Standard Average European

Standard Average European (SAE) is a concept introduced by Benjamin Whorf (1939) in "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language"[1] to group the modern Indo-European languages of Europe. Whorf argued that these languages were characterized by a number of grammatical similarities, which made them different from many of the world's other languages. His point was to argue that the disproportionate degree of knowledge of SAE languages biased linguists towards considering grammatical forms to be highly natural or even universal, when in fact they were peculiar to the SAE language group.

In Whorf's most famous example, he contrasted what he called the SAE tense system which contrasts past, present and future tenses with that of Hopi, which Whorf analyzed as being based on a distinction not of tense, but on distinguishing things that have in fact occurred (a realis mood encompassing SAE past and present) as opposed to things that have as yet not occurred, but which may or may not occur in the future (irrealis mood). The accuracy of Whorf's analysis of Hopi tense has later been a point of controversy in linguistics.

Whorf likely considered Romance and West Germanic to form the core of the SAE, i.e. the literary languages of Europe which have seen substantial cultural influence from Latin during the medieval period. The North Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages tend to be more peripheral members.

Alexander Gode, who was instrumental in the development of Interlingua, characterized this language as "Standard Average European".[2] The Romance, Germanic, and Slavic control languages of Interlingua are reflective of the language groups most often included in the SAE Sprachbund.

Standard Average European as a Sprachbund

According to Martin Haspelmath (2001), the SAE languages form a Sprachbund characterized by the following features, sometimes called "euroversals" by analogy with linguistic universals:[3]

  1. definite and indefinite articles (e.g. English the vs. a);
  2. postnominal relative clauses with inflected, resumptive relative pronouns (e.g. English who vs. whose);
  3. a periphrastic perfect formed with 'have' plus a passive participle (e.g. English I have said);
  4. a preponderance of generalizing predicates to encode experiencers, i.e. experiencers appear as surface subjects in nominative case (e.g. English I like music instead of Music pleases me, though compare Spanish Me gusta la música, which is of the form "Music pleases me");
  5. a passive construction formed with a passive participle plus an intransitive copula-like verb (e.g. English I am known);
  6. a prominence of anticausative verbs in inchoative-causative pairs (e.g. Russian inchoative anticausative izmenit’-sja 'to change (intransitive)' is derived from causative izmenit’ 'to change [something], make [something] change');
  7. dative external possessors (e.g. German Die Mutter wusch dem Kind die Haare = The mother washed the child's hair (lit. The mother washed the hair to the child), Portuguese Ela lavou-lhe o cabelo = She washed his hair);
  8. verbal negation with a negative indefinite (e.g. English Nobody listened);
  9. particle comparatives in comparisons of inequality (e.g. English bigger than an elephant);
  10. equative constructions (i.e. constructions for comparison of equality) based on adverbial relative-clause structures. E.g. French si grand comme un éléphant, Russian tak že X kak Y, where comme/kak (historically coming from the adverbial interrogative pronoun "how") are "adverbial relative pronouns" according to Haspelmath.
  11. subject person affixes as strict agreement markers, i.e. the verb is inflected for person and number of the subject, but subject pronouns may not be dropped even when this would be unambiguous (only in some languages, such as German, French and Spoken Finnish, e.g. oon, "I am" and oot, "you are"[4][5]); this feature is called null subjectpro-drop is sometimes mentioned in this context, but is technically a term for a more general phenomenon;
  12. differentiation between intensifiers and reflexive pronouns (e.g. German intensifier selbst vs. reflexive sich).

Besides these features, which are uncommon outside Europe and thus useful for defining the SAE area, Haspelmath (2001) lists further features characteristic of European languages (but also found elsewhere):

  1. verb-initial order in yes/no questions;
  2. comparative inflection of adjectives (e.g. English bigger);
  3. conjunction A, B and C;
  4. syncretism of comitative and instrumental cases (e.g. English with my friends vs. with a knife);
  5. suppletivism in second vs. two;
  6. no distinction between alienable (e.g. legal property) and inalienable (e.g. body part) possession;
  7. no distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns ("we and you" vs. "we and not you");
  8. no productive usage of reduplication;
  9. topic and focus expressed by intonation and word order;
  10. word order subject–verb–object;
  11. only one gerund, preference for finite subordinate clauses;
  12. specific "neither-nor" construction;
  13. phrasal adverbs (e.g. English already, still, not yet);
  14. tendency towards replacement of past tense by the perfect.

There is also a broad agreement in the following parameters (not listed in Haspelmath 2001):

The Sprachbund defined this way consists of the following languages:

Not all the languages listed above show all the listed features, so membership in SAE can be described as gradient. Based on nine of the above-mentioned common features, Haspelmath regards French and German as forming the core of the Sprachbund, while the Romance, Balkan, Nordic and Slavic languages as well as Hungarian (roughly in order of divergence from the core) form more peripheral groups. With the exception of Hungarian, all languages identified by Haspelmath as SAE are Indo-European languages. However, not all Indo-European languages are SAE languages: the Celtic, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian languages remain outside the SAE Sprachbund.[6]

The Standard Average European Sprachbund is most likely the result of ongoing language contact in the time of the Migration Period[6] and later, continuing during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Inheritance of the SAE features from Proto-Indo-European can be ruled out because Proto-Indo-European, as currently reconstructed, lacked most of the SAE features.

See also


  1. Published in (1941), Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir Edited by Leslie Spier, A. Irving Hallowell, Stanley S. Newman. Menasha, Wisconsin: Sapir Memorial Publication Fund. p 75-93.
    Reprinted in (1956), Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamins Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press. p. 134-159.
    Quotation is Whorf (1941:77-78) and (1956:138).
    The work began to assume the character of a comparison between Hopi and western European languages. It also became evident that even the grammar of Hopi bore a relation to Hopi culture, and the grammar of European tongues to our own "Western" or "European" culture. And it appeared that the interrelation brought in those large subsummations of experience by language, such as our own terms "time," "space," "substance," and "matter." Since, with respect to the traits compared, there is little difference between English, French, German, or other European languages with the 'possible' (but doubtful) exception of Balto-Slavic and non-Indo-European, I have lumped these languages into one group called SAE, or "Standard Average European."
    (quotation p. 77--78) and as Whorf, B. L.
  2. Alexander Gode, Ph.D. "Manifesto de Interlingua" (PDF) (in Interlingua). Retrieved February 10, 2013.
  3. "Language Typology and Language Universals" accessed 2015-10-13
  4. "§ 716 Minä, sinä, hän, me, te, he" (in Finnish). Retrieved February 10, 2013.
  5. Marja-Liisa Helasvuo (January 24, 2008). "Competing strategies in person marking: double-marking vs. economy". Retrieved February 10, 2013.
  6. 1 2 [Haspelmath, Martin, 2001. The European linguistic area: Standard Average European. In: Matin Haspelmath, Ekkehard König, Wolfgang Oesterreicher and Wolfgang Raible (eds.),Language Typology and Language Universals. Sprachtypologie und sprachliche Universalien. Sprachtypologie und sprachliche Universalien: La typologie des langues et les universaux linguistiques: An International Handbook: Ein internationales Handbuch: Manuel international, 1492–1510. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter.]


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