Linguistic typology

For the journal, see Linguistic Typology.

Linguistic typology is a field of linguistics that studies and classifies languages according to their structural and functional features. Its aim is to describe and explain the common properties and the structural diversity of the world's languages. It includes three subdisciplines: qualitative typology, which deals with the issue of comparing languages and within-language variance; quantitative typology, which deals with the distribution of structural patterns in the world’s languages; and theoretical typology, which explains these distributions.

Qualitative typology

Qualitative typology develops cross-linguistically viable notions or types that provide a framework for the description and comparison of individual languages. A few examples appear below.

Typological systems

Subject–verb–object positioning

Main article: Word order

One set of types reflects the basic order of subject, verb, and direct object in sentences:

These labels usually appear abbreviated as "SVO" and so forth, and may be called "typologies" of the languages to which they apply.

Some languages split verbs into an auxiliary and an infinitive or participle, and put the subject and/or object between them. For instance, German ("Ich habe einen Fuchs im Wald gesehen" - *"I have a fox in-the woods seen"), Dutch ("Hans vermoedde dat Jan Marie zag leren zwemmen" - *"Hans suspected that Jan Marie saw teach swim") and Welsh ("Mae'r gwirio sillafu wedi'i gwblhau" - *"Is the checking spelling after its to complete"). In this case, linguists base the typology on the non-analytic tenses (i.e. those sentences in which the verb is not split) or on the position of the auxiliary. German is thus SVO in main clauses and Welsh is VSO (and preposition phrases would go after the infinitive).

Many typologists classify both German and Dutch as V2 languages, as the verb invariantly occurs as the second element of a full clause.

Some languages allow varying degrees of freedom in their constituent order that pose a problem for their classification within the subject–verb–object schema. To define a basic constituent order type in this case, one generally looks at frequency of different types in declarative affirmative main clauses in pragmatically neutral contexts, preferably with only old referents. Thus, for instance, Russian is widely considered an SVO language, as this is the most frequent constituent order under such conditions—all sorts of variations are possible, though, and occur in texts. In many inflected languages, such as Russian, Latin, and Greek, departures from the default word-orders are permissible but usually imply a shift in focus, an emphasis on the final element, or some special context. In the poetry of these languages, the word order may also shift freely to meet metrical demands. Additionally, freedom of word order may vary within the same language—for example, formal, literary, or archaizing varieties may have different, stricter, or more lenient constituent-order structures than an informal spoken variety of the same language.

On the other hand, when there is no clear preference under the described conditions, the language is considered to have "flexible constituent order" (a type unto itself).

An additional problem is that in languages without living speech communities, such as Latin, Hellenic Greek, and Old Church Slavonic, linguists have only written evidence, perhaps written in a poetic, formalizing, or archaic style that mischaracterizes the actual daily use of the language. The daily spoken language of a Sophocles or a Cicero might have exhibited a different or much more regular syntax than their written legacy indicates.

Morphosyntactic alignment

Another common classification distinguishes nominative–accusative alignment patterns and ergative–absolutive ones. In a language with cases, the classification depends on whether the subject (S) of an intransitive verb has the same case as the agent (A) or the patient (P) of a transitive verb. If a language has no cases, but the word order is AVP or PVA, then a classification may reflect whether the subject of an intransitive verb appears on the same side as the agent or the patient of the transitive verb. Bickel (2011) has argued that alignment should be seen as a construction-specific property rather than a language-specific property.

Many languages show mixed accusative and ergative behaviour (for example: ergative morphology marking the verb arguments, on top of an accusative syntax). Other languages (called "active languages") have two types of intransitive verbssome of them ("active verbs") join the subject in the same case as the agent of a transitive verb, and the rest ("stative verbs") join the subject in the same case as the patient. Yet other languages behave ergatively only in some contexts (this "split ergativity" is often based on the grammatical person of the arguments or on the tense/aspect of the verb). For example, only some verbs in Georgian behave this way, and, as a rule, only while using the perfective (aorist).

Phonological systems

Linguistic typology will also apply to the structure and spread of sound systems in languages world-wide in identifying patterns. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the patterns of relative frequency between sounds and their co-occurrences and why they are thus. An example of this relative spread can be seen in trying to explain why contrastive voicing commonly occurs with plosives, such as in English with “neat” and “need”, but much fewer have this occur in fricatives, such as the English “niece” and “knees”. According to a worldwide sample of 637 languages,[1] 62% have the voicing contrast in stops but only 35% have this in fricatives. In the vast majority of those cases, the absence of voicing contrast occurs because there is a lack of voiced fricatives and because all languages have some form of plosive, but there are languages with no fricatives. Below is a chart showing the breakdown of these languages, showing the numbers as shown in this sample and how they relate to each other.

Plosive Voicing Fricative Voicing
Yes No Total
Yes 117 218 395 (62%)
No 44 198 242 (38%)
Total 221 (35%) 416 (65%) 637


Languages worldwide also vary in the number of sounds that are used within them. These languages can go from very small phonemic inventories (Rotokas with six consonants and five vowels) to very large inventories (!Xóõ with 128 consonants and 28 vowels). An interesting phonological observation found with this data is that the larger a consonant inventory a language has, the more likely it is to contain a sound from a defined set of complex consonants (clicks, glottalized consonants, doubly articulated labial-velar stops, lateral fricatives and affricates, uvular and pharyngeal consonants, and dental or alveolar non-sibilant fricatives). Of this list, only about 26% of languages in a survey[1] of over 600 with small inventories (less than 19 consonants) contain a member of this set, while 51% of average languages (19-25) contain at least one member and 69% of large consonant inventories (greater than 25 consonants) contain a member of this set. It is then seen that complex consonants are in proportion to the size of the inventory.

Vowels contain a more modest number of phonemes, with the average being 5-6, which 51% of the languages in the survey have. About a third of the languages have larger than average vowel inventories. Most interesting though is the lack of relationship between consonant inventory size and vowel inventory size. Below is a chart showing this lack of predictability between consonant and vowel inventory sizes in relation to each other.

Consonant Inventory Vowel Quality Inventory
Small Average Large Total
Small 47 153 65 265 (39%)
Average 34 105 98 237 (35%)
Large 34 87 57 178 (26%)
Total 115 (17%) 345 (51%) 220 (32%) 680


Quantitative typology

Quantitative typology deals with the distribution and co-occurrence of structural patterns in the languages of the world. Major types of non-chance distribution include:

  1. preferences (for instance, absolute and implicational universals, semantic maps, and hierarchies)
  2. correlations (for instance, areal patterns, such as with a Sprachbund)



  1. 1 2 3 4 Song, J.J. (ed.) (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-928125-1.


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