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Standard Average European (SAE) is a concept introduced by Benjamin Whorf to distinguish Indo-European and especially Western Indo-European languages from languages of other grammatical types. According to Whorf, people whose languages have very different systems of grammar perceive reality in different ways and conceive of it in different forms. He further hypothesized that language wields a profound influence on human thought — this is known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.[1] Though the hypothesis has largely been rejected by linguists, the concept of Standard Average European as a group of languages with many related features has remained.

Studies of grammatical systems appear to support the existence of large language groups or Sprachbünde. The more central members of the SAE Sprachbund are Romance, Western Germanic, Baltic and Slavic. The North Germanic and Eastern European languages tend to be more peripheral members.

Alexander Gode, who was instrumental in the development of Interlingua, characterized this language as Standard Average European.[1][2] The Romance, Germanic, and Slavic control languages of Interlingua are reflective of the language groups most often included in the SAE Sprachbund. Piron described the vocabulary of Esperanto as being largely Romance and especially French, with Germanic and Slavic elements. [3]. However, Piron did not describe Esperanto as being Standard Average European.


Standard Average European as a Sprachbund

According to Martin Haspelmath (2001), the SAE languages form a Sprachbund characterized by the following features:

  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);
  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. in the pair The snow melts vs. The flame melts the ice, the intransitive verb is derived from the transitive);
  7. dative external possessors (e.g. German Die Mutter wusch dem Kind die Haare = The mother washed the child's hair, 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 based on adverbial-relative clause structures (e.g. French grand comme un élephant);
  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 and French);
  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 ("we and you") and exclusive ("we and not you") first-person plural pronouns;
  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 perfect tense.

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

  • absence of phonemic opposition velar/uvular;
  • phonemic voicing oppositions (/p/ vs. /b/ etc.);
  • initial consonant clusters of the type "stop+sonorant" allowed;
  • only pulmonic consonants;
  • at least three degrees of vowel height (minimum inventory i e a o u);
  • lack of lateral fricatives and affricates;
  • predominantly suffixing morphology;
  • moderately synthetic fusional morphological typology;
  • nominative-accusative morphosyntactic alignment.

The Sprachbund defined this way consists of the following languages:

The Balkan sprachbund is thus included. Not all the languages listed above show all the listed features; the western European languages show more SAE features than the eastern and northern ones, with German, Dutch, French, Occitan and the Northern Italian languages at the core of the Sprachbund. All SAE languages except Hungarian are Indo-European languages, but not all Indo-European languages are SAE languages: the Celtic, Armenian and Indo-Iranian languages remain outside the SAE Sprachbund (as do the non-Indo-European languages of Europe other than Hungarian).

The Standard Average European Sprachbund is most likely the result of ongoing language contact beginning in the time of the Migration Period and continuing during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance until today. 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.


  1. ^ Benjamin Lee Whorf, "The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language", written 1939 and originally published in Leslie Spier, ed., Language, culture, and personality: essays in memory of Edward Sapir, 1941; reprinted in Language, Thought, and Reality, p. 138.
  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2001. The European linguistic area: Standard Average European. Handbuch der Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft vol. 20.2, pp. 1492-1510.
  • Heine, Bernd and Kuteva, Tania. 2006. The Changing Languages of Europe. Oxford University Press.

See also

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