An Introduction to Historical Linguistics

Definition and Examples

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"By applying the comparative method to related languages, we can postulate what that common earlier ancestor was like—we can reconstruct that language" (Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 2013). Godong / Getty Images

Historical linguistics—traditionally known as philology—is the branch of linguistics concerned with the development of languages over time (where linguistics usually looks at one language at a time, philology looks at them all).

The primary tool of historical linguistics is the comparative method, a way of identifying relations among languages that lack written records. For this reason, historical linguistics is sometimes called comparative-historical linguistics. This field of study has been around for centuries.

Linguists Silvia Luraghi and ‎Vit Bubenik point out, "[The] official act of birth of comparative historical linguistics is conventionally indicated in Sir William Jones' The Sanscrit Language, delivered as a lecture at the Asiatic Society in 1786, in which the author remarked that the similarities between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit hinted to a common origin, adding that such languages might also be related to Persian, Gothic and the Celtic languages," (Luraghi and Bubenik 2010). 

Why Study Linguistic History?

The task of comparing insufficiently recorded languages to each other is not an easy one, but it is a worthwhile endeavor for those interested in learning about a group of people. "Linguistic history is basically the darkest of the dark arts, the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries. With linguistic history, we reach farthest back into the mystery: humankind," (Campbell 2013).

Philology, to be useful, must take into account everything contributing to language changes. Without proper context and without studying the ways in which language is transmitted from one generation to the next, linguistic shifts could be grossly over-simplified. "[A] language is not some gradually and imperceptibly changing object which smoothly floats through time and space, as historical linguistics based on philological material all too easily suggests. Rather, the transmission of language is discontinuous, and a language is recreated by each child on the basis of the speech data it hears," (Kiparsky 1982).

Dealing With Historical Gaps

Of course, with any field of history comes a fair amount of uncertainty. And with that, a degree of educated guesswork. "[O]ne fundamental issue in historical linguistics concerns how best to deal with the inevitable gaps and discontinuities that exist in our knowledge of attested language varieties over time. ... One (partial) response is that—to put matters bluntly—in order to deal with gaps, we speculate about the unknown (i.e. about intermediate stages) based on the known. While we typically use loftier language to characterize this activity ... the point remains the same.

In this respect, one of the relatively established aspects of language that can be exploited for historical study is our knowledge of the present, where we normally have access to far more data than could ever possibly become available for any previously attested stage (at least before the age of audio and video recording), no matter how voluminous an earlier corpus may be," (Joseph and Janda 2003).

The Nature and Causes of Language Change

You might be wondering why language changes. According to William O'Grady et al., historical language change is distinctly human. As society and knowledge shift and grow, so, too, does communication. "Historical linguistics studies the nature and causes of language change. The causes of language change find their roots in the physiological and cognitive makeup of human beings. Sound changes usually involve articulatory simplification as in the most common type, assimilation. Analogy and reanalysis are particularly important factors in morphological change. Language contact resulting in borrowing is another important source of language change.

All components of the grammar, from phonology to semantics, are subject to change over time. A change can simultaneously affect all instances of a particular sound or form, or it can spread through the language word by word by means of lexical diffusion. Sociological factors can play an important role in determining whether or not a linguistic innovation is ultimately adopted by the linguistic community at large. Since language change is systemic, it is possible, by identifying the changes that a particular language or dialect has undergone, to reconstruct linguistic history and thereby posit the earlier forms from which later forms have evolved," (O'Grady et al. 2009).


  • Campbell, Lyle. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
  • Joseph, Brian D., and Richard D. Janda. "On Language, Change, and Language Change." The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
  • Kiparsky, Paul. Explanation in Phonology. Foris Publications, 1982.
  • Luraghi, Silvia, and ‎Vit Bubenik. The Bloomsbury Companion to Historical Linguistics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.
  • O'Grady, William, et al. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009.