I'm looking for examples of typological traits that are common in languages of the Americas and rare in languages elsewhere. Traits could be at any level of description — phonological, morphosyntactic, semantic, whatever.

Edit To clarify, I don't need to find traits that are common throughout the Americas. It would be enough to say, for instance, "XYZ is quite common in Mesoamerica, and it's rare everywhere else, including the rest of the Americas and all of the Old World."

(I'm looking for examples in support of the idea that it's important to do research on languages of the Americas. I'd like to go beyond the general principle that typological balance is A Good Thing, and be able to pull out a few concrete examples of the form "If we'd never studied languages of the Americas, we wouldn't know about XYZ.")

5 Answers 5

  • obviative (also known as "4th person"). Mainly Algonquian feature, but also present in other languages of the Americas, and in few languages in the rest of the world.

  • direct-inverse systems, found mainly in languages of the Americas.

  • polysynthetic languages are more commonly found in the Americas, than in other parts of the world, though this is a weaker example

In general, the language families in the Americas are supposed to be quite distinct, but some phenomena indeed appear to be common there. You can find more information if you look for articles about the Greenberg's hypothesis, and more specifically - the Amerind languages


Keeping in mind the caveat pointed out by @James C., I still think it is appropriate to ask whether there is a linguistic area that encompasses all of the Americas. Even though smaller linguistic areas involve a large set of shared features, there appear to be features that have the potential for being transmitted areally over very long distances.

In his (1989) paper on the importance of large linguistic areas to typological studies, Dryer argues that there is likely a linguistic area as large as North America, and that there might be an area as large as the entire New World. While admitting that the evidence is "less convincing" (1989: 276), he gives possessive prefixes as an example of a feature that is common in the Americas and rare elsewhere

  • Interesting. It actually looks like you and James C were answering a trickier question than I intended to ask -- but possessive prefixes could work as the sort of example I'm looking for. Commented Jan 9, 2012 at 23:03
  • Sounds good. I guess it raises the interesting question about the typical "range" that areal features have.
    – user483
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 2:59
  • At some point the ‘area’ of linguistic features becomes ‘the Earth’. Generalizations over an area can be useful, but they can also be banal.
    – James C.
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 1:00

Another example is OVS word order with 7 languages in South America and only 4 elsewhere in the world (I don't know if the numbers could be misrepresented by the recorded data in WALS, but I believe this is one of the examples often mentioned).

Also interesting to consider: just about anything about Pirahã ;) (phonology, 5 'channels of discourse', and of course Everett's controversial claim of lack of recursion.

The introduction to The Amazonian Languages (eds. Dixon and Aikhenvald) also has some relevant comments:

The Amazon basin is the least known and least understood linguistic region in the world. [...] when one does get a hold of a grammar of an Amazonian language it is likely to show strange properties - multiple sets of classifiers, oddly conditioned ergativity splits, and so on - that constitute exceptions to received ideas about typological universals. In other instances one finds the richest examples of categories that are weakly attested elsewhere. For instance, Tucano languages have the most highly articulated systems of evidentiality in the world; this is an obligatory specification of the evidence a speaker has for making a statement - whether observed, or reported, or inferred, or assumed. However, a major difficulty is that a high proportion of available grammars are incomplete, affording a glimpse of some exotic grammatical property but with insufficient information to enable the reader to fuly understand it, and to realize its overall typological significance. (p. 1)


“The Americas” is a really large area and the languages within it are as diverse as Asia. You can make some strong generalizations about certain subparts though. The area I work in is the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. This area has a number of interesting shared phonological features: large consonant inventories, asymmetric vowel inventories, large inventories of ejectives, few labials and nasals, complex onsets and codas, vowelless syllables, tendency for velars to be palatalized, lots of unusual morphophonological interactions, etc., and all this across more than eight unrelated families. Although those features are somewhat common to the rest of western North America, none of these apply in the eastern half of North America. So your requirement for traits that are shared across both continents and the Caribbean is hard to fulfill since you’d need to do extensive research and would still find only a few things in common. That would throw into doubt the usefulness of the few features you do find in common, since when weighed against all the unshared features they begin to look like statistical noise and coincidence.

  • Right. So, to clarify, it's fine if a trait shows up e.g. just in the eastern or western part of North America, or just in Mesoamerica, or whatever. It's good enough, for my purposes, for it to be common somewhere in the Americas, so long as it's not particularly common anywhere in the Old World. Commented Jan 9, 2012 at 22:56
  • I advice care with any generalizations about northern North America. These easily bleed over into Asia. Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene have familial and contact relationships with a number of languages in Siberia, and there are loanwords that may have reached as far as Japan.
    – James C.
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 1:03

According to the WALS classification, regarding the feature 137A (N-M Pronouns), there are 23 languages in the Americas in which the N-M pattern is paradigmatic, that is, where the consonant [n] is used for first person pronouns and the consonant [m] is used for second person pronouns. For example, in Northeast Maidu, ni means 'I, me' and mi means 'you'. Outside the Americas, only Dumo, in Papua New Guinea and Supyire, in Mali, have this feature.

  • 2
    Just to clarify, there are more languages from outside the Americas that have this pattern, but are not listed in WALS. All the examples I'm aware of are in PNG. Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 5:36
  • 1
    @Gaston: Can you elaborate on that comment? In fact, it looks like you should be able to make an answer to the OP with it.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 16:05
  • Also: "I hasten to point out that Greenberg's claims about the ubiquity of n 'first person' and m 'second person' in the Americas and not elsewhere are inaccurate. The forms are not nearly so general in America as claimed (especially m), they are quite frequent elsewhere in the world's languages (especially n), and there are several other potential explanations for them. For details, see Campbell (in press) and Goddard and Campbell (in press)." (Campbell). I haven't been able to find/read the works mentioned. But given the WALS picture, I wonder...
    – user444
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 14:30

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