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Linguistic typology shows new research trends

Author  :  SUN MEIJUAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-07-29

Linguistic typology is a discipline in which linguists try to classify all the languages in the world from different angles in order to explore relationships between them. They try to determine the universal features of language structures, internal connections and types of grammatical phenomena, and linguistic universals.

New research trends

Internationally, linguistic typology has reached an important juncture after decades of development, said Wu Fuxiang, director of the Research Center for Historical Linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University. Since the 21st century, the discipline has undergone a major transformation in research paradigms. Scholars have shifted more attention to language diversity from previous language similarity, especially focusing on the geographical distribution patterns and diachronic causes of some important features of linguistic typology in world languages.

Liu Danqing, former director of the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that in recent years, the international linguistic circle has reflected on and theoretically refined linguistic typology concepts, such as linguistic universals and language differences, and put forward such theories as the concept of comparative linguistics and the distinction of descriptive category.

Linguistic typology focuses on absorbing latest research methods, Liu continued. For example, in recent years, semantic mapping, a description tool emerging in the study of linguistic typology, is attempting to use big data and other methods to more accurately and clearly show the differences in functions and forms involved in cross-linguistic research, furthering the study of linguistic universals.

Domestically, the biggest success for linguistic typology is that it has gradually become visible in academia. In Liu’s view, from approving national-level research projects to yielding outcomes, linguistic typology has received mounting attention. More and more scholars in various branches of linguistics have introduced the cross-linguistic perspective of typology, and taken linguistic universals as a basis of argumentation. Linguistic typology has seen theoretical discussions and innovation, such as the founding of linguistic inventory typology and the deepening of language geography typology. In addition, the discipline has made achievements in the foundational construction of typology, such as book series on the reference grammar of ethnic languages and Chinese dialects, book series on the grammar text annotation of ethnic languages, etc.

On the whole, the current research objects of linguistic typology tend to be regionalized, primarily following the fine multi-dimensional parameters and their correlations within the category of each research object. The research method of linguistic typology is inclined to use quantitative algorithms and the visualization of computational results. In particular, with the rise and rapid development of regional typology, scholars have paid close attention to the commonality and individuality of languages in specific regions and special phenomena in individual languages.

Jin Lixin, a professor from the Institute of Linguistics at Shanghai International Studies University, said that many papers published recently in Linguistic Typology, a top international journal of typology, have centered on the content of regional typology. For example, some of them have examined quantifiers in the Thai language and other Southeast Asian languages, the lexicalization of motion events of the Wenzhou dialect, and interrogative verbs in the Abaza language.

Problems ahead

Liu pointed out that linguistics has not yet been established as a first-level discipline, which seriously restricts the overall development of linguistics and greatly affects linguistic typology. In addition, some researchers lack overall interest in human languages. They take the language of the discipline as the highest goal, with little attention to and less involvement in the international discussion on linguistic universals. This not only hinders the development of linguistic typology itself, but also affects the international expression of China’s linguistics.

At present, the biggest problem of linguistic typology in China is that some research outcomes are merely labeled as “linguistic typology,” yet they are not substantive studies. Although linguistic typology must carry out cross-linguistic comparison, cross-linguistic comparison is not necessarily linguistic typology. In Wu’s view, some scholars simply equate cross-linguistic comparison with linguistic typology. They cite one or two examples of other languages to do the study of linguistic typology, ignoring that linguistic typology is a unique research framework, which has a set of sophisticated technical methods and a distinctive knowledge system.

Another difficulty facing linguistic typology is the lack of operational definitions for some instrumental terms, which increases the difficulty for readers and researchers to utilize. The advantages of operational definitions lie in clear boundaries, repeatability, and verifiability, Jin added. However, it is a pity that plenty of literature only uses conceptual definitions instead of operational definitions, which results in unclear denotation of concepts. Different scholars may have completely different concepts for the same term.

Researchers of linguistic typology need to strengthen the awareness of general linguistics, Liu suggested. While investigating languages in China, they should be concerned with the essence and characteristics of human languages and understand the commonalities and differences between languages. Researchers of other linguistic branches should refer to the general background of human linguistic universals and typological differences when working on a particular language, producing more results and enhancing China’s international discourse power of linguistics from every aspect. Meanwhile, it is necessary to consolidate the foundation building of linguistic typology, building large-scale cross-language and cross-dialect comparable corpora, and conducting basic research such as reference grammar and text annotation.

Editor: Yu Hui

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