Studying Typology

Author: Sam Hopwood


This paper was written by a student about their experiences of studying 'typology' within their linguistics degree at university.

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A danger of an undergraduate linguistics degree is that it can function much like an in-depth study of various aspects of the English language. For syntax modules, you look at the English grammatical system; for semantics, you discuss the meanings and connotations of English words; for phonology, you learn which IPA symbols you can use for English sounds and so on. I am fortunate enough to have studied at a university where there is a wider range of courses offered and students gain a broader perspective on the world of linguistics.

Although other modules gave some insight into the huge variation in the languages of the world, it was through studying typology that I came to really appreciate the potential of cross-linguistic research and comparison. Typology is the study of how all languages of the world, however isolated and distinct, demonstrate their common features through varied and diverse forms and structures. It amazed me to observe the different mechanisms and techniques used to fulfil parallel linguistic functions. Sometimes we can be so blinkered by our native language that it is almost impossible to conceive of how another language could use a different technique than those with which we are familiar.

I remember wracking my brains to imagine what genders could possibly exist beyond masculine, feminine and neuter (I’d studied German). What a shock when I found out that grammatical gender has nothing to do with human gender and that some Bantu languages have up to 20 genders! On the semantic side of things, I learned, much to my amazement, that only 63% of languages have two separate words for arm and hand.

My Indo-European language family bubble was well and truly burst as I discovered all about the amazingly varied ways in which languages perform certain functions. For the typology module of my degree, I had to “adopt” a specific language (Slavey, Athapaskan) and research various aspects of its grammar, as suggested by William Croft in Good Practice Guide on Typology. As every member of the class was doing the same, it allowed us to discover the range of languages’ strategies for functions such as relativisation, case markings, affixing and valency modification. Abstract theories that previously confused me so much suddenly made a lot more sense when I looked at real examples of notions like pronoun retention, ergative/absolutive markings, infixing and the antipassive.

One major advantage to studying typology is that it can be tailored to any aspect of linguistics that a student is particularly interested in. There are typological universals of phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology, language acquisition etc. For example, although we can state that all languages have at least 6 consonant sounds, the range is vast (Rokota, spoken in Papua New Guinea has 6 consonant sounds whereas !Xóõ, spoken in Botswana has 122). Similarly, you can investigate cross-linguistic similarities and contrasts for any of the sub-disciplines.

It can be difficult to grasp some of the more complicated processes and structures, especially when the examples are in unfamiliar languages, but with the help of the tutor, other students and reference grammars, it all makes sense. It was definitely challenging at times but overall I loved typology and certainly found it the most interesting of all the linguistic modules I studied during my degree.


Haspelmath, M., M. Dryer, D. Gil & B. Comrie (eds) (2005). The World Atlas Of Language Structures. Oxford: OUP