Historical Linguistics

The importance accorded to historical linguistics has diminished considerably during the 20th century. In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, historical linguistics was considered by many - or even most - linguists as the most important branch of linguistics, what linguistics was really about. It is no doubt a good thing that other aspects of linguistic sciences have been able to flourish since then, but in my view the historical aspects of language are important, and linguists would, on the whole, benefit from a better understanding of the historical processes that languages are constantly subject to, and that have shaped the languages as we are able to study them today.

One of the most significant results in the history of linguistic sciences was the establishing and perfection of the comparative method in historical linguistics (see below) and, in the process, the establishing of the genetic relationship of the members of the Indo-European language family and of many other language families. The reference work Ethnologue: Languages of the World has a list of language families with further links; for instance, there is a link to a list of Indo-European languages spoken today, and some extinct ones.

Historical linguistics can be divided into several sub-disciplines:

etymology - the study of the origins and historical development of words

dialectology - the study of dialects (varieties of a language that are characteristic of particular groups, determined by geographical, social, religious and other factors); in the context of historical linguistics, how dialects develop over time

phonology - the study of the sound systems of a language or group of languages; in the context of historical linguistics, how sound systems change over time

morphology - the study of the formal means of expression in a language; in the context of historical linguistics, how the formal means of expression change over time; for instance, languages with complex inflectional systems tend to be subject to a simplification process

syntax - in the context of historical linguistics, how characteristics of sentence structure change over time

The phonological, morphological and syntactic (and other) aspects of language change are not separate processes but are closely interlinked. For instance, as a result of simplifications in the sound system it may be necessary to restructure the inflectional system; this in turn may affect the syntactic structure. Influences in the opposite direction can also occur, although they are probably less frequent.

The comparative method in historical linguistics
This was largely developed during the nineteenth century. The essence of the method consists in observing systematic correspondences of sounds (or, in the case of extinct languages, the graphemic representations of sounds, usually letters of some alphabet) between significant numbers of words with related meaning in two or more different languages. When such correspondences occur in sufficient numbers, they cannot be due to chance and must mean that the differences in phonological shape must be the result of different phonetic developments from the same or similar word forms, i.e. the two languages must have developed from one and the same language. With this method it has been possible to establish the 'genetic' relationships between hundreds of languages belonging to the same language family, for instance the Indo-European language family. Similarly, the genetic relationships between the members of other large language families like the Semitic, Finno-Ugric and Bantu have been established with a great degree of certainty.


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          Last updated October 27, 2006.

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