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date: 04 July 2022

Setting the Stage

Abstract and Keywords

This handbook aims to be regarded as authoritative, or at least representative of the field of linguistic typology. It provides a critical, state-of-the-art overview of major areas of linguistic typology. Part I of the handbook serves as the historical, theoretical, and methodological backbone for the rest of the volume. Part II deals with various theoretical dimensions of linguistic typology. Part III discusses the typological research on various grammatical areas and topics, ranging from phonology to semantics, and from person marking to voice. The articles in Part IV examine the application of linguistic typology to other areas of linguistics, or the interface between linguistic typology and other sub-disciplines of linguistics.

Keywords: linguistic typology, phonology, semantics, linguistics, theoretical dimensions

Handbooks like this one need little or no introduction. The very idea of writing a synopsis of the volume as a whole or an outline of the vast field of linguistic typology would be akin to trying to do, prior to their performances, imitations of the maestri who have been assembled for a special occasion. The audience would wait, with bated breath, for the maestri to take the stage, and would not be keen to endure the compère's (inevitably ungraceful) ‘curtain raiser’. Nor would the maestri be willing to allow the compère to ‘destroy’ what they have come to perform for their appreciative audience. Everyone would rather let the maestri proceed, without further ado, with what they do best. I have chosen to be a judicious ‘compère’; I have decided to dispense with a synopsis or an introductory chapter for this volume. I hope that this decision will be approved of with alacrity. Wearing the Editor's hat, however, I would like to give a brief account of how linguistic typologists' research perspective has changed over the last five decades or so. This will serve well as a backdrop against which to read the rest of the handbook.

1. Linguistic typology: where it came from; where it is now; where it is going

The recent ascendancy of linguistic typology could not have been better described than when Nichols (2007: 236) opines that linguistic typology ‘is on a roll and likely to continue’. There has been a sustained heightening of interest in linguistic (p. 2) typology as a method of discovering the nature of language and also as a theoretical approach to the study of language (cf. Song 2010). Evidence in support can be drawn not only from within linguistic typology, as attested amply in the rest of the handbook, but also from a growing number of linguists working within, or switching to, linguistic typology in countries where linguistic typology had until recently been largely unknown, if not unheard of (i.e. Asia) as well as in countries which are associated traditionally with linguistic typology (i.e. Europe and the USA). This incipient popularity in Asia of linguistic typology is particularly noteworthy and encouraging, in that generative grammar has for over half a century dominated or, in my view, ‘stifled’ the discipline of linguistics in those countries, admitting of virtually no alternatives—so much so that it is believed by many in some of these countries that linguistics is generative grammar, and vice versa. (When I left South Korea in 1983 to do an undergraduate linguistics degree in Australia, I too had been under the impression that generative grammar was the only way to do linguistics.)

‘[Linguistic] typology has the hallmarks of a mature discipline: a society, conferences, journals, books, textbooks, classic works, a founding father, and people who are called and call themselves [linguistic] typologists’ (Nichols 2007: 231). While this remark may inadvertently suggest that linguistic typology is a newcomer to linguistics, nothing is further from the truth. Linguistic typology has a long tradition dating back to the nineteenth-century European interests in genealogical relationships among languages and in the evolution of human language. Initially embraced with much enthusiasm, linguistic typology soon came to be subsumed under other research interests, historical linguistics in particular, and then fell by the wayside, as it were, into near oblivion. This had been the state of affairs until the early 1960s.

The history of modern linguistic typology—with its precursors ignored for the sake of convenience—can be divided roughly into four periods: (i) Georg von der Gabelentz's (1840–1893) celebrated ‘christening’ (i.e. ‘Typologie’) in 1901 of linguistic typology to the 1950s; (ii) Joseph Greenberg's revitalization or resuscitation in the 1960s and 1970s of linguistic typology (e.g. Greenberg 1963b, Greenberg et al. 1978); (iii) the rejuvenation in the 1980s and 1990s of linguistic typology (e.g. Comrie 1981, Mallinson and Blake 1981, Dryer 1989, 1992, Nichols 1992); and (iv) the coming of age in the present decade of linguistic typology (e.g. Haspelmath, Dryer, Gil, and Comrie 2005; also see Bickel 2007, Croft 2007b, Nichols 2007, and Song 2007).

It was not until the appearance in 1963 of Greenberg's work on word order that linguistic typology was brought out of the intellectual wilderness and back into the fold of linguistics. The focus of linguistic typology, in line with the contemporary development in linguistics, also shifted from morphology to syntax or, more accurately, morphosyntax. More importantly, Greenberg ‘opened up a whole field of research’ (Hawkins 1983: 23) by revamping and revitalizing linguistic typology. Linguistic typology during this period was, in principle, concerned (p. 3) primarily with the task of determining what is possible, as opposed to impossible, in human language, although its practitioners were generally cognizant of the poverty of absolute (or exceptionless) language universals. This early ‘idealistic position’, if it can be called that way, is evident from some of the important works from this period which made valiant but unsuccessful attempts to propose unified explanations of Greenberg's original work.

The 1980s and 1990s brought in linguistic typologists who recognized the importance in linguistic typology research of linguistic preferences, instead of (hard-to-obtain) absolute universals (e.g. Hawkins's (1983) distributional universals and Dryer's (1989, 1992) work on word order). In order to discover linguistic preferences, however, what is preferred linguistically must first be carefully separated from what happens to be widespread as a consequence of non-linguistic factors, such as population movements, language contact, geographical isolation, population size, and environment (e.g. Dryer 1989, Nichols 1992, Nettle and Romaine 2000, Bickel 2007). This ‘epiphany’ made it easier to accept the fallacy of absolute language universals. There are always bound to be non-linguistic factors at work in language, inevitably upsetting so-called absolute universals, which are motivated largely by human cognition, perception, etc. (No language develops or exists in a socio-cultural vacuum.) More to the point, there remain large amounts of undocumented, hence, unstudied, languages in the world—actually, more undocumented than documented. To claim that X, Y, and Z are absolute language universals, in the current state of our knowledge, is patently premature. In point of fact, rejection of the concept of absolute universals would better prepare linguists to deal with linguistic diversity. In conjunction with the ‘new’ task of determining what is probable in human language, research focus, not surprisingly, also began to turn to methodological issues, arguably the most prominent being language sampling.

Linguistic typology in the new millennium has witnessed the emergence of a salubrious outlook on theory and data. First, linguistic typologists have accepted the role of non-linguistic factors in typological distributions attested in the world. They have come to the realization that many typological properties are not evenly distributed in the world, and have begun to ask in earnest why (e.g. Haspelmath et al. 2005). Far more frequently than not, the source of possible or plausible explanations, as it turns out, seems to lie outside languages themselves. Second, they have also realized the urgent need to do something about the sheer underrepresentation of their database, especially because languages are fast dying out. This is not at all surprising in view of the fact that linguistic diversity will not reveal itself unless languages, living or extinct, have all been taken into account. What implications this holds for the validity of linguistic typologists' research is glaringly obvious, even to a layperson. This is not to say that previous generations of linguistic typologists were oblivious of this point (e.g. Song 2001a: 17). Of late, however, renewed emphasis has been placed on, and a great deal of effort has been (p. 4) put into, language documentation, particularly for endangered or (close to) moribund languages. This new development, not surprisingly, is being spearheaded by linguistic typologists.

Over a span of a little more than five decades, the shift in typological perspective is from ‘what is possible’ (e.g. V(erb)S(ubject)O(bject) order implies the presence of prepositions, as in Greenberg 1963b) to ‘what is probable’ (e.g. the strong tendency towards OV&N(oun)A(djective), as in Dryer 1992) to, as Bickel (2007: 239) has it, ‘what's where why?’ One of the most recent and tangible outcomes of this shift is The World Atlas of Language Structures (Haspelmath et al. 2005). For instance, Dryer (2005i) demonstrates that the co-occurrence of OV and Rel(ative Clause)-N order is generally found in Asia, while in the rest of the world, OV languages have NRel order much more frequently than RelN. That is, OV&RelN seems to be a distinct areal feature of Asia. The explanation of this particular areality cannot be linguistic, but is most probably historical and socio-cultural (e.g. language contact). With the historical and socio-cultural basis of the areal feature recognized, the next level of explanation must be sought from outside linguistics (e.g. anthropology, sociology).

Linguistic typology, in the next five or ten years, is likely to continue to develop or refine its research methods—not least because such methodological exercises, more frequently than not, lead to the discovery of problems or issues of theoretical import as well as new empirical findings (e.g. Dryer 1989, 1992)—and also to the generation of ‘theories that explain why linguistic diversity is the way it is [i.e. what's where why?]’ (Bickel 2007: 239). This suggests that the kind of research that is willing and able to cross its boundaries into, or to borrow insights from, other disciplines—whether in pursuit of deeper explanations or because of researchers’ own intellectual inclinations—is likely to occupy the centre stage of linguistic typology (as foreshadowed by Nichols 1992 and Hawkins 2004, for instance), while the nature of human language will continue to be the main object of inquiry in linguistic typology.

2. What does this handbook aim to offer?

The handbook aims to be regarded as authoritative, or at least representative of the field of linguistic typology. To that end, I have recruited internationally recognized leading scholars to write the majority of the chapters. I have also invited a few young scholars in an attempt to mark the handbook as a wharenui (meaning ‘a tribal meeting house’ in the Maori language) for distinguished and emerging linguistic typologists. The handbook provides the reader with a critical, state-of-the-art (p. 5) overview of major areas of linguistic typology. The chapters intend not only to serve as a repository for what linguistic typologists have so far learned about language as well as what they have contributed to linguistics (read: linguistic theory), but also to map out what directions—theoretical, methodological, empirical, or otherwise—linguistic typology will or should take, while identifying some of the challenges that it is likely to confront in the future. Many of the contributors, instead of resting on their own and colleagues' laurels, have raised some important theoretical and/or methodological issues or questions that need to be addressed or dealt with in linguistic typology or, generally, in linguistics. Thus the volume is introspective as well as forward-looking.

3. Who is this handbook for?

It is envisaged that the handbook will benefit linguists, regardless of their theoretical allegiance or philosophical orientation. Anyone interested in linguistic unity and diversity or simply the nature of human language should be able to draw a great deal of insight and data from the handbook. It will also be useful for specialists in individual languages or language families who wish to learn where their languages or language families stand in the grand scheme of things.

The handbook may be used as a textbook in that chapters can be selected in a variety of ways to suit individual lecturers' interests, preferences and needs. In fact, this particular option is strongly recommended to those who run an advanced undergraduate or a postgraduate course in linguistic typology, as all the available textbooks (i.e. Comrie 1989, Whaley 1997, Song 2001a, Croft 2003a) need to be supplemented by substantial amounts of additional reading. Furthermore, individual chapters can be chosen for other courses, such as historical linguistics, child language acquisition, second language acquisition, language documentation, and field linguistics.

4. How is the handbook structured?

The handbook comprises four parts: (I) Foundations: History, Theory, and Method; (II) Theoretical Dimensions of Linguistic Typology; (III) Empirical Dimensions of Linguistic Typology; and (IV) Linguistic Typology in a Wider Context. Part I serves as the historical, theoretical, and methodological backbone for the (p. 6) rest of the volume. This part is to be read with a view to understanding where linguistic typology came from and how it came into existence. Also discussed therein are some fundamental theoretical and methodological issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, linguistic typology as it is known today. Part II deals, in great depth and detail, with various theoretical dimensions of linguistic typology, some of which are alluded to in Part I. The chapters in Part II also discuss some of the major theoretical contributions made by linguistic typologists that extend beyond linguistic typology and to other theoretical approaches (e.g. Optimality Theory). Part III showcases typological research on various grammatical areas and topics, ranging from phonology to semantics, and from person marking to voice. The final part of the handbook situates linguistic typology in the context of other major pursuits in linguistics, ranging from historical linguistics to second language acquisition. The chapters in Part IV survey and explore the application of linguistic typology to other areas of linguistics, or the interface between linguistic typology and other sub-disciplines of linguistics.

5. Envoi

Given the size of the volume, it proved impractical to cover all the vast field of linguistic typology. There are a number of topics or areas that I would very much have liked to include in the volume. For example, given the role of historical and socio-cultural factors in the distribution of typological properties in the world's languages, something that addresses the interface between linguistic typology and sociolinguistics (e.g. Trudgillian sociolinguistic typology, which explores the relationship between typological structure and social structure) would have made a great chapter in a volume like the present one. Quantitative analysis and interpretation of linguistic diversity or preferences would also have added an important theoretical dimension to the handbook. The shopping list went on, but alas, one had to stop somewhere. For these and other omissions, however, I offer sincere apologies to the reader.

Now, without further ado …