SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics

Descriptive Linguistics

Module Code:
Unit value:
Taught in:
Term 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate…

  1. familiarity with the ideas of descriptive linguistics
  2. familiarity with the techniques and conventions of grammar writing
  3. the understanding of the relationship between language description, linguistic theory and linguistic typology
  4. the understanding of how to apply linguistic tools in the analysis of data from various languages
  5. basic skills in linguistic argumentation
  6. a knowledge of a wide range of core grammatical topics relevant for the description of little studied languages
  7. the ability to write an insightful description of certain aspects of the grammar of a language


This course will be taught over 10 weeks with a 2 hour lecture and a 1 hour tutorial session every week.

Scope and syllabus

This course is aimed at introducing students to the practical and theoretical issues that arise in language description. It will help students to understand the techniques and the data base of contemporary descriptive linguistics.

It will be the only course in the MA Language Documentation and Description dealing with the analytic issues in language description. The current structure of the programme does not include any core courses which concentrate on linguistic analysis, and many students expressed concerns in the past because they felt they lacked training and skills required for describing languages. Descriptive Linguistics will incorporate many topics from Issues in Language Documentation and Descrtiption, which it supecedes, but will present more concrete applications of descriptive tools and techniques.  

The first half of the course will introduce general issues relevant for language description and grammar writing. The second half will present concrete examples of how to use descriptive tools by concentrating on selected topics in phonological, morphological
and syntactic description and analyzing the structure of one or several non-Indo-European languages.

This course is CORE in the field linguistics pathway.

Weekly schedule:

  1. Introduction: explanatory vs. descriptive theories of language; the notion of Basic Linguistic Theory
  2. Grammar writing; types of grammars; structure of reference grammar
  3. Language description and theoretical linguistics: wh-questions, noun incorporation
  4. Language description and linguistic typology: relative clauses
  5. Cognitive universality and linguistic relativity; language and culture
  6. Issues in morphosyntax: Noun phrases; possessive constructions
  7. Issues in morphosyntax: Argument structure; Valence-changing operations
  8. Issues in morphosyntax: Differential marking of core arguments
  9. Issues in morphosyntax: Complement clauses and finiteness
  10. Phonological description

Method of assessment

This course is examined by essay only.  The first essay of 1,500 words to be submitted on the Monday after reading week, in the term in which the course is taught (20%); the second essay of 1,500 words to be submitted on the Friday, final weekof teaching in the term in which the course is taught (20%); the third and final essay of 3,000 words to be submitted on the Monday of the following term after the course is taught (60%).

Suggested reading

  • Ameka, Felix K., Dench, Alan Charles, and Evans, Nicholas  2006. Catching Language: The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bickel, Balthasar. 2000. Grammar and social practice. On the role of 'Culture' in linguistic rlativity. In: S. Niemeer and R. Dirven (ed.s) Evidence for ilnguistic relativity. Amsterdam: Benjamin s. 161-191.
  • Evans, Nick and Stephen Levinson. 2009. The myth of language universals:Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES 32: 429–492
  • Foley, William. 1997. Anthropological linguistics: an Introduction. Oxford: Balckwall. Chs. 5, 10
  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Pre-established categories don't exist: consequences for language description and typology. Linguistic Typology 11.1: 119-132.
  • Payne, Thomas E. 1997. Describing morphosyntax. A guide for field linguists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Payne, Thomas and Weber, David (eds.) 2006. Perspectives on grammar writing. Studies in Language 30, 2.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules