus from geography to the shared features themselves, and, in the later part of the chapter, applies this approach to the proposed Gran Chaco convergence area.

In ''Reassessing Sprachbunds: A View from the Balkans'' (55-87), Victor A. Friedman and Brian D. Joseph bring a historical, political, and social dimension to the task of identifying a linguistic area. The centerpiece of their fine-grained discussion is the Balkan Sprachbund, which they use as a testing ground for asking questions about the viability of the linguistic area as a theoretical construct. Among the questions explored are the number of languages participating in a linguistic area and their genetic relatedness, the number and types of shared features and their distribution across the languages, the social and political circumstances that favor the formation of linguistic areas and the types of language contact that underlie it, how to identify the areal boundaries, and whether linguistic areas are ongoing phenomena or products of past activity.

The subject of ''Areas and Universals'' (40-54), by Balthasar Bickel, is interplay between cross-linguistic structural patterns and their geographical distribution. Underlying the discussion is the distinction between linguistic areas defined by cognitively or socially motivated linguistic changes that occur each time the relevant conditions are met (''functional triggers'') and those defined by idiosyncratic changes deriving from topical historical events (''event-based triggers''), with the corresponding difference in the mechanisms of area formation, selection of the cognitively/sociolinguistically preferred variant or copying.

Three chapters are devoted to phonological areas. In ''Areal Sound Patterns: From Perceptual Magnets to Stone Soup'' (88-121), Juliette Blevins takes a general look at the areal sharing of sound patterns, broadly understood, which does not result from chance, genetic inheritance, or general phonological tendencies. The phenomena examined include tone, retroflexion, clicks, ejectives, and front rounded vowels. The central concern of the chapter is the proposed mechanism by which sound patterns are diffused: it is hypothesized that, rather than from lexical borrowing, areal phonological convergence results from internal developments prompted by external stimuli in the form of contact sound patterns.

In ''Convergence and Divergence in the Phonology of the Languages of Europe'' (122-160), Thomas Stolz and Nataliya Levkovych examine areal properties of the consonantal systems of the languages of Europe. The chapter takes an expansive view of Europe by including Greenland and parts of Anatolia, Transcaucasia, and Kazakhstan. The properties examined are airstream mechanisms, phonation, place and manner of articulation, and secondary articulations. The global findings include the existence of distinctions between center and periphery, and between east and west, in the distribution of phonological phenomena. Languages of the Caucasus consistently stand out in having features, such as ejectives, lateral affricates, pharyngeal and epiglottal places of articulation, secondary labialization and pharyngealization, that are not found elsewhere in the area. Also emphasized is phonological diversity within language families as seen, e.g., in the nonuniform distribution of secondary palatalization across Slavic languages. At the conclusion of the chapter, the authors stress that there is as yet no general framework for the study of phonological convergence.

''Word Prominence and Areal Linguistics'' (161-203), by Harry van der Hulst, Rob Goedemans and Keren Rice, draws on studies in loanword prosody, second-language phonology and the diachrony of prosodic systems to provide a richly illustrated introduction to the areal dimensions of word prominence, a multifaceted notion whose components include stress (or absence thereof), its placement, its phonetic cues and phonotactic correlates. The authors emphasize the scarcity of detailed studies of changes in word prominence and the difficulty of determining whether a particular change is contact-induced. Central to the latter issue is the idea of hybridity, or simultaneous presence in a language of more than one word-prominence pattern, such as both initial and right-edge stress in Germanic languages (though the authors emphasize that an explanation in terms of diachronic layering is also possible in such cases). The concept of hybridity is applied to explaining the stress systems of languages in northern Australia which combine characteristics of initial- and penultimate-stress patterns. The chapter's other case studies address divergence in word prominence among closely related languages, through an exploration of Basque, and probe the existence of areal stress patterns in several linguistic areas of North America.

''Semantic Patterns from an Areal Perspective'' (204-236), by Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm and Henrik Liljegren, brings into focus areal convergence in semantics and lexicon. The chapter surveys a number of lexico-semantic phenomena that are prone to cross-linguistic areal diffusion, such as shared polysemy patterns; shared lexico-constructional patterns, including formulaic expressions; shared lexicalizations tied to the areas' physical or cultural environments; and shared conceptual organization of entire semantic domains, such as the domain of deictic verbs in European languages. In the latter part of the chapter, these analytic categories are applied to sketching the lexico-semantic profile of the Greater Hindu Kush area.

The second part of the volume consists of twenty-five case studies of the linguistic areas and language families of Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The chapters vary in their length, detail, and perspective on areality.

The linguistic areality of Africa is introduced through a variety of approaches. In “An Areal View of Africa” (424-445), Bernd Heine and Anne-Maria Fehn single out for discussion features that are common in African languages but less common elsewhere, such as the animal/meat polysemy, ATR vowel harmony, preference for open syllables, low incidence of case inflections, and grammaticalization of a verb meaning “pass”, “surpass”, or “defeat” into a standard of comparison marker. In ''Areal Contact in Nilo-Saharan'' (446-470), Gerrit J. Dimmendaal examines the typological split between the Central Sudanic and Northeastern branches of the Nilo-Saharan language family from the perspective of their typological convergence with neighboring languages. In ''Niger-Congo Languages'' (471-499), Jeff Good surveys the areal patterns of the Niger-Congo family, contrasting the areal characteristics of languages spoken in the Marco-Sudan belt (the ''center'') with those located outside this region (the ''periphery''). In ''The Kalahari Basin Area as a 'Sprachbund' before the Bantu Expansion'' (500-526), Tom Güldemann and Anne-Maria Fehn present an areal convergence alternative to the Khoisan family hypothesis. In ''South Africa and Areal Linguistics'' (527-550), Rajend Mesthrie surveys the complex linguistic mosaic of South Africa against the backdrop of the contact history of the area. The range of the contact phenomena examined is wide and includes phonological impact of Khoisan on Bantu, mutual influences between English and Afrikaans, the role of Afrikaans in the diffusion of structural features, and SLA effects, such as ''anti-deletion'' (Mesthrie 2006), in Black South African English.

The central thread that runs through the presentation of linguistic areality in Oceania is the tension between inheritance and diffusion as potential sources of the shared features, coupled with the difficulty of teasing the two apart because of the great time depth of the genetic relationships involved. In ''The Areal Linguistics of Australia'' (732-757), Luisa Miceli and Alan Dench focus on the competing genetic and contact explanations for the widespread phonological, semantic, and morphosyntactic similarities among Australian languages, embedding their discussion within the social context of sustained multilingualism and special effects of contact among genetically related languages, responsible for the intricate relationship between inheritance and diffusion in the Australian context. The bulk of ''Languages of the New Guinea Region'' (758-820), by Malcolm Ross, is devoted to tracking the areal distribution of seventeen morphosyntactic features in the Papuan and Austronesian languages of the vast and linguistically diverse New Guinea region. The features examined include the division between tense-prominent and mood-prominent languages, clause chaining, and a variety of word-order features.

In ''Languages of Eastern Melanesia'' (821-851), Paul Geraghty examines Papuan substrate influence on the Oceanic languages of Eastern Melanesia, which show certain aberrant characteristics with respect to Proto-Oceanic. The features examined include verb serialization, quinary numeral systems, and borrowed vocabulary. ''The Western Micronesian Sprachbund'', by Anthony P. Grant (852-877), provides a further opportunity for illustrating some of the difficulties inherent in trying to separate inheritance from diffusion in a contact situation involving related linguistic systems. The chapter is devoted to evaluating the status of Western Micronesia as a potential linguistic area, focusing largely on the shared features in phonology and lexicon.

The Americas are represented by three chapters. In ''Native North American Languages'' (878-933), Marianne Mithun highlights the distinctive feature of areality in North America: extensive sharing of structural patterns, including abstract morphological patterns, in the absence of a matching level of lexical borrowing. The chapter describes several of the areas -- the Northwest, the Southeast, the Southwest, California -- in some detail, providing extensive bibliographical references and correlating the linguistic patterns with those of social interaction. The reader learns about the areal distribution of such features as ejectives, fricative symbolism, alignment patterns, and shared grammaticalization processes, such as grammaticalization of positional verbs into aspect markers in the Southeast.

In ''The Areal Linguistics of Amazonia'' (934-963), Patience Epps and Lev Michael show that the combination of low lexical and extensive structural borrowing, including borrowing of bound morphology and semantic calquing, is also characteristic of the linguistic areas of Amazonia, where the contact zones combine multilingualism with emblematic role of language as a marker of identity. The chapter examines several of the areas -- Vaupés, Caquetá-Putumayo, Upper Xingu, Guaporé-Mamoré -- in some detail before considering the possibility that Amazonia as a whole may constitute a linguistic area. As part of their discussion, the authors briefly mention the west/east areal split in South America, with the former area consisting of the Andes, the Southern Cone, and Western Amazonia and the latter comprising the rest of the continent. The division of South American linguistic systems into the western and eastern types is confirmed by the areal distribution of NP types, which forms the foundation for the next chapter, ''Linguistic Areas, Linguistic Convergence and River Systems in South America'' (964-996) by Rik van Gijn, Harald Hammarström, Simon van de Kerke, Olga Krasnoukova, and Pieter Muysken. Earlier research has shown that languages of the western and eastern types differ with respect to such structural features of the noun phrase as the location of modifiers, the presence of gender and classifiers, and the expression of property concepts. The specific aim of the chapter is to attempt to correlate the linguistic with the physical geography as regards the areal distribution of the NP features.

The linguistic areas of Eurasia receive the most coverage in terms of the number of chapters. In ''Jarkhand as a 'Linguistic Area': Language Contact Between Indo-Aryan and Munda in Eastern-Central South Asia'' (551-574), John Peterson examines convergence between the Munda and Indo-Aryan languages against the backdrop of the larger South Asian convergence area, emphasizing the fact that, due to the absence of historical record, the direction of areal diffusion is often unclear. In ''Sri Lanka and South India'' (575-585), Umberto Ansaldo brings population genetics research to bear on the issue of multilayered structural convergence among the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages of the region. The chapter brings into relief the special historical interest of Sri Lanka Malay and Sri Lanka Portuguese, contact varieties whose typological profiles have shifted away from those of their lexifiers and in the direction of those of their neighbors in the Sri Lankan Sprachbund.

''The Transeurasian Languages'' (586-626), by Martine Robbeets, addresses the long-debated issue of structural similarities among Turkic, Tungusic, Mongolic, Japonic, and Koreanic (otherwise known as Altaic) languages. The chapter compares the behavior of selected Transeurasian languages with that of their neighbors, including Ket, Ainu, and Mandarin, with respect to 27 features, both synchronic (e.g., the basic constituent order) and diachronic (grammaticalization patterns). The study detects maximum concentration of the features in Tungusic and Mongolic; while inclusion in the sample of older stages of some of the languages points to a decrease in Transeurasian areality over the intervening period. In ''The Changing Profile of Case Marking in the Northeastern Siberia Area'' (627-650), Gregory D. S. Anderson looks at four recurrent features of case marking in indigenous languages of Siberia -- the instrumental/comitative contrast, the dative/allative contrast, the prolative case, and the use of case markers as markers of subordinate clauses -- suggesting diffusion from Tungusic as a plausible explanation for the observed areal pattern.

In ''Languages of China in their East and Southeast Asian Context'' (651-676), Hilary Chappell surveys features that define continental East and Southeast Asia as a linguistic area and examines three sub-areas in more detail, two involving contact between Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages -- Altaic and Tai -- and one concerning contact among Sinitic languages. In ''Language in the Mainland Southeast Asia Area'' (677-702), N. J. Enfield supplies a bird's-eye view of Mainland Southeast Asia and some of the phonological and grammatical features shared among its several hundred Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian languages. The chapter also orients the reader about major resources and ongoing work in this field. In ''Southeast Asian Tone in Areal Perspective'' (703-731), James Kirby and Marc Brunelle survey the tone systems of Southeast Asian languages, dwelling on their synchronic diversity and developmental pathways, and stressing the difficulty of making a solid case for contact spread of tone.

In “Western Asia: East Anatolia as a Transition Zone” (396-423), Geoffrey Haig undertakes a critical assessment of selected features proposed as indicators of a pan-Anatolian area of interaction among Turkic, Semitic, Kartvelian, and Indo-European languages, showing that the features in question show bilateral rather than pan-Anatolian diffusion. He proposes to view the region as transitional between the Mesopotamian and Caspian/Caucasian regions, with some of the features representing compromise solutions to the conflicting linguistic typologies. In “The Caucasus” (355-395), Sven Grawunder examines the Caucasus as a phonological/phonetic sprachbund, focusing on such features as segmental inventories, phonation contrasts, places of articulation, and secondary articulations and drawing on historical, population genetics, and wide-ranging linguistics research for the task of describing the Caucasus as a linguistic area.

In ''Slavic Languages'' (331-355), Alan Timberlake examines contacts between Slavic peoples and their neighbors, distinguishing between the impact on linguistic convergence of substrates and supra-regional lingua francas. In ''The Germanic Languages and Areal Linguistics'' (239-269), Johan van der Auwera and Daniël Van Olmen survey contacts among Germanic languages, such as the impact of Danish on Norwegian, and between Germanic and non-Germanic languages, including Romance, Celtic, and Slavic. In ''Britain and Ireland'' (270-303), Raymond Hickey examines the areal features of English in Britain and Ireland in a broadly diachronic perspective and against the background of a wide-ranging discussion of a number of foundational issues in the study of areality.

''Varieties of English'' (304-330), by Bernd Kortmann and Verena Schröter, is unique in the volume in focusing on a single language while adopting a global perspective on areality. The chapter scrutinizes areal biases in the distribution of morphosyntactic features in world-wide varieties of English and English-based contact languages. The features in question include complementation, pronominal features (such as pronoun deletion), NP features (such as deletion of definite and indefinite articles), and VP features (such as the aspectual done). The authors reiterate the earlier finding that the areal morphosyntactic patternings are secondary to those tied to sociolinguistic variety types (low-contact L1, high-contact L1, L2, pidgin, creole), with the strongest areal signals obtaining in the Caribbean (dominated by creoles), America (dominated by L1 varieties), and Asia (dominated by L2 varieties).


Through a combination of survey and case studies, ''The Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics'' introduces the reader to various aspects of areal linguistics as a branch of study and the state of the art of areal-linguistic research in selected parts of the world. The different contributions are united by the methodological concerns that are central to the field, including how to define a linguistic area and circumscribe its reach; how to separate, in an areal context, changes that are due to contact from those that may be due to genetic inheritance or universal drifts; and the mechanisms of areal diffusion. Other conceptual concerns that recur across the chapters are genetic relatedness and typological congruence among the participating linguistic systems, the special mechanisms and effects of contact among genetically related languages, and the societal and cultural aspects of linguistic area formation. These broad themes are tackled from a variety of perspectives, with some of the chapters proceeding from general principles to specific studies and others working from the local to the general.

Areal convergence is addressed at a variety of structural levels, including segmental and suprasegmental phonology, morphology, syntax, discourse, semantics, and lexicon. The extent to which these different levels are explored in the individual chapters varies: for instance, the case studies devoted to English, Germanic and Slavic languages focus on morphosyntax whereas the chapter on the languages of the Caucasus addresses phonetics and phonology to the exclusion of other levels. Some of the key mechanisms of areal diffusion, such as replication of grammaticalization patterns and changes in the frequency of native constructions in response to external models, receive attention in more than one chapter.

Other substantive and methodological issues covered in the volume include selection of features to define a linguistic area; the role of shared vocabulary (Grant) and discourse markers (Haig) as indicators of areality; the difficulty of determining the source of the areal traits and the direction of diffusion; the distinction between core and periphery, and between high-level and local patterns, in an areal context; areal diffusion processes in parts of the world that lack historical documentation or significant descriptive work (e.g., Heine & Fehn; Ross); and the unequal value of different types of linguistic features as indicators of areality.

The individual chapters draw attention to interfaces between areal linguistics and allied fields, including genetic and typological linguistics, sociolinguistics, language ecology, language acquisition and various subfields of contact linguistics, such as the study of bilingualism, contact language formation and contact-induced simplification (due to L2 learning) and complexification (due to development of new distinctions). This last issue is explored in several chapters which describe the rise of new linguistic patterns in geographically transitional areas (''buffer zones''; cf. Dahl 2009). These include new suppletive paradigms combining inherited and borrowed forms, such as varda/bliva ''become'' in some Swedish vernaculars (Van der Auwera & Van Olmen), the hybrid comparative in Xianghua (Sinitic) (Chappell), and cross-linguistically uncommon structural patterns arising at the intersection of differing typologies, such as the object/verb/goal word order in East Anatolia (Haig) and hybrid word prominence patterns in northern Australia (Van der Hulst, Goedemans & Rice). Changes in linguistic complexity are correlated with the larger context of the typological ecology of the contact environment by Ansaldo.

Various chapters extend their discussion to general issues in contact-induced language change, including the agency behind it and the distinctions between matter and pattern borrowing, and between borrowing and shift (e.g., Van der Auwera & Van Olmen); the impact of sociolinguistic conditions on the outcome of language change, the influence of urbanization on patterns of language change and areal distribution of features, contact-induced retention of linguistic features (e.g., Hickey); interaction between different types of contact phenomena in an areal setting, including bi- and multilingualism, code-switching, L1 transfer and SLA processes in L2 varieties; the impact of cultural and societal factors, such as language ideologies and shared discourse practices, on the shaping of areal patterns (e.g., Mesthrie; Grawunder; Good; Epps & Michael); and the role of lingua francas in promoting areal convergence (Timberlake; Anderson). The inhibiting effect on areality of language standardization and supraregionalization prompts recurrent urging to (re-)focus the study of areality on nonstandard varieties (e.g., Hickey; Enfield).

The volume provides a balanced introduction to the rapidly developing field of areal linguistics while at the same time highlighting its connection and interdependence with related research fields. Many of the chapters offer ample bibliographical orientation and make good use of maps, enhancing the volume's usefulness as a research tool for understanding the multifaceted phenomenon of linguistic areality. The volume is expected to stimulate further research on areal and contact linguistics and to be of interest to a range of students and scholars interested in language contact, linguistic typology, historical linguistics, and related fields.


Dahl, Östen. 2009. Increases in complexity as a result of language contact. Convergence and Divergence in Language Contact Situations, Kurt Braunmüller & Juliane House (eds), 41-52. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Mesthrie, Rajend. 2006. Anti-deletions in an L2 grammar: A study of Black South African English mesolect. English World-Wide 27: 111-145.


Natalie Operstein's research interests center on language change, phonology, and language contact. Her publications include ''Consonant Structure and Prevocalization'' (John Benjamins, 2010), ''Zaniza Zapotec'' (Lincom Europa, 2015), ''Valence Changes in Zapotec: Synchrony, Diachrony, Typology'', ed. with Aaron Huey Sonnenschein (2015) and ''Language Contact and Change in Mesoamerica and Beyond'', ed. with Karen Dakin and Claudia Parodi (2017).

Page Updated: 09-Mar-2021