Syntactic interference

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interferenza sintattica | interférence syntaxique | syntaktische Interferenz


Phenomenon induced by language contact, in which the syntactic structure of a target languages is modified, becoming structurally and typologically similar to that of the model language.

The label can be employed for phenomena involving specific syntactic constructions, such as the position of a specific type of element within a phrase or a clause, but also for generalized alterations of the syntactic typologic, as in the case of a head-initial language becoming head-final.

According to Thomason (2006), contact induced syntactic change belongs to the field of structural interference and - especially in those cases that do not involve the borrowings of morphemes but only the borrowing of structures - it is typical of substratum-superstratum systems or of intensively bilingual cultures.

When working on ancient corpora, it is extremely important not to immediately interpret syntactic aberrant patterns in texts as the result of proper syntactic interference between languages: in the case of multilingual documents, it is possible that syntactic mimicry depended on word by word or phrase by phrase translation, even in contexts in which no structural interference occurred between spoken languages in a given area.


We provide two examples from the Ancient Near Eastern area.

As regards the replication of a specific syntactic pattern, we will consider the anina-clauses in Nuzi Akkadian. (Wilhelm 1970, 79-81), which reflect a structure borrowed from Hurrian relative clauses, in a scenario of language superposition:

a-ni-na ṭup-pu ša KÙ.BABBAR ša a-na PN iš-ṭù-ru ù i-na-an-na i-na UD-mi an-ni-i ṭup-pu ša-a-šu eh-te-pì
“Which tablet of gold I wrote for PN (= Once tablet of gold which for X I wrote), in this day this tablet I break” (Wilhelm, ibid.)

A second example, from the Anatolian area, is represented by the possible shift of Hattian from a more consistent VO syntactic typology to a mix of VO and OV features, by influence of the Indo-European Anatolian languages (Goedegebuure 2008; this shift is, however, hypothetical, as typological universals are not infallible and we have no proof that Hattian was originally a consistent VO language).


Goedegebuure, P. (2008). CENTRAL ANATOLIAN LANGUAGES AND LANGUAGE COMMUNITIES IN THE COLONY PERIOD : A LUWIAN-HATTIAN SYMBIOSIS AND THE INDEPENDENT HITTITES. In: Anatolia and the Jazira during the Old Assyrian period, pp. 137-180; Thomason, S. (2006) Language Change and Language Contact. Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, pp.339-347; Wilhelm, G. (1970). Untersuchungen zum Ḫurro-Akkadischen von Nuzi.