Author: William Croft


Typology is the study of language universals by the empirical method of induction from a sample of diverse languages. Textbooks are available (Croft 2002, Comrie 1989). the most effective learning tool is for each student to "adopt" a reference grammar of an unfamiliar language; the languages used in a class should be genetically and geographically diverse. Descriptive exercises are based on the adopted grammars, and analytical exercises on data sets available on the Web.

Table of contents


Typology is the study of language universals by the empirical method of induction from a sample of diverse languages. Although most work in typology has been in the area of morphology and syntax (Greenberg 1966, Comrie 1989), there is substantial work in phonological typology (Maddieson 1984) and in semantic typology as well (Talmy 1985).

Croft (1990/2002) presents a typology course designed around method and theory: sampling; typological classification; implicational universals and competing motivations; typological markedness, economy and iconicity; hierarchies and semantic maps; prototypes; syntactic argumentation and syntactic structure in typology; diachronic typology. The book is designed for an advanced undergraduate/master's class. Useful background reading is Payne 1997 and Trask 1994; Comrie 1989 is more advanced supplementary reading. Payne is a useful textbook for a typologically oriented introductory class for lower-level undergraduates.

Undoubtedly the most important aim of teaching and learning typology is to give the student the experience of encountering a language that is unfamiliar and often radically different from their native language. This experience will expose the student to real data; make them aware of variation; and gain appreciation of a central facet of other cultures. By far the best way to do this is to assign a reference grammar to each student, such that the class as a whole forms a genetically and geographically diverse sample of languages.

Students do basic descriptive exercises in which they give a brief account of some basic facts of their adopted language relevant to the lecture. Since grammars vary in coverage, evaluation must be by: accuracy; proper citation; thoroughness in covering the information available; clarity and coherence. Students enjoy adopting a grammar, and it makes for less repetitive assignments to grade. Teams can do a group exercise in cross-linguistic comparison using their languages. An alternative to the adopt-a-grammar model, for a low-level undergraduate course, would be for the lecturer to present a sketch of four languages, one from each major geographical area: Africa, Eurasia, Oceania, and the Americas, selected for their structural diversity.

There are a number of good published series of reference grammars: the Mouton Grammar Library; Pacific Linguistics; the University of Hawaii/Oceanic Linguistics publications; the University of California Publications in Linguistics series. The Lingua/Croom Helm/Routledge grammar series is difficult to use without the original questionnaire at hand, but many volumes are very good. Other good grammars can be found by inspecting the sources used in major typological studies such as the volumes in the Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory series.

Analytical exercises (and exam questions) take the form of a set of data from an unfamiliar language, which the student analyzes in terms of the theoretical concepts and hypotheses presented in the textbook (Croft 2003).


Comrie, B. (1981/1989). Language Universals and Linguistic Typology (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Croft, W. (1990/2002). Typology and universals (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Croft, W. (2003). Descriptive and analytical problems for Typology and Universals. Available from November 2002 at: lings.ln.man.ac.uk

Greenberg, J. H. (1966). Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. Universals of Grammar. Ed. Joseph H. Greenberg, 2nd edition, 73-113. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Maddieson, I. (1984). Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Payne, T. E. (1997). Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Talmy, L. (1985). Lexicalization patterns: semantic structure in lexical forms. Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Vol. 3: Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon. Ed. Timothy Shopen, 57-149. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Trask, R. L. (1994). A dictionary of grammatical terms in linguistics. London: Routledge

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