Definition and Discussion of Comparative Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Comparative grammar is the branch of linguistics primarily concerned with the analysis and comparison of the grammatical structures of related languages or dialects. 

The term comparative grammar was commonly used by 19th-century philologists. However, Ferdinand de Saussure regarded comparative grammar as "a misnomer for several reasons, the most troublesome of which is that it implies the existence of a scientific grammar other than that which draws on the comparison of languages" (Course in General Linguistics, 1916).

In the modern era, notes Sanjay Jain et al., "the branch of linguistics known as 'comparative grammar' is the attempt to characterize the class of (biologically possible) natural languages through formal specification of their grammars; and a theory of comparative grammar is such a specification of some definite collection. Contemporary theories of comparative grammar begin with Chomsky . . . , but there are several different proposals currently under investigation" (Systems That Learn: An Introduction to Learning Theory, 1999).

Also Known As: comparative philology


  • "If we would understand the origin and real nature of grammatical forms, and of the relations which they represent, we must compare them with similar forms in kindred dialects and languages . . ..
    "[The task of the comparative grammarian] is to compare the grammatical forms and usages of an allied group of tongues and thereby reduce them to their earliest forms and senses."
    ("Grammar," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911)
  • Comparative Grammar--Past and Present
    "Contemporary work in comparative grammar, like the comparative work carried out by nineteenth-century grammarians, is concerned with establishing [an] explanatory basis for the relationships between languages. The work of the nineteenth century focused on relationships between languages and groups of languages primarily in terms of a common ancestry. It assumed a view of linguistic change as by and large systematic and lawful (rule governed) and, on the basis of this assumption, attempted to explain the relationship between languages in terms of a common ancestor (often a hypothetical one for which there was no actual evidence in the historical record). Contemporary comparative grammar, in contrast, is significantly broader in scope. It is concerned with a theory of grammar that is postulated to be an innate component of the human mind/brain, a faculty of language that provides an explanatory basis for how a human being can acquire a first language (in fact, any human language he or she is exposed to). In this way, the theory of grammar is a theory of human language and hence establishes the relationship among all languages--not just those that happen to be related by historical accident (for instance, via common ancestry)."
    (Robert Freidin, Principles and Parameters in Comparative Grammar. MIT, 1991)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Comparative Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Discussion of Comparative Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Comparative Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).