What is the name of my subfield (or subcommunity): Language typology, linguistic typology, or comparative linguistics?

Many linguists recognize typology as a subfield of linguistics, but what is the precise name of this subfield?

language typology”?
linguistic typology”?

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.

20 thoughts on “What is the name of my subfield (or subcommunity): Language typology, linguistic typology, or comparative linguistics?

  1. Once again you make unwarranted assumptions: “genetic” is still widely used in the context of historical linguistics.

    Since you seem to have already make up your mind in spite of counter-arguments, I wonder whether is it worth continuing debating, but why do you want to take a self-designation away from a community of scholars without listening to their opinion? If you think “language/linguistic typology” is problematic, please find a name *that is not already used*, otherwise tha’s identity theft and cultural appropriation.

    • Unfortunately, “identity theft” happens all the time, and it’s hard to prevent – some people are simply more powerful than others. If one does not accept that the term “genetic” has been “stolen” by biologists and continues to use it in the old sense in linguistics, one will add to the confusion, and there is no chance of winning (because the bjiologists are more pwerful). So instead of complaining, it’s better to assess the situation soberly and act accordingly. I know that typology has become more prestigious than historical-genealogical linguistics, and that this may be painful for practitioners of the latter (just as for someone like me, it is painful to see that generative typology has become so prestigious), but a sober assessment would seem to lead to the conclusion that the term “comparative linguistics” for “historical-genealogical linguistics” is confusing in a contemporary context, because there are rather different ways of comparing languages, not all of which involve historical-genealogical questions.

      • That’s not because it happens that we should approve it. I don’t see where the confusion is now. Confusion will only arise if a few people unilaterally decide to change other people’s established traditions and terminologies.

  2. Also, if “linguistic typology” is renamed “comparative linguistics”, what about the confusion that will arise between “diachronic typology” -> “diachronic comparative linguistics” and traditional historical-comparative linguistics?

    • Thanks for the discussion, and for raising the issue of “diachronic typology”. I realize that some terms are entrenched and it’s hard to come up with really good terms, but sometimes it’s better to give up old terms (e.g. “genetic classification” is better called “genealogical classification”, because nowadays “genetic” means something else). In the 19th century, all serious comparison was historical-genealogical, but nowadays, there is also serious general comparison of languages, and arguably, historical-genealogical accounts are just one special subtype of explanations of similarities revealed by comparisons. “Diachronic typology” could perhaps be renamed to “comparative diachrony”.

      • As pointed out by others, the term “comparative linguistics” is not separable from the comparative method. Changing its meaning would introduce unnecessary confusion and would be unacceptable to historical linguists. In addition, I would say that to me “comparative linguistics” is not completely equivalent to “diachronic linguistics”, the latter includes also historical research that do not use the comparative method.
        Actually, the term you introduced in the first post of this blog, “diversity linguistics”, seems very fitting to me; why abandon it?

        • But isn’t the confusion already there? I think there are many linguists who have no idea what is meant by “the comparative method”. I think very highly of this method (in fact, it has given rise to the most important results in linguistics), but I would suggest that in the 21st century, it is time to find a new name for it. (As for “diversity linguistics”, this is meant to include non-comparative work on small languages.)

          • What would you call it then instead of “the comparative method”? I believe there are linguists who do not know exactly what “tonal bipartition”, “ergative”, “ecolinguistics”, “applied linguistics”, or “semiotics” mean, but is it a sufficient reason to change their name? It takes a few seconds on a web search engine to discover what “comparative method” and “comparative linguistics” refer to, so I don’t see where the “confusion” is? Confusion with what?

          • The term “comparative method” is confusing because it has a very specific meaning in historical-genealogical linguistics, one that couldn’t possibly be guessed by someone who doesn’t know the specifics. A term like “ergative” sounds specific and is specific, so this is a good term, and “ecolinguistics” and “applied linguistics” seem quite transparent (consisting of eco-/applied plus linguistics). But the meaning of “comparative method” is noncompositional – the term does not mean ‘comparative’ plus ‘method’, unfortunately. For linguists who don’t care about the larger world, this may not be a problem, but if one wants to communicate one’s results more broadly, it is much better to have transparent, compositional terminology. Small field like historical-genealogical linguistics or typological linguistics cannot possibly win a fight to make others adopt our idiosyncratic terminology from the 19th century, I fear.

          • While the dialogue with other disciplines is crucially important, many words have quite a different meaning across disciplines, eg. “model” as used by statisticians vs linguists, “morphology” in linguistics and biology etc. Introducing terms from other disciplines can be useful to clarify some questions and foster dialogue across disciplines, for instance introducing the concept of incomplete lineage sorting from evolutionary biology into linguistics as in this forthcoming paper.
            However, for words that have a well-accepted meaning in linguistics, like the comparative method (and I repeat, “comparative linguistics” is not the same as “historical linguistics”), imposing a change of name from the outside is only going to introduce more confusion.

          • I see your point but I do not agree. Please remember that “comparative linguistics” is from earlier “comparative grammar” (vergleichende Grammatik), a term invented by Freidrich von Schlegel in direct reference to “comparative anatomy” (http://www.deutschestextarchiv.de/book/view/schlegel_indier_1808?p=47). The adjective “comparative” in biology and linguistics has a precise meaning, and it is not simply about comparing anything. It is about understanding the “evolution from common ancestors” of species and organisms (https://www.britannica.com/science/comparative-anatomy). “Comparative” in such scientific disciplines has always meant “comparison from a historical and genetic point of view”.

  3. The name of the department in Zurich does not exactly have the sense proposed here, since it contains both “comparative linguistics” in the typological sense (which is called General Linguistics) and the traditional type of “comparative linguistics”, i.e. historical-comparative IE linguistics (called Indo-European Studies) as well as other groups. So the name covers both uses of the term and is therefore very appropriate but not exactly used as an equivalent of “linguistic typology”.

  4. I don’t think it would be a good idea to rename language/linguistic typology as “comparative linguistics”. First, the term has a long history, and I don’t think it is obsolete, so that it would only add confusion. The term “historical-comparative linguistics” is still commonly used (I do use it), and neither “phylogenetic linguistics” nor “evolutionary linguistics” is widely used, except perhaps in some small communities that are not representative of the field as a whole. Second, there is no chance that the “comparative method” will be called anything else, so the association of the label “comparative” will remain with historical linguistics.

  5. Thank you for you bringing all those stuff together. I happened to read some of them recently and also worried about the confusion of the termonology.

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