How Linguistic Typology Helps Us Understand Languages

How Linguistic Typology Helps Us Understand Languages

Have you ever wondered why some people have the superpower to pick up languages quickly and effortlessly?

The secret lies in grasping linguistic typology.

All languages share some common aspects, such as phonemes and double instances. Understanding how these elements work can help you crack the code quickly no matter what language you’re trying to learn.

Linguistic typology is also the foundation for generating high-quality translation by helping us understand the relationships among languages.

Let’s look at what linguistic typology is, how typological classifications work, and how to apply this knowledge to translation and localization.

What Is Linguistic Typology?

Linguistic typology studies the linguistic characteristics of the world’s languages. It compares linguistic features within and among languages, then provides a description and explanation of their similarities and differences.

Linguistic typology analyzes, compares, and classifies languages based on their shared structural features and forms. It discovers fundamental linguistic structures common across all languages and defines semantic differences among them.

The tasks of general linguistic typology include:

  • Languages classification: This is the construction of a system to categorize natural languages based on their overall similarity.
  • Language construction mechanisms: This is the construction of a system, or a network, based on obvious and latent relationships.

The Sub-disciplines of Linguistic Typology

Linguistic typology contains various sub-disciplines, which describe and explain the common properties and structural diversity of languages. Here are the five common types:

Qualitative Typology

This sub-discipline is a descriptive study of linguistic phenomena and their meaning. It develops cross-linguistically viable concepts or types as a framework for language description and evaluation. The focus on linguistic structure helps us compare various structural aspects, such as word-order or morphological processes, to discover common patterns across languages.

Quantitative Typology

Quantitative typology studies linguistic regularities that underlie linguistic phenomena. They are often analyzed statistically with a focus on the distribution and co-occurrence of structural patterns. It expresses linguistic regularity quantitatively—e.g., using numbers to describe the relationship of markedness or frequency.

Theoretical Typology

This sub-discipline focuses on linguistic phenomena not found in all languages and deciphering the universal properties of linguistic structures. It studies linguistic mechanisms, the intentions of language users, and linguistic universals.

Syntactic Typology

Syntactic typology studies linguistic functions and linguistic constituent structure. It analyzes the interaction between linguistic structures and distinguishes languages based on the preferred word order used in sentence structures.

Lexical Typology

Lexical typology looks at the cross-linguistic and typological aspects of lexicology. It addresses the organization of semantic fields, such as motion verbs, location verbs, and physical qualities. It focuses on linguistic units, linguistic features, and linguistic diversity of vocabulary across languages.

Linguistic Classification and Its Application

Linguistic classification organizes languages based on structural features, patterns, and linguistic units. It offers a systematic way of grouping languages and helps us discover linguistic properties shared by these languages.

Linguistic classification involves collecting data from various sources (fieldwork, literature, language documentation, linguistic atlas, etc.) and analyzing linguistic features in a specific language or group of languages.

Languages are typically classified according to three criteria: Genealogical familiarity, structural familiarity, and geographic distribution. Other factors that inform linguistic classification include language, historical, geographical, and sociopolitical criteria.

Linguistic Classification and Its Application

Basic Linguistic Typology Classifications

These three classifications are created based on the above criteria and observations of the relationships among languages:

  • Genealogical classification: This classification shows the historical connection among languages using historical and linguistic criteria.
  • Typological classification: This method uses formal criteria (e.g., similarities in grammatical structure) to group language types.
  • Areal classification: This approach uses geographic criteria. It covers languages developed in close proximity and demonstrates similar structural characteristics.

The criteria used on linguistic classification often depend on the purpose of the classification. Some other classification methods include morphological (word structure), syntactic (word order), and phonological (sound patterns).

Applying Linguistic Typology to Translation

Linguistic typology helps us understand linguistic similarities, differences, and patterns. It helps facilitate translation by identifying linguistic structures common to all languages, such as linguistic processes observed in syntactic structures.

Linguistic typology helps professional translators understand the meaning and context of a piece of content. It allows them to grasp the nuances of different languages and create high-quality translation and transcreation.

Now you may wonder, is this important in the age of machine translation (MT)?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Machine translation often fails to grasp the context and nuances of the original text. While we can use MT to speed up the translation process, we still need human translation to interpret cultural references and preserve the style and intention of the original text.

As such, any successful localization project requires a team of professional translators to produce high-quality translated content relevant to your target audience.

A language service provider (LSP) gives you access to professional translators for various translation and localization tasks. These include language translation, desktop publishing, digital content creation, website translation, multilingual narration, help system translation, and more.

language service provider

Translation is a critical part of the localization process, and it must be seamlessly integrated into your overall workflow, whether you’re using in-house resources or an LSP.

OneSky is an all-in-one localization management platform that helps you automate workflows, manage team communications, create a centralized localization assets repository, and leverage computer-aided translation (CAT) tools to facilitate your localization projects.

Not to mention, you can access our 1000+ professional translators fluent in 50+ languages to meet all your translation needs. Try OneSky for free and see how our end-to-end localization solution can help.

Jac Wong

COO, OneSky

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