LINGUIST List 24.2550

Mon Jun 24 2013

Review: Typology: Velupillai (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 07-Apr-2013
From: Daniel Hieber <>
Subject: An Introduction to Linguistic Typology
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AUTHOR: Viveka VelupillaiTITLE: An Introduction to Linguistic TypologyPUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Daniel William Hieber, Rosetta Stone

INTRODUCTIONThe field of typology has evolved significantly since the last generalintroductions to the field were published a decade ago (Whaley 1997; Payne1997; Song 2001; Croft 2003). An Introduction to Linguistic Typology, byViveka Velupillai, is the first to update this category, with an introductionaimed at newcomers to typology who have a basic background in linguistics(though see also Moravcsik 2013). Since the intended audience may still be newto linguistics, the book also reviews fundamentals, such as basics of theInternational Phonetic Alphabet and phonetics, for example. This brief reviewnot only makes the book useful as a classroom textbook, but helps to situatepreviously-learned concepts in the context of typology.

The book also aims to be a reference for field linguists. Indeed, itsstructure broadly follows the outline of a descriptive grammar, and touchesonly minimally on theoretical and methodological issues. In this respect thebook is most similar to Payne (1997), except that it includes more examplesand 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 reasonablyat $50 USD (€33) for paperback (hardcover is available for $150 / €99), makingit viable for use as a required course text. While none of the popular ebookformats are available (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Google Play), one can order anelectronic copy for the full hardcover price from several differentacademically-oriented publishers (EBSCO Host,,

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

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

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

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

One of the things that makes this book more useful as a reference than othertypological introductions are the extensive supplementary materials. Inaddition 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 funand exotic features of languages, “meant as glimpses of the fascinating mosaicthat human languages have to offer” (11). Also incredibly useful is acomprehensive appendix (25 pages in all) that provides the language name, ISOcode, family, genus, location, number of speakers, and relevant pages forevery language cited in the book. Finally, the book includes a short list (32items) of websites containing information of interest to typologists.

Also praiseworthy is the book’s excellent organization, includingend-of-chapter summaries, keywords, and exercises, and bolded keywords in thetext. No key to the exercises is given, and the exercises areconceptually-focused rather than data-driven. Each set of exercises typicallyincludes one question that cannot be answered from the book, and so motivatesstudents to think for themselves, applying what they’ve learned in thechapter. Other helpful organizational features include the consistent use of afourth line for glosses, so that the data can be seen both with and withoutmorpheme breaks, and giving both the region and genealogical affiliation ofthe language for every example cited.

The author states that the distinguishing feature which sets this book apartfrom other typological introductions is that it incorporates the findings ofWALS and other large-scale databases. While this is true, highlighting onlythis attribute sells the book short. In truth, this is just one of the manyfeatures, outlined above, that set the book apart, and make it among the bestsuch introductions in this category. Perhaps its most significant anddistinguishing attribute, however, is its textbook-like character andsuitability for use in the classroom. Since it targets neither the completebeginner nor the degreed expert, and contains end-of-chapter exercises thatinstructors can assign, the book makes an excellent and accessible textbookfor undergraduate- or graduate-level introductions to typology, where studentswill know the basics of linguistics, but will not yet have achieved completeexpertise. I highly recommend this book as both a text for the classroom and ahelpful starting point for fieldworkers needing to be pointed in the rightdirection for further study.

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

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

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

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

Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Coordination. Language typology and syntacticdescription, Vol. 2: Complex constructions, 1-51. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity 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 oflanguage. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERDanny Hieber is a linguist at Rosetta Stone and incoming graduate student atthe University of California, Santa Barbara. He has helped createlanguage-learning software for the Chitimacha, Navajo, Iñupiaq, and Inuttitutlanguages, and writes on language issues for the popular press. His primaryinterests are language typology, documentary and descriptive linguistics, andthe economics and praxeology of language. He holds a B.A. in Linguistics andPhilosophy from The College of William & Mary in Virginia. Learn more abouthis work at

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