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Comparative-Historical Linguistics

  For centuries now, languages have been studied by systematically comparing one language with another, and by extension, linguists have tried to establish the relations between whole groups, or families, of languages. A notable stimulus was provided in the late 18th century by Sir William Jones, with the surprise discovery that the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, shared certain fundamental properties with many European languages, including Latin and Greek. In the wake of this finding, a biological metaphor was adopted: genetic relationships between languages were sought and family trees were drawn to reveal the pattern of antecedent languages from which later forms of language evolved.

In the process of change, it was assumed that a single, parent language split, gradually but irrefutably, in such a way that subsequent developments followed separate routes in the creation of new language systems. While this process of divergence precipitates quite distinct languages, a family resemblance is nevertheless maintained, owing to the common origins and the systematic nature of the changes involved. The process of divergence is repeated continuously, resulting in a tree diagram comprising numerous divisions and subdivisions, which eventually terminate in well-attested languages and dialects. In the case of Sanskrit and Greek, for instance, it was reasoned that, ultimately, they must both stem from a common ancestor known as Proto-Indo-European. Clearly, this ancestor language is no longer extant, so the historical linguist must undertake a reconstruction (in part at least) which will provide a plausible description of the parent language.

A major difficulty is that languages embody numerous idiosyncrasies which could militate against an accurate reconstruction. Furthermore, languages can change in several different ways, not simply through the influence of historical processes (see, for example, pidgins and creoles). All of these extraneous influences must be carefully sifted out in the course of a reconstruction concerned with the genetic links between languages. In this regard, a fundamental problem is to identify items in different languages which are essentially equivalent. Equivalence tends to be established in terms of the structure of particular words (see morphology) as well as the sound patterns in evidence (see phonology). The kinds of changes which occur are not random or arbitrary, which means that the ambition to reconstruct long-deceased languages is less daunting than it appears to be on first inspection.

The concern with how languages change is underpinned by the complementary desire to explain why languages change. One approach argues that certain configurations of speech sounds are inherently more robust than others. Thus, a sort of ‘natural phonology’ dictates that particular sounds will remain immutable, and furthermore, be implicated in the changes which do occur in neighbouring sounds. A quite distinct approach regards language change as a socially motivated phenomenon. Systematic variation is regarded as a natural characteristic of language (consider, for example, the different ways of pronouncing ‘grass’ in English). The origins of language change are then explained on the basis that people systematically choose one variant rather than another, according to a complex range of social factors, including age, gender, class, level of formality, and so on. MS

Further reading T. Bynon, Historical Linguistics; , H.H. Hock, Principles of Historical Linguistics.



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