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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology

Reviewer: Dorothea Hoffmann
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology
Book Author: Jae Jung Song
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Typology
Issue Number: 25.863

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The ‘Handbook of Linguistic Typology’ is a comprehensive collection of 30 chapters organized in four parts. The contributors are internationally established alongside some young scholars within the broad field of linguistic typology.

Editor Jae Jung Song chooses not to include a synopsis of the handbook in his introduction, but instead provides “a brief account of how linguistic typologists’ research perspective has changed over the last five decades” (1). He also comments on aims, intended audience, structure of the book, and some topics not covered.

Part I, ‘Foundations: History, Theory and Method’, consists of six chapters. Paolo Ramat discusses ‘The (Early) History of Linguistic Typology’ from its beginnings in classical antiquity to modern typology emphasizing today’s focus on morphosyntax. Chapter 2 ‘The Pioneers of Linguistic Typology: from Gabelentz to Greenberg’ by Giorgio Graffi discusses the invaluable contributions to the modern field by scholars in the 19th and 20th century. In chapter 3, ‘Linguistic Typology and the Study of Language’, Michael Daniel situates typology among other types of linguistic knowledge and critically discusses assumptions and limitations of the approach. Edith A. Moravcsik treats language universals as explanations for phenomena in individual languages and in light of the need to find structural explanations for their existence in the first place in ‘Explaining Language Universals’. A methodological issue is the focus in chapter 5 by Leon Stassen, who discusses ‘The Problem of Cross-Linguistic Identification’. The last chapter by Dik Bakker is concerned with ‘Language Sampling’, providing an in-depth discussion of complications and probable solutions for deciding on what type of sample to use in any given typological investigation and includes an appendix on practical data collection and coding.

Part II, ‘Theoretical Dimensions of Linguistic Typology’, deals with theoretical approaches within and beyond typology and again consists of six chapters. Joan Bybee in ‘Markedness: Iconicity, Economy, and Frequency’ evaluates proposed explanations of markedness correlations including references to diagrammatic iconicity, economy, and frequency of use. John Haiman discusses ‘Competing Motivations’ of clarity and least effort proposing a third distinct drive for Cambodian where symmetrical utterances appear to be preferred. In the following chapter Johann van der Auwera and Volker Gast in ‘Categories and Prototypes’ critically examine prototype theory concluding that some of its assumptions about internal category structures and family resemblances are highly useful in many domains of grammar and lexicon as well as linguistic conceptualization. Greville E. Corbett discusses ‘Implicational Hierarchies’ as a key element of linguistic typology. In particular it is argued that including the notion of monotonic increase, linear increase without an intervening decrease, allows hierarchies to make strong claims about linguistic constraints in human language. Chapter 11 by John A. Hawkins on ‘Processing Efficiency and Complexity in Typological Patterns’ presents his Performance-Grammar Correspondence Hypothesis which claims that “grammars ... are conventionalizations of patterns and preferences that one observes in the performance of languages with structural choices” (206). Following this, Sonia Christofaro in ‘Language Universals and Linguistic Knowledge’ concludes that “there is no distributional evidence for the idea that there are universal components of grammatical representation” (248).

Typological research on various grammatical topics and areas is the focus of part III’s twelve chapters under the label ‘Empirical Dimensions of Linguistic Typology’. Jae Jung Song discusses the notion of ‘Word Order Typology’ in chapter 13. He places particular emphasis on the notion of ‘basic word order’ and the possibilities of future research in this area with recent refinements and developments in processing-based theories. Walter Bisang gives a comprehensive overview of the typology of ‘Word Classes’ emphasizing the need to combine “cognitive or semantic criteria with criteria of pragmatics or discourse and with morphosyntactic expression formats” (301). After briefly discussing prerequisites for the distinction of word classes, he evaluates a number of linguistic approaches from Schachter (1985) to Croft (1990) and concludes with a short analysis of some typologically distinct languages and notes on adjectives and adverbs. In chapter 15, Beatrice Primus looks at ‘Case-Marking Typology’. She determines that typological research has shown that cases are formally disparate elements where inflectional affixes characterize the synthetic type and free forms the analytic type. She also states that hierarchy-based constraints motivated the formulation of a Case Hierarchy. Anna Siewierska in ‘Person Marking’ discusses the grammatical category of person from a cross-linguistic perspective. She concentrates on variation in morphophonological form and syntactic function. ‘Transitivity Typology’ is the concern of Seppo Kittilä’s chapter examining different semantic, formal, and pragmatic approaches to the topic. Leonid Kulikov looks at ‘Voice Typology’ in chapter 18.

The most detailed chapter of the volume is Balthasar Bickel’s ‘Grammatical Relations Typology’ (GR). He reviews “typological variables that define or condition specific GRs” (401), surveys construction types, examines interactions between GR definitions in different constructions, and discusses issues of worldwide distributions (401). Ferdinand de Haan’s chapter is concerned with the ‘Typology of Tense, Aspect, and Modality Systems’ providing an overview of major areas of ongoing research and points of overlap. Additionally, he addresses terminological issues which are “notoriously confusing” (446). In chapter 21 Lindsay Whaley examines ‘Syntactic Typology’ “concerned with discovering cross-linguistics patterns in the formation of particular” (465) phrasal, clausal, or sentential constructions. He particularly stresses the inextricable connection between morphological and syntactic properties of language as a major concern of modern typological research. Dunstan Brown discusses ‘Morphological Typology’ by outlining the traditional ‘holistic’ morphological typology followed by an examination of pure morphology, inflectional classes, and mechanisms associated with phenomena such as syncretism. In chapter 23 Nicholas Evans introduces ‘Semantic Typology’, “the systematic cross-linguistic study of how languages express meaning by way of signs” (504). He points out that compared to other typological disciplines semantic typology has had a low profile due to major challenges associated with methodologies such as developing a universal semantic map and semantic grid of an articulated ontology. He concludes: “to convey meaning is arguably the most basic goal any human language must achieve. At the same time, the ability of culture to shape many meaning categories makes semantics the domain of language which may prove to be more cross-linguistically variable than any other” (532). The last chapter of this part is on the ‘Typology of Phonological Systems’ by Ian Maddieson. He discusses variation in sound patterns across languages giving brief overviews on issues of prosody, segmental phonology, and larger units such as syllables and words.

Part IV, ‘Linguistic Typology in a Wider Context’, aims to situate “linguistic typology in the context of other major pursuits in linguistics, ranging from historical linguistics to second language acquisition” (6). It consists of six chapters. Kenneth Shields in ‘Linguistic Typology and Historical Linguistics’ analyzes the growing role of linguistic typology within historical linguistics as a means of assessing the plausibility of historical reconstructions, in the reconstruction process itself, and to examine general principles of how languages evolve. In chapter 26 Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm investigates the interplay of ‘Linguistic Typology and Language Contact’. She focuses on cross-linguistic research on contact-induced change and areal phenomena. Melissa Bowerman examines the indirect relationship between ‘Linguistic Typology and First Language Acquisition’. She pays particular attention to “how cross-linguistically oriented language acquisition research has come to share certain core attitudes and methodological preferences with the field of linguistic typology” (592), showing major areas of investigation and key findings. Chapter 28 by Fred R. Eckman looks at ‘Linguistic Typology and Second Language Acquisition’ providing an overview of classical and resent works on SLA with regards to constraints on human language identified by typologists and assumed to constrain interlanguage grammars of L2 learners as well. Patience Epps investigates the almost symbiotic endeavors of ‘Linguistic Typology and Language Documentation’. She focuses first on the contributions of documentary linguistics to typology with regards to shaping efforts to define universals and explaining linguistic diversity, before turning to typology’s role in informing the representation of a language within the documentation process. The final chapter of the handbook is Maria Polinsky’s ‘Linguistic Typology and Formal Grammar’. She examines points of divergence as well as dialogue between the two orientations. Most notably, she strives to bridge the gap between the two by suggesting shifts in research strategies and methodologies.

The handbook’s main aim is to provide a critical state-of-the-art overview of linguistic typology. Bringing together a wide range of scholars and topics yields a highly useful edition for theoretical linguists, fieldworkers, and advanced students. Especially as a supplement to textbooks on linguistic typology and sub-disciplines such as historical linguistics, language acquisition and field linguistics, the handbook can be a highly valuable resource. It will be an essential reference for anyone interested in linguistic variation, language families, and typological frameworks in the individual chapters as well as in the extensive bibliography, and useful author, language, and subject index. A further major asset is that most chapters not only paint a contemporary picture of the current state of linguistics, but also map future theoretical, methodological, and empirical directions. Finally, each chapter includes a short list of references for further reading.

Particularly enlightening in part I is Dik Bakker’s chapter on language sampling, providing an excellent discussion of a typologist’s need to make a meaningful selection of languages. His concluding suggestions for meaningful sampling strategies genetic as well as geographic dimensions are very helpful.

Especially compelling in Part II is Sonia Cristofaro’s chapter on universals and linguistic knowledge as she provides a useful comparison of how ‘universals’ are treated by typologists and generative linguists. This discussion presents a good introduction for students interested in both approaches and methodologies.

In part III, Walter Bisang’s and Anna Siewierska’s chapters provide excellent overviews and discussions of word class and person typology invaluable for anybody interested in a comprehensive account of issues related to research in these areas. Nicholas Evan’s chapter on semantic typology is a great synopsis of the topic’s current state and the challenges that lie ahead. In general, part III provides the most valuable collection of chapters for linguists working on under-described languages as a means of establishing current developments within typology and to help establish some of the range of variation described to date. The same holds for the last part of the handbook with excellent discussions of the language documentation and linguistic typology by Patience Epps and the interface of typology and language contact by Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. Both chapters comprehensively point towards meaningful relations between typological research and each sub-discipline particularly placing emphasis on potential mutual benefits.

There is not much to be criticized in this book except for a few areas of linguistic typology that have been left out. Song mentions the interface between sociolinguistics and typology as well as quantitative analysis and interpretation of linguistic diversity and preferences. Indeed, critically discussing recent and growing typological online databases such as WALS (Dryer & Haspelmath 2011) and APiCS (Michaelis et al. 2013), smaller ones like the Universals Archive (Plank et al. 2000), or language-group specific ones (Matras et al. n.s.) as additional sources of information on grammatical descriptions from typologists would have made an excellent concluding chapter. Additionally, the interface of research into language cognition and typology as prominently carried out by researchers at the MPI of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen would have been another valuable addition.

All in all, this edited volume is an excellent compilation and will surely find its way into the canon of literature on the linguistic typology as a valuable resource and reference.

Croft, William. 1990. Typology and Universals Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dryer, Matthew & Martin Haspelmath. 2011. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library.

Matras, Yaron, Viktor Elsik, Christa Schubert, Christopher White, Charlotte Jones & Ruth Hill. n.s. Romani Morpho-Syntax Database. Manchester: University of Manchester.

Michaelis, Susanne Maria, Philippe Maurer, Martin Haspelmath & Magnus Huber. 2013. Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Plank, Frans, Thomas Mayer, Tatsiana Mayorava & Elena Filimonova. 2000. The Universals Archive. Konstanz: Universität Konstanz.

Schachter, Paul. 1985. Parts of Speech Systems Language Typology and Syntactic Description, ed. by T. Shopen, 3-61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dorothea Hoffmann received her PhD from the University of Manchester, UK in 2012. Her dissertation, within a functionalist-typological linguistic approach, focused on structural and conceptual components of motion event expressions, paying particular attention to discourse usage in two Australian indigenous languages, namely Jaminjung, and Kriol. She is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago on a language documentation project of MalakMalak, an endangered language of the Daly River Area in Australia, funded by the Endangered Language Documentation Program. Her research interests include typology, language documentation, lexical semantics, language contact, narrative structure, cognitive linguistics, Australian Indigenous languages and culture, as well as discourse-based studies of space and motion.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199658404
Pages: 776
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