In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Typology

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Book Series
  • Typological Databases
  • Journals
  • Origins
  • Syntactic Typology
  • Morphological Typology
  • Phonological Typology
  • Semantic Typology
  • Cross-Linguistic Categories
  • Sampling
  • Language Contact and Areal Linguistics
  • Diachronic Linguistics
  • Processing and Language Evolution
  • Functional Linguistics
  • Generative Linguistics
  • Alternative Schools

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Linguistics Typology
Robert Henderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0041


Typology is used to cover two related types of investigations: (1) classifying languages based on shared grammatical properties that are not attributable to genealogical inheritance, and (2) identifying patterns in the distribution of grammatical properties across languages. Georg von der Gabelentz was the first to use the word “typology” to describe a discipline in this first sense, though typological thinking goes back hundreds of years before. Typology in the second sense, which is what dominates the modern typological literature, grows out of work by Joseph H. Greenberg on word order correlations (or universals). For example, Greenberg’s fourth universal says that “With overwhelmingly greater than chance frequency, languages with normal SOV order are postpositional.” Universals of this type are important because they allow for classifications of languages (in this case, prototypical SOV languages have postpositions), but they are facts about human languages that need explanation. For this reason typology has played an important part in linguistic theory, which aims to explain the range of possible human languages and why human languages are the way they are. Given its theoretical importance and the fact that almost any aspect of human language can be studied typologically, typology is a broad discipline that is of importance to every subfield of linguistics.

Reference Works

All broad linguistic encyclopedias include entries on typology as well as typological studies of individual languages and language families. The best of these are Brown 2006 and Frawley 2003, which are lengthy and comprehensive. In addition, there are a few encyclopedias and handbooks dedicated to typology. Haspelmath, et al. 2001 is the most exhaustive reference work in typology. Greenberg, et al. 1978 is a four-volume collection, with three volumes focusing on empirical domains of typology: syntax, phonology, and morphology. The first volume is dedicated to historical and methodological concerns. Although it is not exactly a reference work, because it contains original research, the coverage is encyclopedic and represents a large swath of early modern typological research. Song 2011 is a series of critical overviews. It treats the empirical results of typological study, while also covering the history of typology and issues in typological theory, as well as the connection between typology and related disciplines.

  • Brown, Keith, ed. 2006. Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Boston: Elsevier.

    A huge fourteen-volume reference work. It contains a section of short articles devoted to typology and universals, as well as typological descriptions of languages and language areas.

  • Frawley, William J., ed. 2003. International encyclopedia of linguistics. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Contains thorough introductions to typology and issues relevant to typology.

  • Greenberg, Joseph H., Charles Ferguson, and Edith A. Moravcsik, eds. 1978. Universals of human language. 4 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This four-volume set is the result of the Stanford Language Universals Research Project. Though older than the other works in this section, this book is still relevant and covers syntactic, morphological, and phonological typology, as well as the history of typology and typological methodology.

  • Haspelmath, Martin, Ekkehard König, Wulf Oesterreicher, and Wolfgang Raible, eds. 2001. Language typology and language universals: An international handbook. 2 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110171549.2

    This two-volume set is huge, containing more than a hundred articles on both empirical and theoretical aspects of typology. It is a great first stop when starting a research project on any linguistic phenomena. It also has an extensive bibliography.

  • Song, Jae Jung, ed. 2011. The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The most recent overview of typology as a field, this work has less on empirical results in linguistic typology and more on its historical, methodological, and theoretical underpinnings. It also has a section on the relationship between typology and other areas of linguistic investigation.

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