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Review of  Language Typology and Historical Contingency

Reviewer: Dorothea Hoffmann
Book Title: Language Typology and Historical Contingency
Book Author: Balthasar Bickel Lenore A. Grenoble David A. Peterson Alan Timberlake
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Genetic Classification
Issue Number: 25.5023

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Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


‘Language Typology and Historical Contingency’ is a comprehensive Festschrift for Johanna Nichols and comprises of 22 chapters organized in three parts.

The editors Balthasar Bickel, Lenore A. Grenoble, David A. Peterson, and Alan Timberlake honor Johanna Nichols’ numerous contributions to the field of linguistics in a short preface. They organize the contributions according to Nichols’s interests. These range from issues in “pure structure” where papers look at linguistic phenomena and interpret their typologies theoretically, historical developments of modern distributions specific to language families or areas or on a global level, methodological issues, and in-depth analyses of individual languages. Importantly, the volume brings together the significant insight of Nichols’s that ‘linguistic typology and historical linguistics are eventually the same enterprise, aiming at uncovering how languages came to be the way they are’ (vii). At the same time, both are based on ‘attention to details, a care for fieldwork and language documentation, precise analyses, and philological knowledge’ (vii). The volume aims at and succeeds in bringing these understandings together.

Part I, ‘Structures and typologies’ consists of eight chapters. Andrej A. Kibrik discusses ‘Discourse semantics and the form of the verb predicate in Karachay-Balkar’, a language of the northern Caucasus. He proposes that the choice of using finite and nonfinite verb forms to report narrative events is motivated by discourse semantics. “The unmarked option in narrative sequences is the use of finite verb forms. The major nonfinite alternative, the consecutive converb, is used when the clause in question is connected to discourse context by a causal-temporal relation, in contrast to plain temporal relation” (41). Methodologically, the paper promotes a combination of observational and experimental techniques to investigate lesser-studied languages in fieldwork settings.

The following three chapters all build on Nichols’ influential 1986 paper on a typological contrast between head marking and dependent marking languages (Bickel and Nichols 2007; Nichols 1986; Nichols 1992). Dan Slobin in “Typology and channel of communication: Where do signed languages fit in?” uses Nichols’s typological distinction to argue for sign languages best being “characterized as head marking and that this typological status is determined by the manual/visual modality, with its iconic uses of space and movement, along with face and gaze direction’ (49). Additionally, six dimensions of how sign languages may be typologically analyzed are laid out, based on 1) dependent vs head marking; 2) case marking, agreement, alignment; 3) satellite- vs. verb-framing; 4) subject- vs. topic-prominence; 5) reference tracking; and 6) simultaneous morphology. He comes to the conclusion that “standard sign languages are head-marking, complex verb-framed, and topic-prominent languages with polycomponential predicates distinguished by a high degree of simultaneous morphology” (62).

The following chapter “Marking versus indexing: Revisiting the Nichols marking-locus typology” by Nicholas Evans and Eva Fenwick supplements Nichols’s distinction “with a further dimension, that of indexing” (69). The difference between marking and indexing is that “’marking’ typologizes where inflectional information goes, [and] ‘indexing’ typologizes what that information is about” (69). The data comes from an opportunistic “onto-probe” of 138 languages and the analysis ultimately shows that indexing and marking need to be treated as separate dimensions in typologies of possessive structures as well as NP modification structures in general.

Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. explores “the various approaches that have been taken in an attempt to capture the difference between head-marked and dependent-marked syntax in different linguistic theories” (91) in his chapter “Head-marking and linguistic theory”. He summarizes some generative approaches before analyzing head-marked structure in Role and Reference Grammar. His discussion is focused on “head-marked morphosyntax, independent of issues of nonconfigurationality or polysynthesis” (94). He concludes that Role and Reference Grammar is a valuable approach to show how the differences between head-marked clause structure and dependent-marked clause structure can be captured in a principled way.

“Lessons of variability in clause coordination: Evidence from North Caucasian languages” by Aleksandr E. Kibrik investigates syntactic constructions of semantically coordinated clauses in 23 Daghestanian languages. His analysis is based on a multifactorial mechanism of mapping cognitively adjacent events which usually share participants. Comparing coordinating constructions creates serious difficulties which Kibrik examines within a new framework of “cognitively oriented typology” (127). He particularly emphasizes the “importance of a typological approach to related languages” (149) and concludes that “variation does not correlate with genetic and areal proximity” (150).

The following chapter “Noun classes grow on trees: Noun classification in the North-East Caucasus” by Keith Plaster, Maria Polinsky and Boris Harizanov also focuses on the Dagestanian language family by presenting and analyzing the division of noun classes into classes in Tsez. The study uses a computational approach to model the Tsez noun classification system. The authors conclude that the system is “highly predictable with a simple semantic core and a set of highly salient formal features that can be ranked with respect to one another” (153).

David A. Peterson examines the repertoire of valence-affecting constructions in Khumi (Tibeto-Burman) in his chapter “Affecting valence in Khumi”. He also considers possible historical sources for the prefixal and suffixal valence markers.

The last chapter of this part is by Sabine Stoll and Balthasar Bickel on “Capturing diversity in language acquisition research”. The authors propose to use a new strategy of sampling languages using ‘fuzzy clustering’ to be applied to a typological database to maximize typological differences between languages. The algorithm is applied to a number of typological variables, such as case-marking, word order or inflectional classes. An advantage of this approach is that “samples can be relatively small, but still capture diversity and allow pairwise studies at specific contrasts” (208).

Part II, ‘Distribution in time and space’ represents the largest thematic piece of the volume and deals with historical and areal developments and distributions of languages. It consists of thirteen chapters, the majority of which are on phonological issues.

Mark Donohue in “Who inherits what, when? Toward a theory of contact, substrates, and superimposition zones” presents a case study of Australian phonological systems within a typology that suggests that phonological aberrancies “in the ‘core’ phonology are indicative of an older substrate, while morphosyntactic aberrancies indicate superimposition” (219). The author addresses “the question of the kind of structural features that can be expected to be borrowed in different kinds of contact scenarios and which contact scenarios are more likely to result in language shift” (220).

In “Polysynthesis in the Arctic/Sub-Arctic: How recent is it?” Michael Fortescue “presents a diagnostic for distinguishing older from newer forms of polysynthesis” (241). It has been found “difficult to assess how much of the morphological complexity of the language(s) involved is due to purely internal developments and how much is due to areal or general contact influence from neighboring families” (241). He concludes his chapter with a case-study in the Amur-Sakhalin-Hokkaido region attempting to answer the question whether Ainu and Nivkh can be linked to languages of North America.

Jeff Good also looks at languages from a historical and areal perspective. His chapter entitled “A (micro-)accretion zone in a remnant zone? Lower Fungom in areal-historical perspective” “explores the multifaceted notion of an accretion zone, examining how the linguistic situation of Lower Fungom allows us to refine Nichols’s typology of linguistics areas and also suggests new kinds of research questions for areal typology” (265). The chapter is based on Nichols’s (1992) where she argues for the Caucasus as an accretion zone. Such zones are characterized by “(i) high genealogical diversity; (ii) high structural diversity; (iii) deep language families; (iv) no appreciable spread of language families; (v) no clear center of innovation; (vi) language accretion; and (vii) lack of a lingua franca” (271-272). By way of his analysis, Good suggests to adopt a more comprehensive notion of ‘language documentation’ beyond the collection of communicative events.
Michael Cysouw in “A history of Iroquoian gender marking” proposes a history of gender marking in North Iroquoian languages building on earlier work by Chafe (1977). To account for the convergence that some aspects of the proposal do not follow genetic or areal connections “independent parallel developments are proposed” (283). The chapter particularly stresses the “importance of paradigmatic structure for the historical reconstruction” (284).

The following short chapter “The satem shift, Armenian ‘sisern’, and the early Indo-European of the Balkans” by Bill J. Darden investigates three separate phonetic changes for the satem languages, namely “the affrication of the palate-velars, the delabialization of the labiovelars, and, for most of this group, the change of *s to a back variant after r, u, k, i.” (299). He concludes that the satem shift “must have taken place after the spread of Indo-European into the Balkans, and it clearly encompassed some dialects in that area” (306).

Larry M. Hyman in “Penultimate lengthening in Bantu: Analysis and spread” addresses “the process of penultimate lengthening in Bantu” (309). He concludes that “penultimate lengthening is widespread in Bantu but varied in its distribution by utterance type” (322).

In “culture and the spread of Slavic” Alan Timberlake discusses “the origin and spread of Slavic for its own sake and in order to use the case of the spread of Slavic to discuss general issues in demic and linguistic spread” (331). He comes to the conclusion that “like the Slavic language, Slavic culture was passed down from earlier times to later groups, although it could be modified or, in the extreme case, disrupted” (353).

The following chapter “The syntax and pragmatics of Tungusic revisited” by Lenore A. Grenoble presents a follow-up investigation of Nichols’s (1979) CLS paper on the syntax and pragmatics in the Tungusic languages. She does so by considering changes in clause-combining structures in Evenki while undergoing shift during contact with Russian. She compares data from monolingual (the basis of Nichols’s study), bilingual, and Russian-dominant speakers whose proficiencies can be correlated with different clause-combining strategies in Evenki. This ultimately raises questions about “the processes of typological restructuring versus language shift” (357).

Michael Cysouw and Bernard Comrie in “Some observations on typological features of hunter-gatherer languages” aim to “answer the question of whether there are particular structural linguistic features, from among those included in WALS (Dryer and Haspelmath 2011), that show an unexpected difference between the feature-values for hunter-gatherer languages and those for non-hunter-gatherer languages” (384). The authors identify a number of such structural features of languages with regards to constituent order, phonology, and lexicon, but stress that this analysis only represents the first stage of this investigation.

In “Typologizing phonetic precursors to sound change” Alan Yu discusses how “the robustness of a phonetic precursor can be assessed [...] in terms of its likelihood to create enough confusion for misperception-based sound change” (395). He also “proposes a model of quantifying relative precursor robustness, using a rational model of speech perception” (398).

Balthasar Bickel introduces the ‘Family Bias Method’ in “Distributional biases in language families” to estimate “statistical biases in diachronic developments on the basis of synchronic samples” (415). Based on Nichols (2003) where she argues that “degrees of stability are not self-contained indices of language change but the result of competing forces, such as diachronic replication, borrowing, substratal effects, and universals” (416), Bickel develops “methods for estimating the role of these forces on the basis of statistical analyses of synchronic typological datasets” (416). A practical consequence of his findings is that “because all estimates of inheritance and external pressure, including any extrapolation to isolates, are based on distributions in known families, typological databases need to sample families as densely as possible” (442).

The next chapter “The morphology of imperatives in Lak: Stem vowel in the second singular simplex transitive affirmative” by Victor A. Friedman is an in-depth analysis of the Lak second singular affirmative transitive imperative as the least normalized area of Lak grammar. It is suggested that any observed differences “go back to the same sort of animacy and transitivity criteria suggested by the system that survives in Dargi” (445). The paper includes comprehensive appendices of a complete list of the second singular simplex transitive affirmative formation for simplex verbs.

The final chapter of this part II “Subgrouping in Tibeto-Burman: Can an individual-identifying standard be developed? How can we factor in the history of migrations and language contact?” by Randy J. LaPolla tries to determine genetic relatedness among Sino-Tibetan languages based on Nichols (1996). Results are discussed with reference to the migration patterns of the Sino-Tibetan peoples.

Methodological considerations are the focus of the volume’s last part III ‘A (cautionary) note on methodology’ with only one chapter by William F. Weigel: “Real data, contrived data, and the Yokuts Canon”. The paper discusses how the interaction between linguistic fieldwork and philology and linguistic theory has gone awry with the Yokuts languages serving as ‘testing grounds’ in theoretical phonology. He urgently suggests that “there are some altogether legitimate uses for contrived forms, but the uncritical way in which they are used in much of the literature seriously undermines the validity and credibility of theoretical argumentation” (479).


The Festschrift’s main aim is to argue strongly for a combined view of typological and historical linguistics to discover where languages’ features come from and how linguistic types distribute geographically.

A group of distinguished scholars covers phonological, morphosyntactic, pragmatic, language acquisition, methodological, and language contact phenomena examining individual languages as well as areal and global distributions. As such, this volume provides a highly valuable collection of typological papers on the current state of typological research from a range of perspectives. The papers address theoretical problems related to Johanna Nichols’s research and also map future theoretical, methodological, and empirical directions.

Particularly enlightening in part I are the three chapters addressing issues of Nichols’s influential typological distinction between head- and dependent marking languages. Here, authors examine previously undescribed language families such as sign languages (Slobin), suggest additional dimensions to the typology to account for semantic information in inflectional paradigms (Evans and Fenwick), and provide solutions for some long-standing problems by offering theoretical analyses of the phenomenon on Role and Reference Grammar (Van Valin). Combined the papers further advance the importance of Nichols’s original research and strengthen its significance for typological linguistic theory.

In part II, I find those chapters particularly compelling that extend the realm of typological research into other linguistic and non-linguistic fields. Language contact and typology is a fascinating subject excellently discussed by Donohue and Grenoble. Similarly, combining typological and anthropological and cultural data has the potential to expose fascinating insight into the interface of these domains (Cysouw and Comrie, Timberlake).

In general, the comprehensive part II provides a highly valuable collection of chapters for linguists working on under-described languages, and language families aiming to make sense of areal, cultural and historical developments and patterns.

There is not much to be criticized in this book except that I believe it would have benefited from an introductory chapter outlining the main areas of Johanna Nichols’s work relevant for this collection and for the fields of linguistic typology and historical linguistics in general. Furthermore, the ordering of chapters could have been more clustered towards contextual similarities to make it easier for a potential reader to find relevant chapters. Finally, there were some minor inconsistencies in spelling and naming conventions (e.g. ‘Dagestanian vs. Daghestanian’ languages) which could have easily been eliminated.

In sum, this edited volume is an excellent compilation of highly relevant topics on linguistic typology and historical linguistics. As such it will become a valuable resource and reference for linguists and anthropologists from a range of theoretical and language backgrounds.


Bickel, Balthasar and Johanna Nichols. 2007. Inflectional morphology. Language typology and syntactic description, ed. by T. Shopen, 169-240. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chafe, Wallace L. 1977. The evolution of third person verb agreement in the Iroquoian languages. Mechanisms of syntactic change, ed. by C.N. Li, 493-524. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

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

Nichols, Johanna. 1979. Syntax and pragmatics in Manchu-Tungus languages. Paper presented to the The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels Including Papers from the Conference on Non-Slavic Languages of the USSR. Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society, Chicago, IL, 1979.

------. 1986. Head-marking and dependent-marking grammar. Language 62.56-119.

------. 1992. Linguistic diversity in space and time Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

------. 1996. The comparative method as heuristic. The comparative method revisited: Regularity and irregularity in language change, ed. by M. Durie and M. Ross, 39-71. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

------. 2003. Diversity and Stability in Language. The handbook of historical linguistics, ed. by R.D. Janda and B.D. Joseph, 283-310. London: Blackwell.
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.