In This Article Contrastive Analysis in Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • Informal Beginnings of Contrastive Linguistics
  • Comparative Stylistics
  • Contrastive Linguistics in the United States (1945 to c. 1970)
  • Contrastive Linguistics in Europe (1970 to c. 1990)
  • Contrastive Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis
  • Prospects for the Future
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Corpora and Digital Resources

Linguistics Contrastive Analysis in Linguistics
Christian Mair
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0214


In its core sense, contrastive linguistics can be defined as the theoretically grounded, systematic and synchronic comparison of usually two languages, or at most no more than a small number of languages. In the early stages of the development of the field, comparisons were usually carried out with a view to applying the findings for the benefit of the community, for example in foreign-language teaching or in translation. In recent years, this applied orientation has persisted, but it has been complemented by a growing body of contrastive research with a more theoretical orientation. The languages compared can be genetically related or unrelated, as well as typologically similar or dissimilar. Some comparisons, in particular those with a more theoretical orientation, are symmetrical in the sense that they cover the specifics of one language viewed against another in a balanced way. Applied contrastive comparisons of languages, on the other hand, are often asymmetrical or “directed.” This is typically the case in pedagogically oriented contrastive research, where the focus is on differences in L2, which are seen as potential sources of difficulty in foreign-language learning. Contrastive linguistics emerged as a major subfield of applied linguistics in the 1940s and consolidated quickly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When it became clear that contrastive linguistics was not going to provide the foundation for a comprehensive theory of foreign-language learning, the field started showing signs of strain. Over time, however, it has avoided disintegration and managed to reposition itself successfully—not as a clearly demarcated subfield, but rather as an approach that has continued to prove its usefulness to a wide range of applied- and theoretical-linguistic domains, such as second-language acquisition (SLA) research, translation studies and translation theory, lexicography, the study of cross-cultural communication, and even cultural studies. Progress in contrastive linguistics has manifested itself on the conceptual level, for example through the constant refinement of notions such as L1 transfer and interference, or through fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue with language typology, but also in contrastivists’ active contribution to the construction of digital research tools such as learner corpora and translation corpora. The following annotated bibliography charts the development of the field on the basis of publications that stand out either because they have become classic points of reference for other work or because they have raised important theoretical and methodological points. Studies of specific phenomena in individual language pairs are mentioned for illustrative purposes. No comprehensive coverage of such largely descriptive work is attempted, however.

Informal Beginnings of Contrastive Linguistics

The practical usefulness of a contrastive approach to the teaching of foreign languages was obvious to instructors centuries before contrastive linguistics established itself as a distinct subdiscipline within academic linguistics. For example, Lewis 1671 contains the following informal statement of the contrastive hypothesis: “The most facil way of introducing any in a Tongue unknown, is to shew what Grammar it hath beyond, or short of his Mother-Tongue; following that Maxime, to proceed a noto ad ignotum, making what we know, a step to what we are to learn.” A more or less explicit contrastive approach also informs many publications emanating from the language-teaching reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which polemicized against the use of the grammar-and-translation method for the teaching of the modern languages. Works such as Viëtor 1894, with its three-way comparison of the phonetics of German, French, and English, or Sommer 1921, with its grammatical comparison of German with the four foreign languages commonly taught in German schools at the time (English, French, Latin, Greek), still contain insights that are of interest beyond their merely historical value. Published more than seventy years after Sommer’s work, Glinz 1994 offers a much expanded contrastive grammar of the same four languages. Work of the Prague school on linguistic characterology, such as Mathesius 1964, clearly foreshadows later work on theoretically and typologically informed contrastive linguistics. Works such as Levý 1957, Levý 1969, Levý 2011, and Wandruszka 1969 are representative of a copious literature on translation criticism that contains numerous contrastive-linguistic observations.

  • Glinz, Hans. 1994. Grammatiken im Vergleich: Deutsch – Französisch – Englisch – Latein, Formen –Bedeutungen – Verstehen. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer.

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    This monumental contrastive grammar of the four languages presents a summary of the author’s lifelong work on semantically and pragmatically motivated syntax. It contains a wealth of fascinating descriptive insights, but stands somewhat apart from the contemporary mainstream of contrastive linguistics and language typology in its terminology and conceptual structure.

  • Levý, Jiří. 1957. České theorie překladu. Prague: SNKLHU.

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    Written in Czech, this massive tome, about a thousand pages in length, presents the sum of the work of this experienced translator and early translation theorist.

  • Levý, Jiří. 1969. Die literarische Übersetzung. Bonn, Germany: Athenäum.

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    Selections from Levý’s writings in German translation, with a focus on the translation of literary works. For the present-day reader, the book is worth consulting mainly for its rich illustrative material and experience-based commentary. It is written in a witty and accessible essayistic style.

  • Levý, Jiří. 2011. The art of translation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/btl.97E-mail Citation »

    Selections from Levý’s writings in English translation.

  • Lewis, Mark. 1671. Institutio grammaticae puerilis: Or The rudiments of the Latine and Greek tongues; Fitted to childrens capacities as an introduction to larger grammars. London.

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    Quoted above (from Early English Books Online, original held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC) for its early informal formulation of the contrastive hypothesis, this book also contains the controversial assertion that “Whatever Tongue hath less Grammar than the English, is not intelligible: Whatever hath more, is superfluous,” which has never been seriously followed up on in later contrastive work.

  • Mathesius, Vilém. 1964. On linguistic characterology with illustrations from modern English. In A Prague school reader in linguistics. Edited by Josef Vachek, 59–67. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    This is a reprint of Mathesius’s original 1928 paper, which introduces the type of theoretically driven comparison of languages that came to be known as “linguistic characterology” in the Prague school tradition.

  • Sommer, Ferdinand. 1921. Vergleichende Syntax der Schulsprachen (Deutsch, Englisch, Französisch, Griechisch, Lateinisch) mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Deutschen. Leipzig: Teubner.

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    The book features parallel descriptions of the grammars of German, English, French, (Classical) Greek, and Latin, with numerous contrastive observations.

  • Viëtor, Wilhelm. 1894. Elemente der Phonetik des Deutschen, Englischen und Französischen: Mit Rücksicht auf die Bedürfnisse der Lehrpraxis. 3d ed. Leipzig: O. R. Reisland.

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    Viëtor (b. 1850–d. 1918) wrote this book to draw attention to what he saw as the deplorable neglect of pronunciation and the spoken language in the classroom. The contrastive approach is considered to raise awareness of the causes of learner accents and thus improve teaching. The first edition of this work appeared under a slightly different title in 1884; for an adapted English version, see Laura Soames and Wilhelm Viëtor, Introduction to English, French and German Phonetics, 2d ed. (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1899).

  • Wandruszka, Mario. 1969. Sprachen, vergleichbar und unvergleichlich. Munich: Piper.

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    Translation criticism, focusing mainly on lexical and phraseological contrasts, with examples mostly from English, German, and the Romance languages; erudite and essayistic.

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