Language contact and Indo-European linguistics

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Lexical borrowing
  • 3. Substratum
  • 4. Convergence as an alternative to substratum
  • 5. Convergence and Indo-European dialectology
  • 6. Conclusions and outlook
  • 7. References


In 1939 there appeared a brief, but thought-provoking posthumous article by Trubetzkoy on the “Indo-European Problem”. The article’s claim is commonly taken to be that ProtoIndo-European arose by convergence from several different, neighboring languages. While Trubetzkoy does indeed hint at such a proposal, it is more a speculative thought experiment than based on empirical evidence and arguments. In fact, the strong lexical and morphological similarities between the early Indo-European languages, including the idiosyncratic root suppletion in the personal pronouns (e.g. nom. *eg[-] : oblique *me- ‘I’), strongly argue for inheritance from a common ancestor, rather than origination through convergence, for in convergence it is structural features that come to be more similar, while the lexicon tends to remain distinct (Gumperz and Wilson 1971). In some geographical areas, e.g. the Balkans, lexical convergence may be more extensive (Joseph

1986, 1992/2003). Even there, however, the lexica remain quite distinct; and the affixes and other grammatical elements in the convergent structures are native, not borrowed.

What is more important in the long run is Trubetzkoy’s role in the development of the very concept of Sprachbund or convergence area (Trubetzkoy 1928, 1931, Jakobson 1931; an alternative English rendition of Sprachbund, going back to Emeneau [1956], is ‘linguistic area’). To this must be added the claim at the foundation of Trubetzkoy’s (1939) thought experiment, namely that the interaction between the languages of convergence areas is the same as that between dialects of a given language.

The new concept of structural convergence between distinct languages introduced an important alternative to traditional ideas about language contact as resulting primarily in lexical borrowing, with the added concept of substratum (or in some cases superstratum) influence as an explanation of structural similarities not ascribable to genetic relationship (see e.g. Pott 1833/1836 on Sanskrit retroflexion).

I examine both these traditional ideas about language contact and the alternative notion of convergence, with major focus on their relevance to Indo-European linguistics. I begin with lexical borrowing (section 2). Section 3 addresses the concept of substratum. Section 4 deals with convergence. Section 5 addresses the relationship between convergence and Indo-European dialectology. Section 6 presents conclusions and implications.

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