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8.8: Typology

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    8.7.1 Typology, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Now that we've talked a little bit about how language change affects every aspect of language, let's go back to that concept of language families and how we know language families come together. More importantly, those aspects of language that seem to exist in more than one family. This is an area called typology; it is loosely connected in some ways, strongly connected in other ways, to historical linguistics. As an historical linguist, you have to know some patterns with respect to human language, especially within a given family, and how we know those patterns to exist is through the study of typology. Let's take a closer look.

    I like starting off with this infographic:


    This is a way to view world languages by number of native speakers. These data were based off of data that was collected in 2015. You read the graphic by following the pieces: the bigger the piece of that circle, the more native speakers that language has. Notice that the biggest number is Chinese, although remember that's Mandarin, at over 1 billion people; what you see here in the numbers is the number of millions, so one almost 1.2 billion as of 2010. It gives you some of the countries where the language is spoken. After Mandarin, of course, the other big players that you see are English, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, and Spanish. When we're talking about these languages, we're not just talking about the actual whole language; we're also talking about major dialects. Notice that, in English, you have a number of dialects that are represented here. The same with Spanish and Portuguese; you got a few Arabic, of course, too.

    When we talk about world languages and we talk about tendencies, this is not just straight observation, for the sake of observation; this is also looking across the world and noticing different patterns. When we talk about these patterns within the language family or in most languages, this is typology. If we're going to talk typology, we have to talk about this person: Joseph Greenberg. He was a long-time professor at Stanford; I’m not just bringing him up because the college I teach at is overlooking Stanford, but because this is a very important individual. Joseph Greenberg started his research in the 1960s, with respect to patterns and really focusing on the number of patterns we can see within a family or within language is a whole. One of his biggest claims to fame, and I think one of the biggest reasons we need to remember him, is that until him, it was just thought that there were maybe two language families with respect to Africa: The North African languages or the Maghrebi group along the northern coast of Africa, and then everything else. He wasn't having it; he was not thrilled with that concept at all. It comes out of colonialism; it does not actually take into account anything with respect to the languages of the African communities. Greenberg basically used a type of comparative analysis, recording all of these terms for numbers 1-10, nuclear family, basic terms for flora and fauna. He threw out anything that was borrowed, especially from an Indo-European language or from Arabic because, clearly, there was some coloring there. He did take note of these borrowings, but not for the main classification. The main classification was on native terms; if a term was borrowed, it was borrowed locally. What he came up with is in this infographic:

    Greenberg's classification of African languages

    This infographic shows there aren't two language families, by any stretch of the imagination. The top third, if you will, of Africa, often called Saharan Africa, you have Arabic as a main player, although there are a number of indigenous languages that are spoken in that in those areas. You also have Afro-Asiatic languages being the main player; we think of Arabic and Hebrew, but we have to include Somali, Amharic, Oromo, the languages of the Cape of Good Hope. We're talking about languages spoken in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, that area of Eastern Africa. There's also the Nilo-Saharan group, which is related to Afro-Asiatic but seems to be its own language family. These are the languages of the Upper Nile, as it were, and interior parts of Eastern Africa; we’re talking Nubian, Massai, and many others. You have Niger-Congo, which is a very dominant group, but it is not the only group there are realistically, potentially two language families. These Khoisan languages, which are also called Bantu languages, are a separate language family. They may be part of Niger-Congo; when he was researching, but even to this day, that is still under contention. Then you have Malagasy, which is an Austronesian or Australio-Pacific language; it's very close to the languages of indigenous Australia, especially the western half of Australia. Down in South Africa, you have Afrikaans, English, and other Indo-European languages, but if we just talk about the native languages, you have, at the very least four sizable language families.

    Even with that the sheer variety of languages, this was what Joseph Greenberg brought to the table: not just creating typology, as we know it, but in analyzing through objective, descriptive processes: describe what you see, not what you want to see. It was his work, specifically with the languages of Africa and the various language families of Africa, that launched a huge movement within linguistics. It helps us to really analyze linguistic isolates. He was one of the very first to pair linguistic genetics to actual biological genetics, as he started teaming up with leading geneticists from around the world. He started doing DNA tests, especially once we started understanding and decoding DNA, and combining the genetic DNA history with the linguistic history. It was an amazing experience to learn from him; I took a couple seminar courses at Stanford from him exactly so I could learn more about this, and it is his work that has continued on through the generations. There is an entire collection of his work at Stanford, and if you are interested at all, I suggest going to check it out. It really encapsulates a big pivotal moment for linguistics, when we start saying that language is not in a vacuum. Rather, language is about the human experience, and unless we start understanding that human experience and how we different cultures and speech communities interact with one another, you never really understand what humanity is about. He's one of those people, and I do take his work very seriously.

    That's Jospeh Greenberg, and what did he in creating typology. One of the main areas with respect to typology is this concept of absolute versus non absolute universals. When we say something is an absolute universal, we say this pattern we're talking about exists in all languages, period and end of story; we have yet to find a human language that does not follow this pattern. A non-absolute universal is that there's a tendency to follow that pattern. As you will probably guess, there's more non-absolute universals than there are universals, and that makes sense; languages have been spoken for who knows how long truthfully, maybe 100,000-200,000 years. They have been spoken not just by homo sapiens sapiens; we're pretty sure that our Neanderthal cousins also had a language and potentially other hominids as well. When we talk about a universal, it's really important to tease that distinction out: an absolute versus a non-absolute universal. Let me show you some examples.

    • Absolutely universals all languages have syllables that have consonants and vowels. That does not mean that all syllables have a vowel; it just means that there's a phonological component in that nucleus that exists in all languages.
    • Every single human language that has been observed or recorded has at least one stop; other options are optional, but at least one stop.
    • When we're talking about lexical elements, there's always some kind of lexical content, and there's always distributional content: think open class and closed class systems.
    • All languages have a concept of a word or a lexicon. It may be phrases and maybe clauses, but these things exist in all human languages.

    Those of universals. When we're talking about tendencies, with respect to universals, these are the patterns that we tend to see:

    • Languages tend to have syllables that have an onset and a nucleus. Codas are frequently optional. In most languages, you have a constraint as to what that coda can be; it is not a universal. It is a tendency, but it's a strong tendency.
    • There's a tendency for languages to have nasals, and it's not just a regular tendency, it is a very strong tendency. There are a few languages that have been recorded over time, and including are still spoken today, that do not have a nasal sound, either as a nasal stop or as a nasal vowel. But it's exceedingly rare.
    • Alveolar stops also seem to be there, whether it's [t] or [d] or some version of it.
    • There seem to be high front vowels, the [i, e, y, ø]. That sound tends to be somewhere in every single language, generally speaking. It is possible to get through life and not have one of those vowels but it doesn't tend to be the case.

    Now there are universals and there are implications, meaning if you have this, you will also have that. As you can figure, there are some absolutes and non-absolutes and there's many more non-absolutes or tendencies than absolutes. Absolute implications include:

    • If a language has a mid vowel, it also will have a high vowel. We see this in every single language. It doesn't mean high front or high back.
    • If you have a voiceless nasal, then you will have a voiced nasal. The voice nasal is the default form and some languages, Myanmar or Burmese comes to mind, you might have a voiceless nasal as well.
    • If you have a dual, then you also have a plural. Indo-European speakers, we tend to think only of singular and plural, but many languages also have a dual, which is an inflection that says that there are two of something, not just one or more.

    Those are the universal implications, the absolute implications; they if you have one, you will have the other. Then you have the non-absolute implications, which again are tendencies; there are languages that exist without them, but not many. Some examples include:

    • With respect to front round vowels—think French and German—there's a number of languages that have [y, ø], then those languages also have both front spread vowels, like [i, e] and back round vowels, like [u, o]. There's a tendency; it’s not always the case, but it frequently is the case.
    • If the language has a nominal affix, it tends to be that it will have a plural. Nominal in this case just means on a noun. If a language is going to have any kind of affixation on nouns, at the very least it will be a plural affix of some kind. Not always, but almost always.
    • Again, if a language has bound morphemes, and it has case, then the case either goes at the beginning, or at the end, not in between the root and the number. That's really interesting; there seems to be an order for how human beings like to put their derivational and inflectional affixation.

    With respect to morphology, we talked about affixation and it's ordered; there are patterns that we see. With respect to syntax, we actually have talked a little bit about how word order seems coincide with certain other patterns: whether you have prepositions or postpositions, with the head first or head last, what kinds of phrases, does a language have agglutinating or fusional or polysynthetic phraseology. In phonology, there are also typological patterns that we can see with respect to the phonemic inventory. In fact, there's a really interesting one that involves tones. What you learned a little bit about in phonology and phonetics, and I want to go into a little bit more, is one of the great contributions that Joseph Greenberg gave to linguistics with respect to typology. He noticed that certain patterns only happen in certain language families. When we talked about tone and pitch and certain other aspects, you only see it in certain language families; contour tones—think the Sino-Tibetan languages or the various languages of Southeast Asia—they all have contour tones. This is the Vietnamese vowel system; notice that you have strong and weak syllables, and you have different tones for different things. This only exists in one part of the world: in East and Southeast Asia. Nowhere else have we observed contour tones in human language. With respect to register, high tone versus low tone, this is something you see in the Niger-Congo languages—most but not all—and that does include some of the Bantu languages. But only in those areas nowhere else in the world.

    As for the reasons why we have these patterns, this is where topology divorces itself from historical linguistics. Typology is all about recognizing patterns; it doesn't normally go into the history of the language or language family, and certainly with the case of contour tones and register we don't really know. We're not really sure why these languages have them, but nowhere in the world who else do we see that. What we do know is that we see these two phenomena only in these regions, and nowhere else.

    We do have the aspect of pitch. I'm giving you Japanese here; Korean and Japanese are related languages and Korean also has this. We really only see this in a couple other languages modernly; there is one language in Papua New Guinea called Una, and it's a Trans-Guinean language, and it seems to have this phenomenon. Ancient Greek seemed to have it, but then died out completely, not long after the Macedonian period—think of Alexander the Great. Here we have Japanese. All syllables are said with the same amount of stress, or you have the first or second syllable being stressed. That term that is spelled in Romanji, which is the Japanese writing system using Latin or Roman characters. The set of sticks that we use to eat are called há-shi so notice, I stress the first syllable ha: há-shi. If I say ha-shí, then that is a ‘bridge. If I say ha-shi, with the same amount of stress on both syllables, a flat pronunciation, that's an ‘edge’. The one I love bringing up is when you go out to your favorite Japanese restaurant, there is a difference between sá-ke and sa-ke. The second one is flat and it's the one you drink; the first one is one of my favorite sushi or sashimi. Even the term for the country itself—Japan and versions of that is an anglicization of Nihon and it's ni-hón; you stress the second syllable. If you stress the first syllable, you're saying ‘two sticks of…’, like ‘two sticks of dynamite’, ‘two sticks of gum’; it's ni-hón. This is a pitch language, and there are a few of these around; Japanese and Korean tend to get the most attention, there are a few others.

    Let's start talking about broader picture with respect to typology. These are your dinner facts, as it were, about language. I love this one: 40% of the human population speaks at least one of these languages natively and they are in order of number of native speakers:

    1. Mandarin
    2. Spanish
    3. English
    4. Hindi
    5. Arabic
    6. Portuguese
    7. Bengali
    8. Russian
    9. Japanese

    Forty percent of the human population speaks one of those languages. It’s not a coincidence that a number of those languages are languages of powers that have colonized a lot of places; Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, English, Arabic, and Portuguese are certainly among those. Why all of those languages in that list? Some of it has to do with where they are globally; the highest concentration of different languages is in the equatorial regions around the world. That's where there is the most diversity of languages, and the most languages spoken overall. You also have a story of human migration; as humans have migrated around the world, they bring their language with them, so when we talk about the number of people who speak one of these languages natively, we're talking about migration. Colonization is part of that, but colonization is a subset of migration as a whole; as human beings move around the world, they bring their language with them.

    In the next section, we'll talk about different language families, and this is to give you a bit of an idea of how these languages interact and how they are unique.

    8.8: Typology is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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