Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies

Call for Papers

Historical Linguistics and Typology: Assessing a Partnership

Austin, Texas; Sept. 12-13, 2015


Historical linguistics and linguistic typology have long had a close relationship. From a functional-typological perspective, diachronic pathways help explain the emergence and distribution of cross-linguistic patterns; from a historical perspective, common processes of change and cross-linguistically attested states are both taken as indicators of more likely reconstructions. In fact, many early typologists argued that typology should be the foundation of reconstruction; Roman Jakobson (1958: 23), for example, believed that typology is a crucial predictive tool, and thus a reconstruction that conflicts with it is "questionable." Indeed, some typologically oriented scholars are of the opinion that, in cases where a reconstruction contradicts a strong cross-linguistic tendency, the reconstruction must be reevaluated or discarded. Many scholars, like Jakobson himself, do not defend the requirement that reconstructions conform to typological results, beyond arguing, as Greenberg does, that "it is a highly suspicious circumstance that a language not directly attested, but only reconstructed by a complex line of reasoning, should not conform to well-attested synchronic typological principles" (1995:146). The idea that a feature can be reconstructed only if it is already attested elsewhere, while never fully discussed in the literature, is repeated even in recent works in the relatively new subfield of diachronic typology (for example, Hendery 2012:245). At the same time, however, some historical linguists reject this idea, suggesting instead that typology can be used as a tool in the reconstruction process, but should not necessarily override the results attained via internal or comparative reconstruction (Compare here the debate within Indo-European linguistics over the glottalic theory.)  Despite some push-back from historical linguists, especially within Indo-European linguistics (Watkins 1964; Dunkel 1981, Stevens 1992, and note also the cautionary remarks of Fox 1995), there is essentially no programmatic debate on this issue today and many historical linguists accept the typological mandate without question; Gamkrelidze, for example, states that "a linguistic reconstruction running counter to language universals cannot, naturally, claim to really reflect a language system that did historically exist" (1997:27). However, typological ‘rara’ can certainly arise (Wohlgemuth and Cysouw 2010), as can unusual diachronic pathways; moreover, our understanding of what constitutes an ‘unusual’ pathway is crucially informed by our reconstructions, creating a risk of circularity.
Given the general lack of overt empirical or theoretical discussion of the relationship between historical linguistics and typology, we invite proposals for 20-minute presentations (plus 10 minutes for questions) on topics dealing with the relationship between these areas of linguistic investigation. Contributions may address issues such as the following:

- What can typology and historical linguistics offer each other, and what risks may derive from their close company?

- Do typology and historical linguistics treat evidence similarly?

- How do both disciplines make sense of rare or unusual phenomena?

- Do newer approaches, such as diachronic typology and grammaticalization, offer insights into the relationship between typology and historical linguistics?

- In light of new emphases on the diversity of human languages, to what extent must we reconsider any reliance on universals as a tool for historical linguistics?


Submitting your paper

Please send abstracts of no longer than 500 words (not including references) to


The University of Texas at Austin organizers:


Hans Boas, Professor
Department Germanic Studies and the Department of Linguistics

Patience Epps, Associate Professor
Department of Linguistics

Danny Law, Associate Professor
Department of Linguistics

Na’ama Pat-El, Associate Professor
Middle Eastern Studies

Marc Pierce, Associate Professor
Department of Germanic Studies

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