San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Typology of Language Grammars

Mark C. Baker has written a fascinating account of the relationships that exist among the grammars of the languages of the world. In particular, he focuses on the extremely limited range of variations among those grammars. His book is entitled, The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar. For a general reader interested in linguistics reading Baker's book is a real Aha! experience. He explains the structural elements that make some foreign languages seem so mind-boggling complex and yet children in those language communities learn those language effortlessly.

The surprising thing is that there is quite limited variations in grammatical structures. For example, Russell Tomlin investigate the basic word order of a sample of 402 languages and found the vast majority fall in two categories as the table below shows.

Word Order Distribution of Languages
Basic Word OrderProportion of
Subject-[Verb-Object]42%English, Indonesian
Subject-[Object-Verb]45%Japanese, Turkish
Verb-Subject-Object9%Welsh, Zapotec
Source: Baker, p. 128.

Baker starts the search for the structure of the world languages by noting that in English one says, "It is raining" whereas in Spanish and Italian the same information is conveyed by the equivalent of "Raining." The "It" in "It is raining" has no referent. It is there because English demands that in this type of sentence there has to be a Subject. French is like English in this respect. Of course, for commands with a second person Subject the Subject can be left out, as in "(You) stop!," but that is a different matter. The important thing is that English and French appear to obey a grammatical rule that does not apply in Spanish and Italian. Baker's explains the quest for the hidden rules that distinguish the grammars of the various languages of the world.

It is not, however, just a matter of there being a set of independent distinctions. The grammars appear to be differentiated on the basis of a hierarchy of rules. This means some distinctions apply to grammars which follow a particular choice for a higher level rule. There is thus a branching classification of grammars.

At this point it is appropriate to note that Baker has a fascination with an analogy between his search for a hierarchical classification of grammars and the periodic table of the chemical elements. The material on the history of the periodic table is not really all that helpful to the reader in getting acquainted with the typology of grammars. It is of some interest in its own right to readers already familiar with chemistry and the periodic table. The better analogy for the hierarchical classification of grammars would be the uncovering the genes that determine some characteristics of human beings such as facial appearance. Of course, it would probably be confusing to readers to mix genetics and linguistics.

The hierarchical classification that Baker feels is the best one for explaining the variation in the grammars of the languages of the world is shown below. To avoid making the presentation too complicated the diagram is presented in two forms. One form, accessed through a hyperlink, gives the structure and the other form gives explanation of the diagram in terms of examples.

There is a slight flaw in the diagram. Under the label Topic Prominent there are two branches. Japanese and Choctaw represents one of the branches and Turkish and Malayam the other branch, but Baker does not tell how these two groups are differentiated.

In the diagram at any point where is there is no further choices to be made there is an asterisk to indicate the language category is not named but can be illustrated by examples. For examples of these language types go here.

The Terminology of the Grammatical Hierarchy


The term polysynthetic is an extention of the linguistic concept of a synthetic language. A synthetic language is one in which grammatical relationships are expressed by modifications of the form of words. Conjugation of verbs and declensions of nouns are examples of such modifications. Greek and Latin (and the Romance languages) are synthetic languages. Polysynthetic languages are ones in which there can multiple, simultaneous modifications of the forms of words to express meanings such as in agglutinative languages. In agglutinative languages such as Turkish compound suffixes are added to the root verb to express meaning. Since the meaning of an utterance is expressed in the prefixes and/or suffices (or perhaps infixes) there is little need to maintain a word order to define meaning. Such languages have a very loose word order.

Head Directionality

Head directionality has to do with the formation of phrases. In English the head precedes the phrase in forming larger phrases. In some other languages the head follows the phrase in the formation of larger phrases, as in the case of Japanese. Baker gives a beautiful example of this for a sentence involving complex relationships in Japanese and English. The English version of the sentence is:

Taro is thinking that Hiro showed a picture of himself to Hanako.

Note the two prepositional phrases in the embedded clause.

In Japanese this sentence is:

Taro-ga Hiro-ga Hanakao-ni zibun-no syasin-o miseta to omette iru.

The suffix -ga is a subject marker and the suffix -o is an object marker. The suffix -no is a possessive marker and -ni represents the preposition to. Thus a more explicit grammatical rendering of the sentence is:

Taro-subject Hiro-subject 'Hanako to' self-possessive picture-object showed that 'thinking is'

Rearranged in English word order this is the sentence, as previously noted,

Taro is thinking that Hiro showed a picture of himself to Hanako.

The embedded clause is 'Hiro showed a picture of himself to Hanako' is introduced by the complementizer conjunction that. In the Japanese version the clause precedes the verb and what's more the auxiliary is follows the verb rather than preceding it as in English.

The Japanese version of the sentence indicates that the term preposition is inappropriate because in Japanese these elements are postpositional. Baker uses pre/postpositional to denote this linguistic category but an entirely different term would be appropriate.

In the embedded clause in Japanese the direct object picture precedes its verb showed rather than following it as in English. Also the pre/postpositional phrase to Hanako precedes the verb showed to which it is related. The pre/postpositional phrase of himself is related to picture but precedes it in the Japanese version.

The directionality or precedence relations of grammatical elements and their related phrases is the opposite in Japanese of what it is in English.

The relationship of Japanese to English is not quite as simple as the previous example suggests. Baker gives another similarly complex statement:

The child might think that she will show Mary's picture of John to Chris.

A possible transition to Japanese word order would be:

child-subject she-subject 'Chris to' 'John of' picture-object Mary-possessive show that thinking might

kodomo-ga 'she'-ga Chris-ni John-no syasin-o Mary-no misetta-to omette kamoshirenai

However my friend Mikiko Tomibe tells me a Japanese speaker would express the statement as follows:

Kodomo-ga Mary-no John-no shasin-o Chris-ni miseru-to omou kamoshirenai.

Baker's spelling of the Japanese word for picture, syasin, is different from the current standard spelling, shasin. One notable feature is the need for the pronoun she disappears. As noted previously, the relationship is not as simple as the other sentence suggests, but Baker's explanation gives important and useful insights into the structure of Japanese as compared with the structure of English. I am reminded of an acquaintance who majored in Japanese in college who told me that he was at times so overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of Japanese that often he would feel anger toward the Japanese people for creating such a incomprehensible language. This was a problem for him because he was married to a Japanese-American woman. After reading Baker's book I no longer feel that learning Japanese would be such an impossible task.

Adjective Neutralize

In non-polysynthetic languages; i.e., ones that have configurational word order; the function of adjectives is in the formation of larger phrases. For polysynthetic languages there is much less dependence upon phrase structure so there is less of a need for the grammatic category of adjective. In some synthetic languages an adjective is treated much like a noun. For example, Latin requires an adjective to agree with the noun it modifies in gender and number. Other synthetic languages treat adjectives more like verbs. Mohawk is one such language. So the polysynthetic languages can be classified according to whether adjectives are treated more like nouns or more like verbs.

Subject Side

This category has to do with whether the subject is added at the beginning of a phrase or at the end of a phrase. Most languages have the subject added at the beginning of a phrase, but there is a small proportion which add the subject at the end of a phrase. When the ending subject side option is taken for a head-first language the resulting word order is verb-object-subject, a rare word-order form. If the ending subject side option is taken with a head-last language the resulting word order is object-verb-subject, an even rarer word-order language type.

Ergative Case

The ergative case is hard to understand because it refers to something not found in English. Generally it has to do with a language having a special indication that the subject in a sentence which has a transitive verb and direct object. If the subject is the agent of the action involved for the transitive verb then then there is special marker attached to the noun which is the subject. This puts the noun into the ergative case. For sentences with intransitive verbs the subject is treated grammatically the same as direct objects are treated in sentences with transitive verbs.

Few languages have the ergative case feature. The most notable are Basque, Sumerian and Greenlandic.

English is not an ergative language and furthermore it does not distinguish between the use of a noun for a subject and for an object. However, personal pronouns in English are generally so distinguished. We say, He kissed her and She kissed him. In English we say He puckered up, but if English were an ergative language we would say Him puckered up. There is a certain logic to this construction in that the phrase Puckered him up, sounds right although unusual. (Somewhat like Star Wars' Yoda's syntax.)

Topic Prominent

A language may have sentences which emphasize the subject. English is such a subject-prominent language. But sentences, even in English, may be of the topic-comment form; e.g., Television: a waste of time. Some languages such as Japanese may have sentences in which there are both a subject and a topic. A topic-prominent language is one in which the topic of sentences is given special emphasis such as through having a special marker.

Verb Attraction

The tense of a verb is indicated by a tense-auxiliary. In some languages, such as English, the tense-auxiliary is located in a sentence where the verb is located. In other languages, such as Welsh, the verb moves to the location of the tense-auxiliary.

Subject Placement

In some languages the subject of a clause is merged with the auxiliary phrase. English is such a language. In other languages the subject of a clause is merged with the verb phrase. Welsh is one of those languages.

Serial Verbs

In English a verb phrase can contain only one verb. In other languages, such as Thai, a verb phrase may contain more than one verb.

Null Subject

In English one says "It is raining" whereas in Italian one can say the same thing with just "Rain." Thus Italian is a language which permits a null subject. English does not.

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins