, the classification
s not by their genetic or historical relationship
s but by the way they are structure
d. This study has revealed a number of universal
s or at least significant correlation
s, which may indicate how the human brain
ally constructed to produce and understand language; as in the theories of Noam Chomsky
A primary consideration of modern typology is the order of constituents in a sentence. Does the verb come at the beginning (as in Welsh, Arabic), in the middle (English, French), or at the end (Japanese, Turkish, Persian)? The verb-initial and verb-final types have the strongest correlations with other features of the sentence. Verb-medial languages like English may share characteristics of either extreme type. For example, questions are formed with a particle a before the verb in Welsh, but with a particle ka after the verb in Japanese.
Perhaps more striking, because less obviously related, verb position is strongly related to whether a language uses prepositions or postpositions. In Welsh they use prepositions: yng Nghaerdydd 'in Cardiff'; but in Japanese they use postpositions: Tookyoo ni 'in Tokyo'.
Adjectives follow nouns in Welsh and Arabic. Adjectives precede nouns in Turkish and Japanese.
A transitive sentence is one that has both a subject (S) and an object (O). In theory the normal order could be either SO or OS. In practice, it is always SO.
Combining this with verb position gives three possible orders: VSO, SVO, and SOV. To say a language is one of these says a significant amount about it.
No universal has ever been found that is truly universal: a minority of languages go against the pattern, but in some cases it is an extremely small minority. You have to go to ones like the Amazonian language Hixkaryana to find an OS order. (This is the neutral order: many languages can use OS for emphasis or variation.) Much of this study of typology and universals was first done by Joseph Greenberg in the 1960s.
Another criterion for classifying languages is how they mark their subject and object, apart from word-order. There are two main systems, very widely used, and three minor ones
Accusative marking is by far the most familiar to European speakers, and is also used in Chinese and Japanese. Structurally, intransitive and transitive sentences pattern like this:
the child-NOM sleeps
the child-NOM hits the cat-ACC
Ergative marking is also quite common. The pattern of marking is:
the child-ABS sleeps
the child-ERG hits the cat-ABS
Active marking occurs in some North Caucasian languages, for example. Here the intransitive subject is marked depending on how active it is:
the child-ACT hits the cat-INACT
the child-ACT falls (deliberately)
the child-INACT falls (accidentally)
Direct marking occurs in some North American languages. It uses an animacy hierarchy. It is assumed children eat fruit, not vice versa, and children hit cats, not vice versa, and I see someone else, not vice versa. If the opposite relationship between participants occurs, it must be specially marked:
the child sees the cat
the cat-INDIR sees the child
Philippine-style marking chooses one of several participants as the topic, and marks the verb to show which one it is. For example, 'the mother gives the rice to the baby in the cradle' could be any one of these four:
gives-SUBJTOPIC mother-TOPIC rice-OBJ baby-RECIP cradle-LOC
gives-OBJTOPIC mother-SUBJ rice-TOPIC baby-RECIP cradle-LOC
gives-RECIPTOPIC mother-SUBJ rice-OBJ baby-TOPIC cradle-LOC
gives-LOCTOPIC mother-SUBJ rice-OBJ baby-RECIP cradle-TOPIC
Formerly other criteria were used in typology, developed in the nineteenth century. Languages were called isolating
if each piece of meaning was a separate word, as in Chinese
. They were called analytic
if words were grammatically inflected but you could analyse what each bit meant, as in Hungarian
. They were called amalgamating
if long strings of inflections could be analytic
ally put together, as in Turkish. Holophrastic
was an extreme form where entire sentences could consist of a single inflected word, as in Inuktitut
. And Latin
was an example of a synthetic
language, where the different elements of meaning were fused and could no longer be separated, as in dominorum
'of the masters' where -orum
simultaneously conveys masculine, plural, and genitive
. These terms are still used, but are no longer the primary focus of interest.
It was sometimes believed human languages followed a progression from the simplest isolating type to increasing levels of complexity, ending up of course at Latin. This idea was dealt rather a serious blow when Karlgren reconstructed ancient Chinese and discovered that four thousand years ago it had inflected pronouns: 'I/me', 'he/him'. (This detail has since been disputed, but the dethronement is not in doubt.)