I got my graduate training in the Cognitive Anthropology Group at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and received my Ph.D. degree in 1997 from the University of Zürich. From 1995 through 1998 I taught part-time in Zürich and worked as a researcher at the University of Mainz (Department of General and Comparative Linguistics). I then spent three years at the University of California, Berkeley (Department of Slavic Languages), on a fellowship sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation. In 2001 I completed my Habilitation at Zürich and was awarded an extracurricular professorship (Förderungsprofessur) by the Swiss National Science Foundation. From 2002 until 2011, I was professor of linguistic typology and variation at the University of Leipzig (Department of Linguistics), and in 2011 I took over the chair of general linguistics at the University of Zürich.
My core interest is the worldwide distribution of linguistic diversity. This involves the development of variables that allow measuring diversity, the formulation of theories explaining the distribution of these variables, and the study of the relationships of linguistic distributions to (biological) genetic diversity as well as to cultural and cognitive diversity. The methods used in this research range from the statistical analysis of typological databases to ethnolinguistic fieldwork and experimental methods.
Current foci of research include the typological profile of Eurasia; the analysis of cross-linguistic variation in the domain of grammatical relations and complex morphology, as well the impact of this variation on discourse patterns, language acquisition, and language processing; and the development of new methods for measuring and testing universal and areal distributions and their historical developments. Recently I have also started collaboration with anthropologists and biologists on the evolution of language, taking a broad comparative approach.
My fieldwork experience began with Bantu and Turkish, but since the early 90s my main focus has been on typological outlier languages in the Himalayas, where I have been engaged in extensive research on the Kiranti people of Eastern Nepal, and also on the neighboring Indo-Aryan languages (Nepali and Maithili). My most recent effort in this area is an interdisciplinary documentation project on Chintang and Puma and I continue research on Chintang within the Chintang Language Research Program.
I am co-director (with Johanna Nichols) of the AUTOTYP research program for typological databasing. Between 2009 and 2015 I wa co-editor (with Ekkehard König) of the journal Studies in Language. I currently serve on the editorial boards of the journals Folia Linguistica, Journal of Linguistic Geography, and Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics and of the book series Typological Studies in Language, Edinburgh Studies in Theoretical Linguistics,Conceptual Foundations of Language Science, and Brill's Studies in South and Southwest Asian Languages.
I am a member of the Advisory Board of the Documentation of Endangered Languages Program (DOBES). From 2012 to 2015 I was a member of the Scientific Avisory Board of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Linguistic, Leipzig and from 2005 to 2010, I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Association for Linguistic Typology; since 2013 I serve on the nominating committee of this association.