Classical Greenbergian typology is a world-wide enterprise: One studies a particular phenomenon in a wide range of languages from all corners of the earth. But in practice, most linguists who are interested in typology do not engage in world-wide comparison, and in fact, most linguists do not do much comparison at all: There are far more fieldworkers who are digging deep into individual languages than “desk typologists”. This is as it should be, because we need all this work to describe and document the languages. Until a few decades ago, these language experts mostly socialized with specialists of their language family or area – thus, there were conferences on Austronesian or Mayan or Afroasiatic languages, and the focus tended to be on historical-comparative questions.
Over the last few decades, typology has become much more prestigious, and many language specialists now want to make their work relevant to general lingistics by linking it to typology. In fact, the journal Linguistic Typology has been publishing as many papers that mostly deal with individual languages (or a number of closely related languages) as papers that adopt a Greenbergian global comparative approach.
But demand for discussing typological aspects of languages is even higher, so linguists have recently started organizing conferences, editing books, and writing dissertations on what one might call “continent-wide typology” of particular grammatical phenomena (such as negation, adjectives, subordination, relative clauses, etc.).
This trend is perhaps most evident in African linguistics – not surprisingly, because linguists working on African languages have long been organized along continent-wide lines. Thus, we have recently seen the following research projects, conferences and edited volumes:
– Typology of adjectives in African languages (http://sumale.vjf.cnrs.fr/Qualif/), a research project of CNRS-LLACAN and U Bayreuth
– Ines Fiedler and Anne Schwarz (eds.) 2010. The Expression of Information Structure: A documentation of its diversity across Africa. (Typological Studies in Language, 91.) Amsterdam: Benjamins
– Expressions of similarity in African languages, a 2012 conference at CNRS-LLACAN (Paris)
– Norbert Cyffer, Erwin Ebermann and Georg Ziegelmeyer (eds.) Negation Patterns in West African Languages and Beyond (Typological Studies in Language, 87.) Amsterdam: Benjamins.
But we also have one book on typology Asia:
Foong Ha Yap, Karen Grunow-Hårsta and Janick Wrona (eds.) Nominalization in Asian Languages: Diachronic and typological perspectives (Typological Studies in Language, 96.) Amsterdam: Benjamins.
For South America, there is now even a dissertation that compares noun phrase structure throughout the languages of the Americas:
Krasnoukhova, Olga. 2012. The Noun Phrase in the Languages of South America. Ph.D. dissertation, Radboud University Nijmegen.
Something like this has previously only been done for Australian languages, it seems. Another product from the Nijmegen project on South America is:
Rik van Gijn, Katharina Haude and Pieter Muysken (eds.) 2011. Subordination in Native South American Languages. (Typological Studies in Language, 97.) Amsterdam: Benjamins.
And we have a recent volume on relative clauses in languages of the Americas more broadly:
– Bernard Comrie and Zarina Estrada-Fernández (eds. ) 2012. Relative Clauses in Languages of the Americas: A typological overview (Typological Studies in Language, 102.) Amsterdam: Benjamins.
I see continent-wide typology as a very welcome trend. In order to understand the patterning of languages at the global level, it is often helpful to know more about patterns at lower levels, such as the continent level. Thus, global typologists have a lot to learn from these studies, which are both closely connected to the actual groundwork with speakers, and take a broader comparative perspective. And language specialists have a lot to learn from their colleagues working on languages from the the same continent – even if the neighboring languages are not always particularly similar, they are usually equally distant from the European model that still pervades our textbooks and our thinking about language structures.
Continent-wide typology is a prime example of diversity linguistics – the merging of cross-linguistic comparison and language-particular study into a single field, or at least into a community of linguists that are developing a common language and know that they share many interests.