I. General and methodological issues

Comparison and relationship of languages

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Language relationship
  • 3. Regularity
  • 4. Features for determining relatedness
  • 5. Horizons for determining relationships
  • 6. The comparative method and family trees
  • 7. Conclusions
  • 8. References


The comparative method is central to historical linguistics. It is the method by which we demonstrate linguistic relatedness and reconstruct proto-languages. The results of the comparative method not only give us information about the types of changes, phonological and otherwise, that the linguistic descendants have undergone, but also a reconstructed vocabulary which can be used to make inferences about the culture and homeland of the proto-language’s speakers. Finally, by studying the patterns of change which we reconstruct using this method, we are able to gain insight into linguistic evolutionary processes, such as how treelike language split has been.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Bopp (1842; Bopp and Windischmann 1816), Rask (1811; Harris and Rask 2000), and others began to elucidate principles such as regularity in sound correspondences, grammatical change, diagnostics for relatedness, and reconstruction methods which provide ways of inferring the properties of proto-languages and their speakers. In doing so, they were building on a longer tradition of comparison which can be traced through William Jones to the 18th and 17th Centuries (Sajnovics 1770; Gyarmathi 1799), and perhaps even earlier to Dante (Shapiro 1990). While historical linguists tend to emphasize the antiquity of the discipline, historical study has not, of course, remained a 19th Century endeavor. Far from being a static field, historical linguistics has benefitted greatly from recent research into synchronic language systems. In particular, historical linguistics has benefited from sociolinguistics, as developed by La- bov (1963; 1972), Weinreich (Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog 1968; Weinreich 1979), and many others since. Studies of how changes permeate through speech communities, how speech communities themselves are defined, and how speakers interact with each other and use linguistic markers to signal aspects of their identity have all been crucial in developing theories of how language changes at the micro-scale. This has, in turn, given us a better understanding of how the patterns that provide evidence for language relationship arise.

In this article, I provide an overview of the most important characteristics of the method with a focus on demonstrating linguistic relationship. While there have been many overviews of the comparative method in linguistics (see Rankin 2003; Hale 2014 for two recent surveys), I here focus on the comparative method in linguistics as one of a number of “comparative methods” which can be used to find out about the past (see, for example, Sober 1991). Comparative methods are not unique to linguistics, but are also found in other fields of study, especially biology. Situating historical linguistics https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110261288-001

within other fields that study evolutionary processes is particularly important now that historical linguistics more frequently takes on the tools of other disciplines such as evolutionary biology (see, amongst others, Gray, Drummond, and Greenhill 2009; Bow- ern and Atkinson 2012; Holden 2002). Furthermore, there is more work in prehistory which synthesizes results from anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics (Jordan et al. 2009; Hunley et al. 2008).

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