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LINGUIST List 24.2550

Mon Jun 24 2013

Review: Typology: Velupillai (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 07-Apr-2013
From: Daniel Hieber <dhieberrosettastone.com>
Subject: An Introduction to Linguistic Typology
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3733.html

AUTHOR: Viveka Velupillai
TITLE: An Introduction to Linguistic Typology
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Daniel William Hieber, Rosetta Stone

The field of typology has evolved significantly since the last general
introductions to the field were published a decade ago (Whaley 1997; Payne
1997; Song 2001; Croft 2003). An Introduction to Linguistic Typology, by
Viveka Velupillai, is the first to update this category, with an introduction
aimed at newcomers to typology who have a basic background in linguistics
(though see also Moravcsik 2013). Since the intended audience may still be new
to linguistics, the book also reviews fundamentals, such as basics of the
International Phonetic Alphabet and phonetics, for example. This brief review
not only makes the book useful as a classroom textbook, but helps to situate
previously-learned concepts in the context of typology.

The book also aims to be a reference for field linguists. Indeed, its
structure broadly follows the outline of a descriptive grammar, and touches
only minimally on theoretical and methodological issues. In this respect the
book is most similar to Payne (1997), except that it includes more examples
and covers a broader range of topics. The book is extremely well-referenced,
making it a useful starting point for even advanced researchers.

The book is 517 pages, including front and back matter, and priced reasonably
at $50 USD (€33) for paperback (hardcover is available for $150 / €99), making
it viable for use as a required course text. While none of the popular ebook
formats are available (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Google Play), one can order an
electronic copy for the full hardcover price from several different
academically-oriented publishers (EBSCO Host, eBooks.co, Blio.com).

I start by providing a quick summary of topics covered, then outlining the
many positive general features of the book, before ending with a general

The book’s contents are as follows. Chapter 1, the Introduction, provides a
brief overview of the history of typology, how to read a gloss, and an
explanation of the book’s conventions and features. Chapter 2, ‘Typology and
universals’, defines typology as “the study of structural differences and
similarities between languages” (15). It lays out the enterprise of linguistic
typology, noting that “a driving force is to try to establish recurring
patterns across languages, in order to answer the questions “what is out
there?”, “where does it occur?”, and “why do we have particular patterns?” If
we want to have hypotheses about the unity, diversity, potentials and limits
of human language, we need to know what human language is capable of” (15-16).
The chapter also motivates the need for crosslinguistic analysis, explaining
that studying just a single language is often misleading when seeking to
understand how language works.

Chapter 3 discusses methodology, including sources of data for typology, and
types of sampling and sampling bias. Chapters 4 and 5 cover phonological and
morphological typology, respectively. Chapter 6 discusses the lexicon and its
classes, taking the stance that major crosslinguistic parts of speech exist,
but that there can be significant overlap and variation between categories and
languages. Chapters 7 and 8 cover nominal and verbal categories, and chapter 9
discusses simple clauses, focusing primarily on grammatical relations and
event perspectives (‘valency’). However, chapter 9 felt too brief and moved
too quickly for someone just encountering these concepts for the first time.
Chapter 10 introduces word order typology, and chapter 11 focuses on complex
clauses, covering coordination, subordination, and co-subordination, relying
heavily on Haspelmath (2007). Chapter 12 covers speech act types as well as
the linguistic encoding of politeness, a topic not generally covered in
typological introductions. The book ends with a chapter on language change,
divided into a section on grammaticalization and a section on contact-induced
change and linguistic areas. Despite the importance of grammaticalization and
language contact to functionalist explanations for typological patterns, this
final chapter felt slightly out of place, since all the other chapters focus
on structural typology. It would have helped to situate the discussion in
terms of functional explanations. In addition, some discussion of universals
in language change (following Good’s 2008 collection), would supplement this
chapter well. Still, it presents common pathways of grammaticalization and
lists some of the well-known linguistic areas around the world and their
salient features, and is therefore a useful addition.

This book has a number of features which set it apart from other books in this
category, first and foremost being its extensive use of the findings from the
World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) and the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole
Structures (APiCS). Each chapter contains numerous featural maps and
statistics from these databases, and each chapter begins with a map of every
language cited in that chapter. This book is the only introduction to
systematically discuss the typology of both pidgin and creole languages and
sign languages, with a special section devoted to sign languages at the end of
each chapter, and pidgin/creole languages discussed throughout. The book also
includes a robust discussion of language sampling (§3.2), which Bakker (2010)
notes is frequently lacking in the typological literature, and it is one of
the few typologically-oriented surveys to include a section on phonological
typology (others being Chelliah & de Reuse (2011) and Moravcsik (2013)).

One of the things that makes this book more useful as a reference than other
typological introductions are the extensive supplementary materials. In
addition to a glossary of every bold term in the text, there are a number of
“curiosity boxes” – brief insets in the text that present some of the more fun
and exotic features of languages, “meant as glimpses of the fascinating mosaic
that human languages have to offer” (11). Also incredibly useful is a
comprehensive appendix (25 pages in all) that provides the language name, ISO
code, family, genus, location, number of speakers, and relevant pages for
every language cited in the book. Finally, the book includes a short list (32
items) of websites containing information of interest to typologists.

Also praiseworthy is the book’s excellent organization, including
end-of-chapter summaries, keywords, and exercises, and bolded keywords in the
text. No key to the exercises is given, and the exercises are
conceptually-focused rather than data-driven. Each set of exercises typically
includes one question that cannot be answered from the book, and so motivates
students to think for themselves, applying what they’ve learned in the
chapter. Other helpful organizational features include the consistent use of a
fourth line for glosses, so that the data can be seen both with and without
morpheme breaks, and giving both the region and genealogical affiliation of
the language for every example cited.

The author states that the distinguishing feature which sets this book apart
from other typological introductions is that it incorporates the findings of
WALS and other large-scale databases. While this is true, highlighting only
this attribute sells the book short. In truth, this is just one of the many
features, outlined above, that set the book apart, and make it among the best
such introductions in this category. Perhaps its most significant and
distinguishing attribute, however, is its textbook-like character and
suitability for use in the classroom. Since it targets neither the complete
beginner nor the degreed expert, and contains end-of-chapter exercises that
instructors can assign, the book makes an excellent and accessible textbook
for undergraduate- or graduate-level introductions to typology, where students
will know the basics of linguistics, but will not yet have achieved complete
expertise. I highly recommend this book as both a text for the classroom and a
helpful starting point for fieldworkers needing to be pointed in the right
direction for further study.

Bakker, Dik. 2010. Language sampling. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford
handbook of linguistic typology, 100-127. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chelliah, Shobhana L. & Willem J. De Reuse. 2011. Handbook of descriptive
linguistic fieldwork. Dordrecht: Springer.

Croft, William. 2003. Typology and universals. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Good, Jeff (ed.). 2008. Linguistic universals and language change. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Coordination. Language typology and syntactic
description, Vol. 2: Complex constructions, 1-51. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Moravcsik, Edith A. 2013. Introducing language typology. (Kindle.) Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Payne, Thomas E. 1997. Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Song, Jae Jung. 2001. Linguistic typology: Morphology and syntax. Harlow:

Whaley, Lindsay J. 1997. Introduction to typology: The unity and diversity of
language. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Danny Hieber is a linguist at Rosetta Stone and incoming graduate student at
the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has helped create
language-learning software for the Chitimacha, Navajo, Iñupiaq, and Inuttitut
languages, and writes on language issues for the popular press. His primary
interests are language typology, documentary and descriptive linguistics, and
the economics and praxeology of language. He holds a B.A. in Linguistics and
Philosophy from The College of William & Mary in Virginia. Learn more about
his work at danielhieber.com.
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