The Khoisan Languages and the Idea of Sprachbund

Sean Guynes

Western Washington University


In the study of linguistic relationships, languages are classified along two lines, defined either by their genetic relationships (linguistic families) or by a set of common features that are the result of mutual influence (Sprachbünde). In one very special case, the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa, scholars have debated whether or not these languages form a singular genetic unit or are part of an intensive Sprachbund, the origins of which stretch at least two millennia. This paper presentation will introduce and detail the idea of a linguistic union, or Sprachbund, its development from Trubetzkoy’s (1923, 1928) and Jackobson’s (1931) early writings to H. Schaller’s thorough definition in 1997, and why the term Sprachbund is highly applicable to the situation of the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa.

In fulfilling the later purpose, the presentation will cover the maturation of scholars’ understanding of the relationship between the Khoisan languages, and what the future holds for studies in contact among these languages. To begin with, the classification of Khoisan as a genetic family—or not—is a major concern of Khoisanists today, as there is only meager evidence to support Greenberg’s hypothesis of genetic relationship, published in 1950, which is based primarily on the existence of click consonants as significant phonemic units throughout the Khoisan languages. A discussion of ethnographical, typological, and lexical evidence will be provided in order to elucidate current concerns about the Khoisan family hypothesis proposed by Greenberg, noting especially the research being carried out by the Kalahari Basin Area project (KBA) at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It will be shown that “Khoisan” can be defined as a Sprachbund, comprised of multiple groups of languages, some of which are related genetically (Elderkin and Güldemann, 2003), sharing common features as a result of intensive, geographically-close, mutual influence.

Finally, it is notable that the socio-historical linguistic study of the Khoisan languages and their phylogeny may shed light on the nature of Sprachbünde and the significance of high-intensity language contact over thousands of years, and ultimately how this might shape the future understanding of long-distance and close-distance phylogenetic relationships.


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