Language Typology

The fact that languages differ from one another in the most diverse ways is a truism that we become immediately aware of when communication beyond our own culture and linguistic world is no longer guaranteed. On the one hand, modern linguistics is interested precisely in this diversity by trying to capture it with suitable categories, but on the other hand it is much more interested in the question of what ultimately holds this diversity together.

To this end, language typology attempts to find out how individual languages structurally express certain concepts (e.g. property relations, as in Dt. the mother's house) by systematically analysing larger statistically balanced samples of between 30 and 1,000 languages. Such investigations, initiated by Greenberg (1966), revealed a whole series of structural patterns of universal or near-universal validity.

Language typology sees the reasons for such patterns in the cognitive structure of the human brain and in the way our brain produces or decodes linguistic utterance sequences (parsing, discourse structures).

While generative linguistics according to Chomsky regards every language as a possible manifestation of an innate module in the brain that very specifically regulates the syntactic structure of languages, language typology considers the assumption of such a specific language module unnecessary - the general cognitive properties of the brain suffice.

Although both directions have produced extensive results in the course of the last 40 years or so, the question ultimately remains open as to what degree robust generalisations are possible at all (cf. for example Newmeyer 2005, Moravcsik 2006).

A major problem in assessing linguistic structural features is the question of whether their existence and worldwide spread are due to linguistic-cognitive factors, or whether they were triggered by other factors (Bisang 2004, 2006). The following, deliberately drastically exaggerated scenario on the Amazon languages of Brazil with their grammatical word order of object-verb-subject (OVS), which is extremely rare worldwide, is intended to explain this:
To take a somewhat clichéd example, suppose that a nuclear war wiped out most of humankind and its written history, but spared the Amazonia region of Brazil. Some centuries later, a carefully constructed sample of the world's languages would in all probability show those with OVS order to be relatively common. (Newmeyer 1998: 307).

As a rule, it is not natural disasters of this kind that are responsible for the spread of linguistic structures, but contact situations between speakers of different languages. Not only cognitive factors and possibly the innate language module play a role, but also social factors such as the prestige of a language among the speakers involved and political power and dominance relationships.

The greater the significance of social factors for the spread of linguistic structures, the less likely it is to be possible to draw direct conclusions from the observation and analysis of current linguistic structures about the deeper cognitive foundations of the language, since certain cognitively quite favourable structures or structures permitted by the language module could be displaced by these social factors and consequently not occupied or only very rarely occupied. How large social factors ultimately are is difficult to estimate at present (attempts to do so can be found, for example, in Maslova 2000).

What is certain is that social factors and ultimately historical contexts surrounding the distribution of languages and their speakers in the context of migration and political power relations are more significant than previously assumed. A first well-founded impression of this is provided by the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS, Haspelmath et al. 2005), which for the first time cartographically records a total of 142 linguistic features and their global distribution in an average of about 400 languages.


Integrated into this research and teaching area are the Japan Studies, which are open to students of all faculties, i.e. to all students who are enrolled at the Johannes Gutenberg University, as well as to all those interested in Japan Studies who are NOT enrolled at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. The latter have the possibility to enrol as guest auditors in order to participate in the courses.