In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Areas

  • Introduction
  • History of the Field
  • Monographs and Edited Volumes
  • Textbooks and Handbooks

Linguistics Linguistic Areas
Rik van Gijn, Pieter Muysken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0133


“Linguistic areas” are defined as social spaces (regions, countries, (sub-)continents) in which languages from different families have influenced each other significantly, leading to striking or remarkable structural resemblances across genealogical boundaries. Since the early work of Trubetskoj and his contemporaries, work on other parts of the world, for example the Indian subcontinent, has unveiled a number of other regions where contact between languages has led to convergence, and thus the general field of areal linguistics has developed. This article surveys the different proposals for linguistic areas roughly continent by continent, and then lists a number of general overviews and contributions in textbooks and handbooks. As the notion of “linguistic area” was further developed, a number of definitional and theoretical issues came up. During most of the past century, linguistic areas were thought of as something special, out of the ordinary. In addition, the view arose that there were regions which qualified as linguistic areas and others which did not. At the beginning of the 1990s awareness grew that many linguistic patterns and features, both typological and historical, could and should be studied in an areal perspective. This areal turn led to a reconceptualization of many of the issues involved in areal linguistic studies, many of them involving problems of scale and operationalization. Even though the notion of “linguistic area” has been much criticized in the strict sense, the areal perspective keeps gaining ground in the study of the distribution of linguistic features. A final section of this survey will be devoted to psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic mechanisms and scenarios leading to linguistic areas. While earlier approaches had been mostly structural and historical, recent work in areal linguistics tries to bridge the gap with meso-level language contact studies: how do languages actually converge and what are the mechanisms promoting or blocking this type of convergence? Languages do not converge by themselves; rather, it is the agency or unconscious behavior of speakers that has this effect.

History of the Field

The notion of linguistic area is best explained by example, taking the almost prototypical area of the Balkans introduced in Trubetskoj 1928. Nicolai Trubetskoj, who is generally credited with coining the term Sprachbund, modeled on Russian языковой союз (yazykovoy soyuz, “language union”), suggested that the different languages of the southern Balkans showed grammatical resemblances that could not be attributed to shared genealogical heritage, but must be due to convergence. Friedman 2000 provides historical background on Trubetskoj’s sources and on the development of the concept in 20th-century linguistics. It should also be mentioned that in cultural anthropology proposals had been broached to define cultural areas, known as Kulturkreis, pioneered in Frobenius 1898 and further developed in Graebner 1904. It is not clear whether these ideas, later known under the rubric of cultural diffusionism, influenced linguistics at the time, but it is clear that later work on linguistic areas by scholars in the United States (Sherzer 1976, cited under North America) was very much influenced by parallel work on culture areas (Kroeber 1939).

  • Friedman, Victor A. 2000. After 170 years of Balkan linguistics: Whither the millennium? Mediterranean Language Review 12:1–15.

    This paper traces the roots of the discussion of linguistic areas in the context of the Balkans in the 19th century and of the reception of Trubetskoj’s work.

  • Frobenius, Leo. 1898. Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Gotha, Germany: Justus Perthes.

    In this ethnographic book the key notion of Kulturkreis (“cultural circle”) is proposed in discussing regions in which certain cultural practices and artifacts have spread, focusing on West Africa.

  • Graebner, Fritz Robert. 1904. Kulturkreise und Kulturschichten in Ozeanien. Berlin: Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory.

    This anthropological work further elaborates the notion of Kulturkreis, with respect to the cultures of Oceania, and has contributed to the popularity of the notion among anthropologists.

  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1939. Cultural and natural areas of native North America. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This influential monograph summarizes much of the ethnographic evidence about the Native American cultures of North America in terms of the notion of culture area.

  • Trubetskoj, Nicolai S. 1928. Proposition 16. In Actes de premier congrès international de linguistes à La Haye, du 10–15 avril 1928. By Nicolai Trubetskoj, 17–18. Leiden, The Netherlands: A.W. Sijthoff’s Uitgevermaatschappij.

    The key article that started the international discussion of linguistic areas. Note that Trubetskoj used a term that would translate as “federation” or “grouping,” which the term “area” does not imply.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.