Guideline based for describing Southeast Asian languages

Author : Alice VIttrant (Auteur)

Publication date : 2019


This questionnaire provides a frame for describing endangered languages of a particular areal, i.e. Southeast Asia.

Development context

Thomason and Kaufman’s 1988 book Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics had a stimulating effect on the fields of comparative and descriptive linguistics and inspired a number of studies on various topics related to language contact: the relationship between typology and language contact; the effect of language contact on a language’s genetically inherited characteristics, and work on mixed and endangered languages.

Within this landscape, our proposal lies at the crossroads of these themes, with the following aim : to provide a frame for describing endangered languages of a particular areal, i.e. Southeast Asia (henceforth SEA). SEA is known by linguists involved in areal linguistics as being a ‘contact superposition zone’ (Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Wälchli 2001), a zone of contact-induced structural convergence’ (Bisang 2006) or simply a Sprachbund or linguistic area (Matisoff 1986, Enfield 2005, Vittrant 2010). It means that both languages with a close genetic relationship and languages from different language families are found in this area. However, despite lacking a common origin, these languages had surprising structural similarities, apparently acquired in part through contact with structural linguistic features that they did not originally possess.

In recent decades a number of definitions of a linguistic area or Sprachbund have been proposed (see Campbell 2006; Stolz 2006:33), all of which aim to describe the phenomena of linguistic convergence, common innovations or common retentions, or to identify the specific properties which set a Sprachbund apart from other language contact situations. However, despite numerous attempts to define the concept precisely, a consensus emerges on the impossibility of identifying universal criteria.

The problems encountered in seeking to define a linguistic area, however, do not detract from the relevance of studies of changes induced by contact between the languages spoken within a particular geographical area, i.e. areas of linguistic convergence. In the case of Southeast Asia, a region characterized by the presence of five language families and several millennia of contact between the area’s linguistic communities, an areal approach is fruitful both for the description of undescribed languages and for typological studies.


Based on previous studies that draw together features that cut across the genealogical phyla in many domains, inspired by existing typological studies of specific grammatical phenomena such as Kahrel and van den Berg’s (1994) work on negation, or cross-linguistic studies such as Aikhenvald & Dixon (2003), (2006), Zúñiga & Kittilä (2010), and Kopecka & Narasimhan (2012) inter al., we proposed a guideline (largely illustrated) to linguists who want to describe languages of SEA. This guideline suggests to follow a particular structure and typological approach. Thus, adopting a broadly similar organization and structure and using similar terminology will allow researchers to do cross-comparisons. It will also facilitate typological studies, i.e. studies on specific linguistic phenomena across languages. Lastly, it may show that the language studied is on the hedge of the sprachbund lacking some of the MSEA features… and exhibiting features that are representative of the adjacent areas.

The guideline also suggests to add a glossed text to any language description, offering a glimpse of the language used in more natural context, highlighting also the increasing role of Corpora in descriptive linguistics.

By providing this guideline, we hope to inspire further work on the many languages of Southeast Asia which have yet to be described.

By providing this guideline, we will also help to see how prototypical is the language described.


References :

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Aikhenvald, A.Y. & Dixon R.M.W. (eds). 2006. Serial Verb Constructions: A Cross-Linguistic Typology. New York : Oxford University Press.

Bisang, Walter.  2006. Contact-induced convergence: Typology and areality. In: Brown, Keith. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics), volume 3. Oxford: Elsevier. 88–101.

Campbell, Lyle. 2006. Areal linguistics: A closer scrutiny. In Yaron Matras, April McMahon & Nigel Vincent (eds.), Linguistic areas: Convergence in historical and typological perspective, 1−31. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Enfield Nick J. 2005. Areal linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia, Annual Review Anthropology, 34. 181–206.

Kahrel, Peter & R. Van Den Berg (eds.). 1994. Typological Studies In Negation, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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Matisoff, James A. 1986. Linguistic diversity and language contact. In John McKinnon & Wanat Bhruksasri (eds.), Highlanders of Thailand. Singapore: Oxford University Press. 56–86.

Stolz, Thomas. 2006. All or nothing. In Matras Yaron, April McMahon & Nigel Vincent (eds), Linguistic Areas: convergence in Historical and Typological Perspective. Hampshire: Palgrave. 32–50.

Vittrant Alice. 2010. Aire linguistique Asie du Sud-Est continentale: le birman en fait-il partie ?  Moussons 16. 7–38.

Zúñiga, Fernando & Seppo Kittilä. 2010. Benefactives and Malefactives. Typological perspectives and case studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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