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Review of  An Introduction to Linguistic Typology

Reviewer: Daniel William Hieber
Book Title: An Introduction to Linguistic Typology
Book Author: Viveka Velupillai
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Typology
Issue Number: 24.2550

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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,,

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 evaluation.

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: Longman.

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