Historical linguistics

Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time.[1] Principal concerns of historical linguistics include:[2]

  1. to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages
  2. to reconstruct the pre-history of languages and to determine their relatedness, grouping them into language families (comparative linguistics)
  3. to develop general theories about how and why language changes
  4. to describe the history of speech communities
  5. to study the history of words, i.e. etymology

History and development

Western modern historical linguistics dates from the late 18th century. It grew out of the earlier discipline of philology,[3] the study of ancient texts and documents dating back to antiquity.

At first, historical linguistics served as the cornerstone of comparative linguistics primarily as a tool for linguistic reconstruction.[4] Scholars were concerned chiefly with establishing language families and reconstructing prehistoric proto-languages, using the comparative method and internal reconstruction.[4] The focus was initially on the well-known Indo-European languages, many of which had long written histories; the scholars also studied the Uralic languages, another European language family for which less early written material exists. Since then, there has been significant comparative linguistic work expanding outside of European languages as well, such as on the Austronesian languages and various families of Native American languages, among many others. Comparative linguistics is now, however, only a part of a more broadly conceived discipline of historical linguistics. For the Indo-European languages, comparative study is now a highly specialized field. Most research is being carried out on the subsequent development of these languages, in particular, the development of the modern standard varieties.

Some scholars have undertaken studies attempting to establish super-families, linking, for example, Indo-European, Uralic, and other families into Nostratic. These attempts have not been accepted widely. The information necessary to establish relatedness becomes less available as the time depth is increased. The time-depth of linguistic methods is limited due to chance word resemblances and variations between language groups, but a limit of around 10,000 years is often assumed.[5] The dating of the various proto-languages is also difficult; several methods are available for dating, but only approximate results can be obtained.