Standard Average European

Standard Average European is a concept first devised by Benjamin Whorf in 1939 to describe the similarities between a number of (predominantly) Western European languages, in spite of them not being particularly closely related to each other (different sub-branches of the Indo-European language family). Standard Average European can also therefore be described as a sprachbund; it’s a language area where the member families have become closer and closer together due to proximity and frequent contact. The beginning of the sprachbund is said to be around the time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire, when different peoples were migrating across vast chunks of Europe (the Migration Era), and the languages continued to get closer over time because close linguistic contact continued through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

For Whorf himself, “Standard Average European” probably meant the Romance languages and West Germanic languages, with more distant members including the North Germanic languages and the Balto-Slavic languages. He pointed to features like these languages’ paradigm of verbal tenses as features that set them apart from other languages, globally.

In 2001, Martin Haspelmath examined the concept a bit more thoroughly and came up with a longer list of features that he thinks characterise (most of) the members of the Standard Average European sprachbund, while being uncommon to rare in languages outside the sprachbund. These features include:

  • having definite and indefinite articles
  • having relative clauses that go after the noun with a relative pronoun that signifies the role of that noun in the relative clause (e.g. the man whom I saw or the cat whose bowl I’m filling)
  • a periphrastic perfective aspect formed with an auxiliary verb “have” + a passive participle
  • a tendency towards having “experiential” verbs in a form where the subject is the “experiencer”, like in I like music (but this is far from universal)
  • a periphrastic passive construction formed by a copula + a passive participle
  • pairs of verbs where one is inchoative (i.e. it refers to something becoming something) and the other is causative (i.e. it refers to something causing something else to become something)
  • using dative pronouns to refer to the possessor of a direct object (e.g. Spanish ella me cepilló el cabello; le robaron el libro; German also apparently does this)
  • negative pronouns (“no one”, “nothing”) combined with not otherwise negating a verb (so “nobody’s coming”, not “nobody’s not coming”)
  • the use of a particle for making comparisons with (in English, than)
  • equative constructions (where you’re saying something is like something else) based on adverbial relative-clause structures (cf. English “as X as Y” or, indeed, “like X”; many Romance languages use the same word for this as for “how”)
  • subject pronouns as strict agreement markers, i.e. you can’t drop them even when the verb is conjugated such that you don’t “need” the pronoun to resolve ambiguity
  • there is a distinction made between reflexive pronouns and intensifier particles

In addition to that, there is a further list of features that are relatively common in non-European languages, but still also characteristic of Standard Average European:

  • verb-initial order in yes/no questions
  • inflection of adjectives to make comparisons (like English bigger, biggest)
  • to conjoin noun phrases, Standard Average European languages prefer “A and B” rather than “and A B”, “A B and”, or using a comitative proposition like “with”
  • the fusion of the instrumental (I cut food with a knife) and comitative (I eat with my husband) cases
  • suppletivism in second vs two (i.e. these are derived from different roots, rather than “second” being derived somehow from “two”)
  • lack of distinction between alienable and inalienable property (e.g. my money vs my leg)
  • lack of distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (e.g. “me and others including you” vs “me and others, but not you”)
  • the lack of productive use of reduplication
  • topic and focus expressed by intonation and word order
  • SVO word order
  • only one “converb” form (which seems to mean a gerund)
  • a specific construction for negative coordination (e.g. English neither X nor Y, Spanish ni X ni Y)
  • phrasal adverbs
  • a tendency towards replacing the simple past tense with the present perfect

Then there are some other features not identified by Haspelmath himself, but which include:

  • phonological/phonotactics stuff:
    • the lack of phonemic opposition between velar and uvular consonants
    • the prevalence of consonant pairs distinguished by voicing
    • allowing word-initial consonant clusters of the form stop + sonorant
    • only having pulmonic consonants (no clicks)
    • a minimum three-height vowel distinction (i.e. minimum inventory /a e o i u/)
    • lacking lateral fricatives and affricates
  • morphological stuff
    • generally their typology is “moderately synthetic fusional”
    • they exhibit nominative-accusative morphosyntactic alignment
    • they tend towards using suffixes to add morphemes

Haspelmath considers membership of the Standard Average European sprachbund to be on a gradient (which isn’t unique or anything; the Balkan sprachbund also has members with varying degrees of adherence to the sprachbund norms). Basically, he considers the “nucleus” of the sprachbund – the languages which exhibit virtually every feature – to be French and German. Moving out from there, you have a “core” which also includes English, the other Romance and Germanic languages, and the western and southern Slavic languages. Pretty much every other language spoken in continental Europe west of Russia (but including Russian itself) is considered a peripheral member. The languages of the Caucasus and the Celtic languages are not members. (idk about Basque.)

Standard Average European is a concept that comes up in auxlanging because sooooo many of the IALs that exist (and certainly all the most popular ones) are, basically, distillations of Standard Average European. They generally have grammars that are based on the features that are most universal across Standard Average European languages (simplified and regularised, of course), with their creators basically presuming that these were the most intuitive grammars in general. Some IALs are more self-aware about this than others, and actually lean into the “Standard Average Euro­pean” angle as a selling point (for example, Occidental – the name literally comes from the fact that it’s supposed to be like an averaged-out version of Western European). The fact that Standard Average European features aren’t actually universal cross-linguistically shouldn’t be taken as inherently making all Eurolang projects worthless, of course. Western European languages are some of the most widely-spoken in the world, and there’s a good argument that a language that’s highly intuitive to 2+ billion people is better than a language that tries to balance so many different ways of doing things that it’s basically intuitive to nobody. Plus, just practically, no IAL is going to go mainstream unless a critical mass of enthusiasts have learned it first, and it’s probably easier to attract a critical mass of enthusiasts with a language they can swiftly learn. For a native speaker of, say, Japanese or Indonesian, “having” to learn a highly regular Eurolang would still be a massive improvement over having to learn English, and if such a thing is more likely to take off than a “fairer” worldlang… well! The “critical mass of enthusiasts” thing is also why a lot of auxlangers say “just let people learn what they wanna learn”, because enthusiasm seems more desirable than a lot of people unhappily learning Esperanto.

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