Linguistic Typology

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Chapter 4: Linguistic Typology

Chapter 4

Linguistic typology
4.1 Introduction
Simply speaking, the study of universals is concerned with what human languages have in common, while the study of typology deals with ways in which languages differ from each other. This contrast, however, is not sharp. When languages differ from each other, the variation is not random, but subject to limitations. Linguistic typology is not only concerned with variation, but also with the limitations on the degree of variation found in the languages of the world. It is due to these limitations that languages may be meaningfully divided into various types. For instance, typologists often divide languages into types according to socalled basic word order, often understood as the order of subject (S), object (O) and verb (V) in a typical declarative sentence. The vast majority of the languages of the world fall into one of three groups: SOV (Japanese, Tamil, Turkish etc.) SVO (Fula, Chinese, English etc.) VSO (Arabic, Tongan, Welsh etc.) Logically speaking, there should be nothing wrong with the three other possibilities: VOS, OVS and OSV. As mentioned above, however, they are exceedingly rare and typically occur in areas that have been relatively isolated. The three main groups have one thing in common, that the subject precedes the object. It is a small step, therefore, from basic word order typology to the formulation of the statistical universal we became acquainted with in the previous chapter: Subjects tend strongly to precede objects. The study of typology and the study of universals, therefore, go hand in hand. In this chapter, we will have a look at morphological typology, word order typology, the typology of motion verbs, and the typological distinction between tone languages and stress languages. These are only a few examples of the large amount of phenomena that may be studied from a typological viewpoint. First, however, we shall discuss a little further what typology is, and what it is not.

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Chapter 4: Linguistic Typology

4.1.1 Partial vs. holistic typology
The scope of typological comparison is not languages in their entirety, but specific phenomena in the languages compared. When we say that Turkish is an SOV language and English an SVO language, this represents no more than a comparison of a very small part of the grammars of Turkish and English, the part that dictates the ordering of subject, object and verb. In other words, typological comparison is partial rather than holistic. In the 19th century, it was widely believed that one could reach the goal of a holistic typology. Languages were likened to biological organisms, and just as one sought to reconstruct the entire skeleton of an animal on the basis of a fossil jaw, so one sought to derive insight into an entire language based on the knowledge of a small part of it. Since it was widely believed that language was an expression of the "spirit" of a nation or a culture, many thought that typological knowledge could provide insight into this "spirit". In non-scholarly circles, it is still quite common to believe that there is a connection between language and "spirit". For instance, the relatively strict and complex rules of German grammar are often seen as an expression of German discipline and rule of law, while the comparative lack of strict grammatical rules in Chinese is seen as an expression of Chinese flexibility and pragmatism. This kind of "folk typology" enjoys little support among scholars.

4.1.2 Power of generalization
When told that Turkish is an SOV language, we might yawn and ask: "So what?" If typological comparison is partial rather than holistic, what makes the fact that Turkish is an SOV language any more interesting than, say, the fact that the Turkish word for 'house' is ev? The answer is threefold: First, basic word order has to do with structure, not just individual lexical items. Therefore, once you know that Turkish is an SOV...
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