Central Europe: A Sprachbund Overlooked?

Mark Nuckols, Ohio State University

There is already a considerable body of scholarly work on the Balkan Sprachbund, and Sprachbünde have also been proposed for Meso-America and South Asia. Despite the existence of potential convergence features for central Europe, there has been little scholarly mention to date of a Sprachbund in that region. This paper accordingly examines the case for a Sprachbund of Czech, German, Hungarian and Slovak.

Gzula Décsy, in Die linguistische Struktur Europas (1973), proposed a Donau-Bund consisting of Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Slovak and Slovene, based upon a number of phonological and morphological commonalities. Boris Unbegaun suggested, in the conclusion of his “Le calque dans les langues slaves littéraires” [Revue des études slaves, (12) 1932, pp. 19-48], that if one can speak of a central European linguistic league, then the calque would be its primary feature, as opposed to grammatical features as for the Balkan Sprachbund. More recently, Eric Hamp (“Yugoslavia - a Crossroads of Sprachbünde,” Zeitschrift für Balkanologie [25] 1989) has suggested calquing as a feature for a “Habsburg area.”

This paper begins by examining the validity of Decsy’s features as contact phenomena before considering the possibility that extensive calquing is the dominant feature for central Europe. Since colloquial calques have also been presented as evidence for a Sprachbund in “Meso-America as a Linguistic Area” by Lyle Campbell, Terence Kaufman and Thomas C. Smith-Stark (Language 62.3 [1986], 530-570), this presentation examines the calquing of everyday, colloquial expressions, such as German Katzentisch and Hungarian macskaasztal, both meaning literally “cat-table” and referring to a small table laid for children. Other examples include words for hangovers (German Kater, literally ‘tomcat,’ and Czech kocovina  ‘tomcat stuff’ a derivation of kocour ‘tomcat’) and expressions such as “among four eyes” (Czech mezi čtyřma očima, German unter vier Augen, Hungarian negy szem közt and Slovak medzi štyrymi očami) to mean ‘in private, in strictest confidence.’

Such calques are everyday expressions that must have been transmitted more or less spontaneously, could easily have been used by speakers of diverse social levels, and stand in contrast to “learned” calques – neologisms created consciously, somewhat artificially, and usually based on expressions from classical languages. The casual, everyday nature of the calques considered in this paper indicates intimate, intense, and sustained contact, as well as a high degree of bi- or multilingualism at various social levels, exactly the conditions that give rise to a Sprachbund.

These data indicate that the languages of central Europe merit further scholarly investigation as a possible Sprachbund, especially in light of the fact that there are numerous, often hotly contested “areal features” in generally accepted Sprachbünde, such as that in the Balkans. This study also emphasizes certain types of lexical evidence – apart from simple cultural or need-based borrowings – that can reveal the immediate, impromptu, and oral exchange of linguistic material between speakers of different languages that is essential to the development of Sprachbünde.