Many linguists recognize typology as a subfield of linguistics, but what is the precise name of this subfield?
or maybe simply “comparative linguistics”?
Having a unique name would have a number of advantages for the practitioners, so it seems that they should be interested in converging on a single term. For example, when specifying the subfield in submitting an abstract, or when looking up information, or simply when communicating one’s specialization to others.
Now within linguistics, the difference between “language typology” and “linguistic typology” does not really matter, because everyone knows that there is no difference, and in many contexts, “typology” alone is entirely sufficient. But suppose that you indicate you specialization in Google Scholar, or you upload a typological paper to Academia.edu – what do you indicate as the relevant subfield? If you use simply “typology”, nonlinguists may have no idea what is meant, and because of the duality of “language typology” and “linguistic typology”, automatic aggregation does not work properly.
(It seems that on Academia.edu, 6369 people are followers of “language typology”, 8738 follow “linguistic typology”, and 7130 follow “typology”, though perhaps not all of the latter mean typology in the linguistics sense.)
Historically, it seems clear that “language typology” is the older term, and has become current in the 1970s (though “typology” and “typological” go back to 1901, cf. Plank 1991). Some books from the 1970s and 1980s with “language typology” in the title are Horne (1970), Greenberg (1974), Mallinson & Blake (1981), and Shopen (ed.) (1985; 2007). The older term appears on the title of a 2001 two-volume handbook (Haspelmath et al. (eds.)), in the title of the journal STUF (Language Typology and Universals), and on the title of two recent prominent publications (Moravcsik 2013; Bickel et al. 2013 (eds.)).
However, in the 1980s, a competitor arose: “linguistic typology” was used in the titles of Comrie (1981/1989) and Ramat (1987), and in 1997, Frans Plank and Mouton de Gruyter founded the journal “Linguistic Typology”. In the 2000s, the latter term spread, and now we have two handbooks (Song (ed.) 2011; Aikhenvald & Dixon (2017)) and two textbooks (Song 2001; Velupillai 2012) on “linguistic typology”.
There is evidently no difference in reference intended, so are we dealing with random drift (the sort of language change – or linguistic change (?) – that some functionalists regard as impossible)? Or is there some other reason why the subdiscipline seems to be shifting to “linguistic typology”?
(Here’s a suspicion: the innovative use of “linguistic typology” in Comrie (1981) might have to do with euphony: “Language universals and linguistic typology” sounds less repetitive than “Language universals and language typology”; and the innovative use of “Linguistic typology” in Ramat (1987) might have been triggered by an assonance with the Italian original “Linguistica tipologica” (1984), literally “Typological linguistics”.)
Could the change have to do with the association of “linguistic” with the field of linguistics? After all, for many speakers, “linguistic” can mean either ‘relating to language(s)’ or ‘relating to linguistics’. If so, then there would be a semantic difference between the two terms – “linguistic typology” would translate into German as “linguistische Typologie” (a term that I have never heard, I think), not as “Sprachtypologie” (the normal term, e.g. Dressler 1967). But if this were intended, then a shift to the even clearer “typological linguistics” would be preferable. (Having an ambiguous label for a subdiscipline seems to be even worse than having two synonymous labels.)
But actually, any term that contains “typolog-“ has a serious disadvantage: It is quite opaque to outsiders. Cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration seem to be getting more and more important, so we might consider an entirely different name – perhaps simply comparative linguistics?
It seems that there are quite a few well-established fields with “comparative” in their names: comparative economics, comparative education, comparative law, comparative literature, comparative mythology, comparative psychology, and “comparative zoology” even has a famous museum on the Harvard campus.
So far, at least one department of comparative linguistics in the relevant sense exists (at the University of Zurich).
A possible objection might be the earlier use of “vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft” for historical-comparative linguistics (in English sometimes “historical and comparative linguistics”, cf. Anttila 1972; Goyvaerts 1975). But this is obsolete now, and linguists who study diachronic developments nowdays generally call themselves “historical linguists”, though the newer terms “phylogenetic linguistics” (or even “phylolinguistics”) and “evolutionary linguistics” seem to be spreading fast.
From my perspective, the term “comparative linguistics” for what used to be called “language/linguistic typology” has a big advantage: Not only is it fully transparent, but it also fails to signal association with a particular subcommunity – and this is good. After all, many comparative linguists work in a generative framework, and these do not usually associate with the term “typology” (an exception is Baker 2010; but even so, this author did not make it into Song’s 2011 handbook of linguistic typology). However, much of what they do is clearly “typological” in the usually understood sense, so it is really odd to exclude them terminologically. Generative linguists have often used the terms “comparative grammar” and “comparative syntax” (e.g. Haegeman (1997), Roberts (1997), Freidin (1998)), though apparently less so in recent years.
In any event, the question of the name of my subdiscipline of linguistics seems at least not entirely irrelevant, but I have never seen it discussed explicitly. Maybe it would not be a complete waste of time to engage in some discussion.
Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. & R. M. W Dixon (eds.). 2017. The Cambridge handbook of linguistic typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anttila, Raimo. 1972. An introduction to historical and comparative linguistics. London: Macmillan.
Baker, Mark. 2010. Formal generative typology. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 285–312. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bickel, Balthasar, Lenore A. Grenoble, David A Peterson & Alan Timberlake (eds.). 2013. Language typology and historical contingency: In honor of Johanna Nichols. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Cinque, Guglielmo & Richard S. Kayne (eds.) 2005. The Oxford handbook of comparative syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Comrie, Bernard. 1981/1989. Language universals and linguistic typology: Syntax and morphology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dressler, Wolfgang U. 1967. Wege der Sprachtypologie. Die Sprache 13. 1–19.
Goyvaerts, Didier L. 1975. Present-day historical and comparative linguistics: An introductory guide to theory and method. Ghent: Scientific Publishers.
Greenberg, Joseph H. 1974. Language typology: A historical and analytic overview. The Hague: Mouton.
Haegeman, Liliane M. V (ed.). 1997. The new comparative syntax. London: Longman.
Haspelmath, Martin, Ekkehard König, Wulf Oesterreicher & Wolfgang Raible. 2001. Language typology and language universals: An international handbook. (Handbücher Zur Sprach- Und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Vol. 1-2.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Horne, Kibbey M. 1970. Language typology: 19th and 20th century views. Washington: Georgetown University Press.
Mallinson, Graham & Barry J. Blake. 1981. Language typology: Cross-linguistic studies in syntax. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Moravcsik, Edith A. 2013. Introducing language typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plank, Frans. 1991. Hypology, typology: The Gabelentz puzzle. Folia Linguistica 25(3–4). 421–458. doi:10.1515/flin.1991.25.3-4.421.
Ramat, Paolo. 1987. Linguistic typology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Roberts, Ian G. 1997. Comparative syntax. London: Arnold.
Shopen, Timothy (ed.). 1985. Language typology and syntactic description. . Vol. 3 volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Song, Jae Jung. 2001. Linguistic typology: Morphology and syntax. Harlow & London: Pearson Education.
Song, Jae Jung (ed.). 2011. The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Velupillai, Viveka. 2012. An introduction to linguistic typology. Amsterdam: Benjamins.