Language types and language typology refer to characterizing languages of the world by similarities and differences in their structural forms and in their functional uses. They also refer to characterizing them according to language families where there is evidence that the languages have common structural relationships that are consistent with some “parent” language (i.e., genetic classification). These two kinds of language typologies do not usually involve, to any great extent, focusing on social context or cultural variations of language use and language change that are typically studied by sociolinguists and anthropological linguists. Yet having knowledge of the characteristics and varieties of language (or languages) used in a society helps to inform the work of both groups of researchers as well as others that fall under the umbrella of applied linguistics.
Most of the work on language typology involves differentiating spoken languages, but there is a considerable focus on characterizing writing and signed languages as well. With William Stokoe’s efforts during the mid-20th century to secure recognition for American Sign Language (ASL) as a true language, typology of sign languages around the world has been a particularly vigorous pursuit.
Types of written language are a special case because, unlike spoken language and signed language that are directly interactive, much writing is generated without actual “in time” interactions and is, as David Crystal pointed out, space-bound and static. Societies that speak different languages may use the same writing system. For example, Cyrillic script is used by several Slavic languages and some non-Slavic languages.
Identifying Types of Language
Although human languages are grouped as spoken or signed, there is a wide range of characteristics in the world’s languages that make the task of sub classifying them into types within these categories quite difficult. Given that there are estimates of between 3,000 and 10,000 spoken languages, the development of language varieties and the change that can occur in languages over time add to the dilemma of approximating typologies. The same is true for signed languages in the world. Among the many systems that linguists have used to try to manage complex combinations of linguistic variables, there is a basic focus on how languages differ in their structures and in their formal use.
Crystal provided a detailed explanation regarding spoken language typology and distinguished between two major approaches to the task: differentiation and the search for language universals. The latter construct is especially associated with Noam Chomsky, who has explored language characteristics that could generate a set of rules universal to all languages. Rather than looking at the ways in which languages are different, Chomsky has been more concerned about those things that are in common in a generative grammar that helps to understand the human mind.
The second approach to language typology is differentiation, and it is this approach that is applied not only to characterize language structures but also to indicate how languages are the expressions of societies and cultures. In other words, by differentiating languages, we can locate patterns of linguistic and societal development and we can formulate theories about societies living in specific geographical areas. Language and culture may be artificially separated for study, but they are actually inseparable for understanding the ways in which people create communities and live in them. Crystal cautioned, however, that there is no evidence that “languages of a particular type are inevitably associated with particular geographic areas or with people of a particular ethnic or cultural group.”
Structures for Typology of Language
One way of designating language structures for differentiating languages consists of three divisions: grammar, semantics, and phonology. The category of grammar includes words (morphology and word classes), phrases, and sentences. Anatole Lyovin described another set of possible options in six categories of typology: phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexicosemantic, holistic, and sociolinguistic. These categories are derived from theories proposed to provide an adequate classification of the world’s languages. All categories but the sociolinguistic category deal primarily with the implications of language universals. In the case of sociolinguistics, several frameworks have been proposed that really strive to differentiate languages where there is considerable variability in language use rather than looking at universals.
Kinds of Grammar Typology
A grammar can be viewed, in a very basic sense, as a framework for describing the ways in which the components of a language (words, phrases, sentences) are positioned and operate so as to achieve meaning. Crystal distinguished among six different types of grammar that address distinct purposes: descriptive, pedagogical, prescriptive, reference, theoretical, and traditional. For example, he described a prescriptive grammar as one that focuses on socially correct uses of language such as that of Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
Noam Chomsky drew attention to issues of grammatical complexity that are not understood merely by thinking of grammatical representations as maps or guides to identify the appropriate forms of a language.
He distinguished between the surface structure of a sentence and its deep structure. One classic English sentence pair that he used in a demonstration of these two structures is I “I persuaded John to leave” in contrast to “I expected John to leave.” In this case, both sentences have the same surface structure but different deep structures. Noting distinctions such as this informs linguists in the discovery of rules to designate a set of language universals across languages.
Syntactic Typology and Grammar
Grammatical frameworks characterize the forms and kinds of words that exist in a language and the ways in which they are used and ordered in other structures of language, particularly in the sentence, which is a main form that dominates language typology. For example, languages such as English have a common pattern of subject-verb-object (SVO) in the ordering of words in sentences, although there are other ways permitted for ordering words into sentences, and English has particular word orders for phrases, as in positioning color words, (for example, big yellow ball). Other languages in the world follow one of five other identified word patterns, and sometimes they permit more than one pattern as part of common language ordering. It is estimated that more than 75% of the world’s languages follow the SVO pattern.
Some languages are typified as agglutinating, whereas others are typified as inflecting, synthetic, or fusional. The grammars of these kinds of languages are characterized by the ways in which sentences and words occur as strings in which there might be markers for tense, gender, person, number, voice, and/or mood. For example, amant in Latin is translated as the third-person plural present tense for the word amo, meaning “to love” (i.e., “they love”). Words in Turkish, an agglutinating language, contain a root or stem and markers that account for characteristics such as plurals and possessive pronouns. The words also follow vowel harmony rules so that certain forms of pro-nouns, for example, may be spelled differently to be attached to the stem word and plural marker as in the following: my banana = muzum (muz + um), but my bananas = muzlarim (muz + ar + im).
Lexicosemantics and Semantics
A second characteristic that is applied to differentiate languages is semantics or the meaning of utterances in languages. How words are used to specify particular meanings, and the availability or lack of availability of words in various languages, is part of the study of lexicosemantics. For example, studies regarding color words in languages where societies live in distinctively different geographic areas (for example, island societies and the color blue, Arabic nations and words for camel) might have consequences for the linguists to create accurate schemata to classify language types by understanding word use, semantic interpretation, and the availability of words.
Characterizing languages by their semantics has to do with the manner in which meaning is expressed. There are considerable data involving the study of words and their interpretations within grammars, even though a preferred approach for typology is to work on syntax. Languages can be differentiated semantically according to the ways in which words are used, the prosody that is used, and how the grammar is constructed as well as pragmatically. A statement in English such as “Let him have it” can be interpreted differently depending on the emphasis or the lack of emphasis (i.e., prosody) on the word him. An ambiguous sentence such as “Bill told John that he loved Mary” will be interpreted according to a grammatical principle in English that designates the function of the subject noun in each clause to be approached as an equivalent (i.e., parallel function). Sentences such as “Mary put the rug next to the chair and sat on it” will take on a preferred interpretation according to the “usual” way in which things work in the world (i.e., pragmatics).
Crystal pointed out that there is an uncertain boundary between syntax and semantics that poses a special problem in linguistics; thus, differentiating among language types more accurately can often be enhanced by studying the sociolinguistic or ethnographic dimensions of language use in particular contexts. This is something that was recognized by the anthropologist Dell Hymes, who proposed an ethnography of speaking as a construct for understanding societies and communities of speakers. Two types of language that would necessitate study in this way are pidgins and Creoles. These languages were formed through conditions requiring communication between groups of people who had very different languages, mostly for trade purposes (for example, French traders and the natives of New Caledonia in the Southwest Pacific).
An interesting category for language typology is that of phonological classification. Applying rules for speech sounds that can occur in human languages provides a special perspective on the differentiation among spoken languages. Chinese, for example, is a set of languages that are described as tonal. In Mainland China, there are hundreds of languages and dialects that are classified as “Chinese,” and all of these share tonal characteristics. Some of the languages in Chinese have simple tonal patterns, and others are more complex. Every syllable has a tone that distinguishes the meanings of words, and these tones are affected by the chains of syllables in speech. Tonal variation is the main characteristic that differentiates among the dialects (languages) in spoken Chinese. It is a common writing system that helps the members of a great number of Chinese-language communities to understand one another.
Typology of Sign Languages
Much of the typology of sign languages has been derived from the structural characterization of ASL. Designations of grammar, semantics, and phonology have been applied and interpreted through formal linguistic analysis, and subsequently the classifications in ASL have been used to compare and type other sign languages in the world. This study has been a relatively new endeavor, beginning for the most part during the latter half of the 20th century.
Researchers approached the field through processes of differentiation as well as by looking for language universals. Because sign languages were not given equal status with spoken languages for a considerable part of history, it was important that the characterization of ASL account not only for the formal structures but also for language use and sociolinguistics. Anthropological linguists, such as James Woodward and William Washabaugh, explored relationships between ASL and other sign languages used by deaf persons in countries besides the United States. Their work, along with that of ethnographers such as Gerner di Garcia, has drawn attention to the sociolinguistic dimensions of language typology as seen through communities whose members use sign language.
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