Linguistic areas of the Americas

The indigenous languages of the Americas form various linguistic areas or Sprachbunds that share various common (areal) traits.


The languages of the Americas often can be grouped together into linguistic areas or Sprachbunds (also known as convergence areas). The linguistic areas identified so far deserve more research to determine their validity. Knowing about Sprachbunds helps historical linguists differentiate between shared areal traits and true genetic relationship. The pioneering work on American areal linguistics was a dissertation by Joel Sherzer, which was published as Sherzer (1976).

In American Indian Languages: the Historical Linguistics of Native America, Lyle Campbell also lists over 20 Sprachbunds or linguistic areas,[1] many of which are still hypothetical.

Note: Some linguistic areas may overlap with others.

Linguistic Area (Sprachbund) Included families, branches, and languages
Northern Northwest Coast[2] Aleut, Haida, Eyak, Tlingit
Northwest Coast[3] Eyak, Tlingit, Athabaskan, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Chimakuan, Salishan, Alsea, Coosan, Kalapuyan,
Takelma, Lower Chinook
Plateau[4] Sahaptian, Upper Chinook, Nicola, Cayuse, Molala, Klamath, Kutenai, Interior Salishan
Northern California Algic, Athabaskan, Yukian, Miwokan, Wintuan, Naiduan, Klamath-Modoc, Pomo, Chimariko, Achomawi,
Atsugewi, Karuk, Shasta, Yana, (Washo)
Clear Lake Lake Miwok, Patwin, East and Southeastern Pomo, Wappo
South Coast Range Chumash, Esselen, Salinan
Southern California–Western Arizona Yuman, Cupan (Uto-Aztecan), less extensively Takic (Uto-Aztecan)
Great Basin[5] Numic (Uto-Aztecan), Washo
Pueblo Keresan, Tanoan, Zuni, Hopi, some Apachean branches
Plains Athabaskan, Algonquian, Siouan, Tanoan, Uto-Aztecan, Tonkawa
Northeast Winnebago (Siouan), Northern Iroquian, Eastern Algonquian
Southeast ("Gulf") Muskogean family, Chitimacha, Atakapa, Tunica, Natchez, Yuchi, Ofo (Siouan), Biloxi (Siouan) –
sometimes also Tutelo, Catawban, Quapaw, Dhegiha (all Siouan); Tuscarora, Cherokee, Shawnee
Mesoamerican Aztecan (Nahua branch of Uto-Aztecan), Mixe–Zoquean, Mayan, Xincan, Otomanguean
(except Chichimeco–Jonaz and some Pame varieties, Totonacan), Purépecha, Cuitlatec, Tequistlatecan, Huave
Mayan[6] Mayan, Xincan, Lencan, Jicaquean
Colombian–Central American[7] Chibchan, Misumalpan, Mangue, Subtiaba; sometimes Lencan, Jicaquean, Chochoan, Betoi
Venezuelan–Antillean[8] Arawakan, Cariban, Guamo, Otomaco, Yaruro, Warao
Andean[9] Quechuan, Aymaran, Callahuaya, Chipaya
(subarea of Andean)
Páez, Guambiano (Paezan), Cuaiquer, Cayapa, Colorado (Barbacoan), Camsá, Cofán, Esmeralda, Ecuadorian Quechua
Orinoco–Amazon Yanomaman, Piaroa (Sálivan), Arawakan/Maipurean, Cariban, Jotí, Uruak/Ahuaqué, Sapé (Kaliana), Makú
Amazon Arawakan/Maipurean, Arauan/Arawan, Cariban, Chapacuran, Ge/Je, Panoan, Puinavean, Tacanan, Tucanoan, Tupian
Southern Cone Mapudungu (Araucanian), Guaycuruan, Chon

Lexical diffusion

Pache, et al. (2016)[10] note that the word ‘dog[11] is shared across various unrelated language families of the Americas, and use this word as a case study of lexical diffusion due to trade and contact.

In California, identical roots for ‘dog’ are found in:[10][12]

In South America, a root for ‘dog’ is shared by Uru-Chipayan (paku or paqu) and several unrelated neighboring languages of lowland Bolivia (Movima pako, Itonama u-paʔu, and Trinitario paku), as well as Guaicuruan (Mocoví, Toba, and Pilagá pioq). An identical root for ‘dog’ is also shared by Huastec (*sul) and Atakapa (šul), which are very geographically distant from each other although both are located along the Gulf of Mexico coast.[10] Areal words for ‘dog’ are also shared across the U.S. Southeast (Karankawa keš ~ kes, Chitimacha kiš, Cotoname kissa ‘fox’, Huavean *kisɨ), as well as across Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican areal words for ‘dog’ diffused unidirectionally from certain language families to others, and are listed below:[10]

Northern Northwest Coast

This linguistic area was proposed by Jeff Leer (1991), and may be a subarea of the Northern Northwest Coast Linguistic Area. This sprachbund is contains languages that have strict head-final (XSOV) syntax.

Leer (1991) considers the strong areal traits to be:

  • lack of labial obstruents
  • promiscuous number marking
  • periphrastic possessive construction

Northwest Coast

This linguistic area is characterized by elaborate consonant systems. Phonological areal traits include:

  • Series of glottalized stops and affricates
  • Labiovelars
  • Multiple laterals
  • s/š opposition
  • c/č opposition
  • voiceless uvular stop q
  • one fricative series, which is voiceless
  • velar fricatives
  • highly limited inventory of labial consonants
  • large inventory of uvular consonants
  • limited vowel systems

Typical shared morphological traits include:

  • reduplication processes: including iterative, continuative, progressive, plural, collective
  • numeral classifiers
  • alienable/inalienable oppositions in nouns
  • pronominal plural
  • nominal plural
  • verbal reduplication signifying distribution, repetition, etc.
  • suffixation of tense-aspect markers in verbs
  • verbal evidential markers
  • locative-directional markers in the verb
  • visibility/invisibility opposition in demonstratives
  • nominal and verbal reduplication signaling the diminutive
  • passive-like constructions (except for Tlingit)
  • negative appearing as the first element in a clause regardless of the usual word order
  • lexically paired singular and plural verb stems


Primary shared phonological features of this linguistic area include:

  • glottalized stops
  • velar/uvular contrasting series
  • multiple laterals

Other less salient shared traits are:

  • labiovelars
  • one fricative series
  • velar (and uvular) fricatives
  • series of glottalized resonants (sonorants) contrasting with plain resonants (except in Sahaptin, Cayuse, Molala, and Kiksht)
  • word-medial and word-final consonant clusters of four or more consonants (except in Kiksht, and uncertain in Cayuse and Molala)
  • vowel systems of only 3 or 4 vowel positions (except Nez Perce, which has 5)
  • vowel-length contrast
  • size-shape-affective sound symbolism involving consonantal interchanges
  • pronominal plural
  • nominal plural
  • prefixation of subject person markers of verbs
  • suffixation of tense-aspect markers in verbs
  • several kinds of reduplication (except in Nicola)
  • numeral classifiers (shared by Salishan and Sahaptian languages)
  • locative-directional markers in verbs
  • different roots of the singular and the plural for various actions, such as 'sit', 'stand', 'take' (except in Kutenai and Lillooet, uncertain in Cayuse and Molala)
  • quinary-decimal numerical system (Haruo Aoki 1975)

Northern California

Features of this linguistic area have been described by Mary Haas. They include:

  • rarity of uvular consonants: they occur in Klamath, Wintu, Chimariko, and Pomoan
  • retroflexed stops
  • rarity of a distinct series of voiced stops except in the east-west strip of languages including Kashaya Pomo, Wintu-Patwin, and Maidu (this series contains implosion in Maidu)
  • consonant sound symbolism: in Yurok, Wiyot, Hupa, Tolowa, Karuk, and Yana

Washo, spoken in the Great Basin area, shares some traits common to the Northern California linguistic area.

  • pronominal dual
  • quinary/decimal numeral system
  • absence of vowel-initial syllables
  • free stress

Clear Lake

This is clearly a linguistic area, and is centered around Clear Lake, California. Shared features include:

  • retroflexed dentals
  • voiceless l (ɬ)
  • glottalized glides
  • 3 series of stops

South Coast Range

Languages in Sherzer's (1976) "Yokuts-Salinan-Chumash" area share the following traits.

  • 3 series of stops - also in the Clear Lake area
  • retroflexed sounds - also in the Clear Lake area
  • glottalized resonants (sonorants)
  • prefixation of verbal subject markers)
  • presence of /h, ɨ, c, ŋ/ in the Greater South Coast Range area
  • t/ṭ (retroflex/non-retroflex) contrast in the Greater South Coast Range area, as well as other parts of California

Great Basin

This linguistic area is defined by Sherzer (1973, 1976) and Jacobsen (1980). Shared traits include:

  • k/kʷ contrast
  • bilabial fricatives /ɸ, β/
  • presence of /xʷ, ŋ, ɨ/
  • overtly marked nominal system
  • inclusive/exclusive pronominal distinction

However, the validity of this linguistic area is doubtful, as pointed out by Jacobsen (1986), since many traits of the Great Basin area are also common to California languages. It may be an extension of the Northern California linguistic area.

Southern California–Western Arizona

This linguistic area has been demonstrated in Hinton (1991). Shared traits include:

  • k/q distinction
  • presence of /kʷ, tʃ, x/

The Yuman and Cupan languages share the most areal features, such as:

  • kʷ/qʷ contrast
  • s/ʂ contrast
  • r/l contrast
  • presence of /xʷ, ɲ, lʲ/
  • small vowel inventory
  • sound symbolism

The influence is strongly unidirectional from Yuman to Cupan, since the features considered divergent within the Takic subgroup. According to Sherzer (1976), many of these traits are also common to Southern California languages.

Shaul and Andresen (1989) have proposed a Southwestern Arizona ("Hohokam") linguistic area as well, where speakers of Piman languages are hypothesized to have interacted with speakers of Yuman languages as part of the Hohokam archaeological culture. The single trait defining this area is the presence of retroflex stops (/ʈ/ in Yuman, /ɖ/ in Piman).



The Plains Linguistic Area, according to Sherzer (1973:773), is the "most recently constituted of the culture areas of North America (late eighteenth and nineteenth century)." The following areal traits are characteristic of this linguistic area, though they are also common in other parts of North America.

  • prefixation of subject person markers in verbs
  • pronominal plurals

Frequent traits, which are not shared by all languages, include:

  • one stop series
  • the voiceless velar fricative /x/
  • alienable/inalienable opposition in nouns
  • nominal plural suffix
  • inclusive/exclusive opposition (in first person plural pronouns)
  • nominal diminutive suffix
  • animate/inanimate gender
  • evidential markers in verbs
  • lack of labiovelars (other than Comanche and the languages of the Southern Plains subregion)
  • presence of /ð/ (eastern Plains subregion only)

Southern Plains areal traits include:

  • phonemic pitch
  • presence of /kʷ, r/
  • voiced/voiceless fricatives


Central areal traits of the Northeast Linguistic Area include the following (Sherzer 1976).

  • a single series of stops (especially characteristic of the Northeast)
  • a single series of fricatives
  • presence of /h/
  • nominal plural
  • noun incorporation

In New England, areal traits include:

  • vowel system with /i, e, o, a/
  • nasalized vowels
  • pronominal dual

New England Eastern Algonquian languages and Iroquoian languages share the following traits.

  • nasalized vowels (best-known feature); for instance, Proto-Eastern Algonquian *a- is nasalized due to influence from Iroquioan languages, which have two nasalized vowels in its proto-language, *ɛ̃ and *õ.
  • pronominal dual

The boundary between the Northeast and Southeast linguistic areas is not clearly determined, since features often extend over to territories belonging to both linguistic areas.


Bilabial or labial fricatives (/ɸ/, sometimes /f/) are considered by Sherzer (1976) to be the most characteristic trait of the Southeast Linguistic Area. Various other shared traits have been found by Robert L. Rankin (1986, 1988) and T. Dale Nicklas (1994).


This linguistic area consists of the following language families and branches.

Some languages formerly considered to be part of the Mesoamerican sprachbund, but are now considered to lack main diagnostic traits of Mesoamerican area languages, include Cora, Huichol, Lenca, Jicaquean, and Misumalpan.


The Mayan Linguistic Area is considered by most scholars to be part of the Mesoamerican area. However, Holt & Bright (1976) distinguish it as a separate area, and include the Mayan, Xincan, Lencan, and Jicaquean families as part of the Mayan Linguistic Area. Shared traits include:

  • presence of glottalized consonants and alveolar affricates
  • absence of voiced obstruents and labiovelar stops

Colombian–Central American

This linguistic area is characterized by SOV word order and postpositions. This stands in contrast to the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area, where languages do not have SOV word order.

Holt & Bright (1976) define a Central American Linguistic Area as having the following areal traits. Note that these stand in direct opposition to the traits defined in their Mayan Linguistic Area.

  • presence of voiced obstruents and labiovelar stops (absent in the Mayan area)
  • absence of glottalized consonants and alveolar affricates (present in the Mayan area)

Constenla's (1991) Colombian–Central American area consists primarily of Chibchan languages, but also include Lencan, Jicaquean, Misumalpan, Chocoan, and Betoi (Constenla 1992:103). This area consists of the following areal traits.

  • voicing opposition in stops and fricatives
  • exclusive SOV word order
  • postpositions
  • mostly Genitive-Noun order
  • Noun-Adjective order
  • Noun-Numeral order
  • clause-initial question words
  • suffixation or postposed particle for negatives (in most languages)
  • absence of gender opposition in pronouns and inflection
  • absence of possessed/nonpossessed and alienable/inalienable possession oppositions
  • "morpholexical economy" - presence of lexical compounds rather than independent roots. This is similar to calques found in Mesoamerica, but with a more limited number of compounding elements. For instance, in Guatuso (as in Athabaskan languages), there is one compounding element of liquid substances, one compounding element for pointed extremities, one for flat surfaces, and so on.


This linguistic area is characterized by VO word order (instead of SOV), and is described by Constenla (1991). Shared traits are:

  • exclusive VO word order, and absence of SOV word order
  • absence of voicing opposition in obstruents
  • Numeral-Noun order
  • Noun-Genitive order
  • presence of prepositions

The Venezuelan–Antillean could also extend to the western part of the Amazon Culture Area (Amazonia), where there are many Arawakan languages with VO word order (Constenla 1991).


This linguistic area is characterized by SOV word order and elaborate suffixing.

Quechuan and Aymaran languages both have:

  • SOV basic word order
  • suffixing morphology; other similar morphological structures

Büttner's (1983:179) includes Quechuan, Aymaran, Callahuaya, and Chipaya. Puquina, an extinct but significant language in this area, appears to not share these phonological features. Shared phonological traits are:

  • glottalized stops and affricates (not found in all varieties of Quechuan)
  • aspirated stops and affricates (not found in Chipaya)
  • uvular stops
  • presence of /ɲ, lʲ/
  • retroflexed affricates (retroflexed /ʃ/ and /tʃ͡/) - more limited in distribution
  • absence of glottal stop /ʔ/
  • limited vowel systems with /i, a, u/ (not in Chipaya)

Constenla (1991) defines a broader Andean area including the languages of highland Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and possibly also some lowland languages east of that Andes that have features typical of the Andean area. This area has the following areal traits.

  • absence of the high-mid opposition in back vowels
  • absence of the opposition of voiced/voiceless affricates
  • presence of the voiceless alveolar affricate, voiceless prepalatal fricative, palatal lateral, palatal nasal, retroflexed fricatives or affricates
  • Adjective-Noun order
  • clause-initial interrogative words
  • accusative case
  • genitive case
  • passive construction

Statistical Work

Quantitative studies on the Andes and overlapping areas have found the following traits to be characteristic of these areas in a statistically significant way.

Morphosyntactic features

A statistical study of argument marking features in languages of South America found that both the Andes and Western South America constitute linguistic areas, with some traits showing a statistically significant relationship to both areas. The unique and shared traits of the two areas are shown in the following table.[13] (The wordings of the traits are directly from the source.)

Andes only Both Andes and Western South America Western South America only
Subject-object-verb constituent order Use of both case and indexation as argument marking strategies Marked neutral case marking patterns in ditransitive constructions
Suffixes as verbal person markers Verbally marked applicative constructions
The R argument role can be indexed in ditransitive constructions
Accusative case alignment for NP arguments

Phonological features

Phonologically, the following segments and segmental features are areal for the Andes:[14]

  • The presence of short /u/ and long /iː, uː, aː/
  • The absence of mid and non-low central vowels and nasal vowels, and "long versions of many of these vowels."


This is a subarea of the Andean Linguistic Area, as defined by Constenla (1991). Shared traits are:

  • high-mid opposition in the front vowels
  • absence of glottalized consonants
  • presence of the glottal stop /ʔ/, voiceless labial fricative /ɸ/
  • absence of uvular stops /q, ɢ/
  • rounding opposition in non-front vowels
  • lack of person inflection in nouns
  • prefixes expressing tenses or aspects


The Orinoco–Amazon Linguistic Area, or the Northern Amazon Culture Area, is identified by Migliazza (1985 [1982]). Common areal traits are:

  • a shared pattern of discourse redundancy (Derbyshire 1977)
  • ergative alignment (except in a few Arawakan languages)
  • objects preceding verbs, such as SOV and OVS word orders (except in a few Arawakan languages)
  • lack of active-passive distinction
  • relative clauses formed by apposition and nominalization

The following traits have diffused to west to east (Migliazza 1985 [1982]):

  • nasalization
  • aspiration
  • glottalization


Derbyshire & Pullum (1986) and Derbyshire (1987) describe the characteristics of this linguistic area in detail. Traits include:

  • objects preceding subjects, such as VOS, OVS, and OSV word orders. Word order in OVS and OSV languages tends to be highly flexible.
  • verb agreement with both subject and object (additionally, null realization of subject and object nominals or free pronouns, which means that sentences frequently lack full noun-phrase subjects or objects)
  • predictability of when subjects and objects will be full noun phrases or when they will be signaled by verbal affixes (depending on whether they represent "new" or "given" information")
  • use of nominalizations for relative clauses and other subordinate clauses (in many cases, there are no true subordinate clauses at all)
  • nominal modifiers following their head nouns
  • no agentive passive constructions (except Palikur)
  • indirect speech forms are nonexistent in most languages and rare in the languages that do have them; thus, they rely on direct speech constructions.
  • absence of coordinating conjunctions (juxtaposition is used to express coordination instead)
  • extensive use of right-dislocated paratactic constructions (sequences of noun phrases, adverbials, or postpositional phrases, in which the whole sequence has only one grammatical relation in the sentence)
  • extensive use of particles that are phrasal subconstituents syntactically and phonologically, but are sentence operators or modifiers semantically
  • tendency toward ergative subject marking
  • highly complex morphology

Noun classifier systems are also common across Amazonian languages. Derbyshire & Payne (1990) list three basic types of classifier systems.

  • Numeral: lexico-syntactic forms, which are often obligatory in expressions of quantity and normally are separate words.
  • Concordial: a closed grammatical system, consisting of morphological affixes or clitics and expressing class agreement with some head noun. However, they may also occur on nouns or verbs.
  • Verb incorporation: lexical items are incorporated into the verb stem, signaling some classifying entity of the associated noun phrase.

Derbyshire (1987) also notes that Amazonian languages tend to have:

  • ergatively organized systems (in whole or in part)
  • evidence of historical drift from ergative to accusative marking
  • certain types of split systems

Mason (1950) has found that in many languages of central and eastern Brazil, words end in vowels, and stress is ultimate (i.e., falls on the final syllable).

Lucy Seki (1999) has also proposed an Upper Xingu Linguistic Area in northern Brazil.


The validity of Amazonia as a linguistic area has been called into question by recent research, including quantitative studies. A study of argument marking parameters in 74 South American languages by Joshua Birchall found that “not a single feature showed an areal distribution for Amazonia as a macroregion. This suggest that Amazonia is not a good candidate for a linguistic area based on the features examined in this study.” Instead, Birchall finds evidence for three “macroregions” in South America: the Andes, Western South America, and Eastern South America, with some overlap in features between Andes and Western South America.[15]

Based on that study and similar findings, Patience Epps and Lev Michael claim that “an emerging consensus points to Amazonia not forming a linguistic area sensu strictu [sic?].”[16]

Epps (2015)[17] shows that Wanderwort are spread across the languages of Amazonia. Morphosyntax is also heavily borrowed across neighboring unrelated Amazonian languages.

South Cone

The languages of the South Cone area share the following traits (Klein 1992):

  • Semantic notions of position signaled morphologically by means of "many devices to situate the visual location of the noun subject or object relative to the speaker; tense, aspect and number are expressed as part of the morphology of location, direction, and motion" (Klein 1992:25).
  • palatalization
  • more back consonants than front consonants
  • SVO basic word order


  1. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Ch. 9 Linguistic Areas of the Americas, pp. 330–352. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  2. ^ May be a subarea of the Northern Northwest Coast Linguistic Area. This sprachbund is contains languages that have strict head-final syntax.
  3. ^ Characterized by elaborate consonant systems
  4. ^ Characterized by glottal stops
  5. ^ May be a subarea of the Northern California Linguistic Area.
  6. ^ Often included in the Mesoamerican sprachbund
  7. ^ Characterized by SOV word order and postpositions
  8. ^ Characterized by VO word order (instead of SOV)
  9. ^ Characterized by SOV word order and elaborate suffixing
  10. ^ a b c d Pache, Matthias, Søren Wichmann, and Mikhail Zhivlov. 2016. Words for ‘dog’ as a diagnostic of language contact in the Americas. In: Berez-Kroeker, Andrea L., Diane M. Hintz and Carmen Jany (eds.), Language Contact and Change in the Americas: Studies in Honor of Marianne Mithun, 385-409. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  11. ^ Key, Mary Ritchie & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) 2015. The Intercontinental Dictionary Series. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Entry: dog.
  12. ^ Note: Forms marked preceded by asterisks are proto-language reconstructions.
  13. ^ Birchall (2014:215-16)
  14. ^ Michael et al. (2012:14-15)
  15. ^ Birchall (2014:225)
  16. ^ Epps and Michael (to appear, 18-19)
  17. ^ Epps, Patience. 2015. The dynamics of linguistic diversity: Language contact and language maintenance in Amazonia. Presented at Diversity Linguistics: Retrospect and Prospect, 1-3 May 2015 (Leipzig, Germany), Closing conference of the Department of Linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.


  • Birchall, Joshua. 2015. Argument marking patterns in South American languages. Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen: PhD Dissertation.
  • Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Epps, Patience and Lev Michael. To appear. "The areal linguistics of Amazonia."
  • Constenla Umaña, Adolfo. 1991. Las lenguas del área intermedia: introducción a su estudio areal. San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica.
  • Holt, Dennis and William Bright. 1976. "La lengua paya y las fronteras lingüística de Mesoamérica." Las fronteras de Mesoamérica. La 14a mesa redonda, Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología 1:149-156.
  • Michael, Lev, Will Chang, and Tammy Stark. 2012. "Exploring phonological areality in the circum-Andean region using a Naive Bayes Classifier." Language Dynamics and Change 4(1): 27-86. (Page numbers in this article refer to the pages of the linked PDF, not the journal version.)
  • Sherzer, Joel. 1973. "Areal linguistics in North America." In Linguistics in North America, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok, 749-795. (CTL, vol. 10.) The Hague: Mouton.
  • Sherzer, Joel. 1976. An areal-typological study of American Indian languages north of Mexico. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

See also

External links

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