Language Bundles and Their Linguistic Evolution

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Languages, like everything else on this planet, evolve. Sometimes, they form language bundles with members of very diverse families, and their bond gets so strong that they look more like each other rather than their families. Some traits that migrate into neighboring languages are grammatical and penetrate the structure. How do such fundamental changes happen?

The photograph shows a young woman opening a box and flags of different countries are coming out of it.
Language bundles are groups of languages that belong to different families, but look similar usually due to geographical closeness. (Image: pathdoc/Shutterstock)

Language bundles, or Sprachbunds, are groups of languages that come originally from different families, but look alike because of linguistic exchanges. The linguistic exchanges are mainly the results of immigration, invasion, and bi- and multilingualism.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Southeast Asia Languages

Southeast Asian languages might look like they are different variations of the same source. However, they come originally from many different families. Chinese languages belong to a group called Sino-Tibetan that includes Tibetan as well.

The next group in the region is Austroasiatic, which contains Vietnamese and Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia. Thai and Laotian belong to a totally different group called Tai-Kadai. A smaller group that is spread out in small fractions in the region is Miao-Yao, to which Hmong belongs.

These groups are around the age of the Indo-European language family—several thousand years. However, they are much more alike than Indo-European languages are.

Common Southeast Asian Traits

The first thing that the Southeast Asian languages have in common, despite their different roots, is being tonal. The tone matters a lot in them and can thoroughly change the meaning. A second trait is the numeral classifiers. For example, in Cantonese, they say two head of cattle instead of two cattle. In most of the languages in the region, numbers are used with a noun all the time.

Another trait is the little particles at the end of sentences that convey attitude. Most words in these languages consist of one or one and a half syllables, not the Indo-European way with up to six or more syllables. Why have all these languages from different families developed patterns so similar to Chinese?

Historically, the Chinese have conquered much of the region and migrated southward. Thus, the language contact between these diverse languages and Chinese rose significantly, and they became very Chinese-like. That is why the languages in the region are more like Cantonese, which is spoken in southern China, not Mandarin from the north.

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The Sinosphere

Originally, Chinese had prefixes and suffixes, as the hints to it suggest today. The Austroasiatic group that includes Vietnamese and Cambodian also used to have a lot of prefixes and suffixes. The more westward one moves, the more they will see the prefix and suffix presence in languages of the same family.

However, the linguistic exchanges were so powerful that today Thai and Khmer and Chinese and Vietnamese do not look that different in the bases. Learning one will make learning the others much easier. That is a latter-day development.

This area is called the Sinosphere, with Sino- meaning Chinese. A linguist called James Matisoff, at Berkeley, coined the term to refer to the formation of language bundles in this area.

Europe Language Area

Europe is another language area where language bundles have developed some common characteristics among the languages. Not all languages in Europe have Indo-European roots, but they all look similar to some extent and have similar traits, even if the traits are against the original family rules.

Trying to see these similarities might be very difficult for those who speak a few of the European languages. It is like an American taking American Studies courses and wondering why characteristics like being individual should be unique. However, if they see other countries and cultures, they realize individualism is really unique.

Four smiley fingers against a blackboard saying hello in English, French, Chinese, and Spanish.
Europe is a language area where language bundles have developed some common characteristics among the languages. (Image: Lemon Tree Images/Shutterstock)

Many cultures have a much more communal sense of things, and individual rights are not as common as in the American culture. Things as simple as ice can also be huge differences. In the U.S., people put ice in their drinks, while in Europe, people drink many things warm and find ice annoying. Linguistic traits can also be as strange to some, while a common and global rule for others.

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Articles in Europe

Definite and indefinite articles might look like a global linguistic trait for Europeans. Nevertheless, they are a uniquely European feature that many other languages live without. The Proto Indo-European language did not have articles either, but the descendants got new features from other sources and developed differently.

Having articles is so common in European languages that it seems to be an areal feature. For example, Hungarian comes from a completely different family called the Uralic family, including Finnish and Estonian. Yet, Hungarian has a and the even though its ancestor is something completely different from Proto Indo-European. The perfect construction is also an areal grammatical point. Many languages do not have it, while it is fairly common in Europe.

Language bundles can change the future of languages drastically, and they are more powerful than they may seem.

Common Questions about Language Bundles and Their Linguistic Evolution

Q: Are all Southeast Asian languages from the same family?

No, the families in Southeast Asia are very diverse, but the language bundles formed there because of geographical reasons make them look as if they are all from the same root.

Q: How are language bundles formed?

Language bundles are formed as a result of linguist contact through immigration, invasion, and bi- and multilingualism in the region. Eventually, the languages form similar traits.

Q: What is Sinosphere?

Sinosphere refers to the area where languages like Thai, Khmer, Chinese, and Vietnamese have developed to look so similar that learning one can help with learning the others. This has been possible because of the presence of language bundles in this geographical area.

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