Typology: The study of unity or diversity?

Michael Daniel, in his chapter ‘Linguistic typology and the study of language’ in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, sets out to define the field of linguistic typology and situate it within linguistics generally. He opens with this:

Linguistic typology compares languages to learn how different languages are, to see how far these differences may go, and to find out what generalizations can be made regarding cross-linguistic variation. (Daniel 2011:44)

He also notes that “Most linguistic disciplines have cross-linguistic comparison in the background, if not as their main method or object of inquiry […]” (Daniel 2011:44). This is unsurprising, given that the fundamental enterprise in linguistics is essentially a typological one: to find and explain what is common and divergent across languages, i.e. to account for the range of crosslinguistic data. The idea that linguistics is essentially a typological enterprise is shared by Dixon (2010:24) and Shopen (2007:xiv) The discovery of diversity across languages is just as important as their commonality, because it informs us which aspects of language cannot be universal, or must be explained at some other level than form.

For Daniel, typology is less focused on the commonalities than the diversity:

Linguistic typology is the study of linguistic diversity as such, an exploration of the cross-linguistic variation as well as the rules that govern it and constraints that define its limits. It may be seen as looking for similarities, too – as when assigning languages to different types. But as a matter of fact, it deals with similarities only to sort them out and to form and idea about possible differences. (Daniel 2011:45)

It is this study of differences which, for Daniel, sets typology apart from both generative approaches, and fields like historical and contact linguistics:

Historical and contact linguistics are looking for similarities between languages, because it is the similarities that can be inherited and spread by contact. Typologists are keener on differences, because every new difference that is found extends our idea of the limits of cross-linguistic variation. Linguistic typology is interested in cross-linguistic similarities only inasmuch as they foreground limits to variation, while contact and historical linguistics peel differences away to arrive at what the languages have in common. (Daniel 2011:45)

In a sense, generative grammar is about cross-linguistic invariance, while linguistic typology is about cross-linguistic variation. (Daniel 2011:49)

The study of diversity qua diversity, however, may be a hollow concept. If the data is sought out specifically for its non-generalizable nature, it would be impossible to create a coherent theory ranging over it. This does not seem to be the focus of typology. Typology, too, is fundamentally interested in ‘peeling away the differences to arrive at what languages have in common’, as is generative linguistics. Daniel’s dichotomy between typology (with its focus on diversity) and other fields (with their focus on similarities) should therefore be rejected. Generative linguistics, historical linguistics, and typology are all similar in that their primary theoretical motivation is the search for linguistic universals. Daniel himself acknowledges this:

[According to generativism] Principles of universal grammar are common to all languages; it is the values of the parameters that vary. [Para.] To a typologist, the objective of the generative study of language as formulated above sounds unmistakably typological, for he or she also studies cross-linguistic variation in the observed values of specific parameters. (Daniel 2011:47)

I think that Daniel has conflated the theoretical underpinnings of these respective disciplines with their methodological ones, and that this confusion explains the following passage, which I find strange:

Thus, when saying that most languages use either ergative or accusative alignments, the main message is that all other structurally possible patterns are infrequent. This is again about differences: some kinds of variation (understood as divergence from the known types) are rare or not attested. (Daniel 2011:45)

In practice, I doubt this is what typologists mean by these statements. The message instead concerns what is common to language, described in such a way as to account for its diversity.

In conclusion, the theoretical starting point of the fields mentioned above is the same. It is their methodologies which are divergent. In this respect I agree with Daniel: linguistic typology in practice utilizes the study of diversity as the primary conduit to understanding language universals, and this is what sets it apart from other disciplines. And Daniel does acknowledge that the driving theoretical interest behind this is the search for unity in the data:

A true study of diversity, however, suggests classifying languages according to the patterns they use and discovering regularities underlying cross-linguistic variation. (Daniel 2011:54)

For this reason, I can’t criticize Daniel too much. His chapter merely serves as an interesting starting point for discussion. But I do think it is important to distinguish the theoretical and methodological commitments of linguistic typology, and that linguists should acknowledge the fact that typology is ultimately concerned with the unity of language just as much as (if not more than) its diversity.

[Originally posted at http://www.danielhieber.com]


  • Daniel, Michael. 2011. Linguistic typology and the study of language. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. 43-68. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dixon, R.M.W. 2010. I am a linguist. Leiden: Brill.
  • Shopen, Timothy (ed.). 2007. Language typology and syntactic description, Vol. 1: Clause structure, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel W. Hieber

I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the Alberta Language Technology Lab in Edmonton, Alberta. I received my Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I document indigenous Native American languages and build web-based tools for managing linguistic data.

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