Comparative-Historical Linguistics

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Comparative-Historical Linguistics


the branch of linguistics whose objectives are (1) the reconstruction of synchronic states unattested in written records and diachronic processes in the history of individual languages and groups of related languages and (2) the determination of the origins of language families, languages, and individual elements in language systems, including the determination of genetic relationships between languages, that is, the common origin of languages from a single source (seeGENEALOGICAL CLASSIFICATION OF LANGUAGES). In reconstructing the history of languages, comparative-historical linguistics uses the comparative-historical method, which consists of four basic research techniques: external reconstruction, internal reconstruction, analysis of borrowed words, and analysis of toponymic data.

External reconstruction—the comparative-historical method in the narrow sense—consists in identifying genetically identical morphemes and words in related languages, demonstrating in these morphemes and words the results of regular sound changes, and constructing a hypothetical model of the parent language, or protolanguage, and the rules for deriving the actual morphemes of the daughter languages from this model. When languages preserve a rather large number of related morphemes and a not too complex phonetic history of the daughter languages, the results of regular sound changes emerge in the form of directly observable, regular sound correspondences between related languages. Otherwise, these sound changes can be traced only by reconstructing the intermediate stages of development, for example, the parent languages of the groups and subgroups within a language family.

Internal reconstruction consists in identifying phenomena and relationships within an individual language system that unambiguously attest to the existence of certain elements at earlier stages in the system’s history. Examples are traces of earlier allophonic alternations preserved in the form of phonemic alternations in al-lomorphs and the survival of earlier morphological structures in archaic paradigms and in the form of suppletion.

Information can also be gained from the analysis of borrowed words, both borrowings from languages being reconstructed and borrowings into these languages, as well as from toponymic data.

The reconstructions obtained involve all aspects of the language system: phonology, morphophonemics, morphology, lexicon, and, in part, syntax. However, they cannot claim to be the historically real parent languages; they only simulate the presently available data about the parent languages as historical realities. These data are inevitably incomplete because it is impossible to reconstruct roots, phonemic oppositions, and other phenomena that have disappeared in all of the daughter languages as a result of the different temporal relations of reconstructed phenomena. Such difficulties prevent the precise reconstruction of synchronic states. In reconstructing the phonemes of protolan-guages, linguists do not always have sufficient information for the analysis of the phonemes into distinctive features or, moreover, for the phonetic interpretation of the phonemes. However, the fact that the reconstructions do not give a complete representation of historical reality does not mean the linguists lack reliable information about this reality.

The emergence of comparative historical linguistics between 1810 and the 1830’s is associated with the names of the founders of Indo-European philology—F. Bopp and R. Rask, and the Germanic philologist J. Grimm. Grimm and the German Indo-Europeanist and etymologist A. Pott set forth the principles of comparative-historical phonetics as the foundation for comparative-historical linguistics. The first serious attempts at the reconstruction of a protolanguage were undertaken in the middle of the 19th century by A. Schleicher. A rigid methodology for the conclusive reconstruction of the preliterate history of languages and, above all, the reconstruction of phonemes was developed in the last quarter of the 19th century. Development of the methodology in Indo-European philology owed much to the work of K. Verner, F. de Saussure, and the neogrammarians, headed by K. Brugmann. This methodology also serves as the basis of modern comparative-historical linguistics. In the last decades, it has been enriched by new research methods in internal reconstruction, systematic reconstruction of léxica and phonetics, and the application of advancements in allied disciplines, especially phonology, linguistic typology, and etymology.

In addition to the study of Indo-European relationships and research on the Germanic languages, great progress was made in the second half of the 19th century in other fields of comparative-historical linguistics, such as Slavic, Baltic, Romance, Iranian, Celtic, Indie, and Semitic philology. The first half of the 20th century also saw important developments in the comparative-historical study of other groups of Indo-European languages, Uralic philology, especially Finno-Ugric philology, Turkic philology, and Mongolic philology. The range of languages undergoing successful comparative-historical study is constantly expanding; it includes the Manchu-Tungus, Dravidian, Kartvelian, Sino-Tibetan, Malayo-Polynesian, and Austroasiatic languages, the Hamito-Semitic languages of Africa, the Bantu languages, and numerous groups of American Indian languages. Distant language relationships are also studied, including those of the Nos-tratic languages and the language macrofamilies of America, Africa, and Oceania.

The results of comparative-historical research provide the basis for the genealogical classification of languages and constitute the scientific basis of etymology and linguistic paleontology; they also provide historians with linguistic data concerning the ethnogen-esis and preliterate history of peoples and the culture and mutual contacts of ancient peoples. As a result of the development of comparative-historical linguistics, the histories of many language families and groups have been reconstructed to a considerable extent, including those of the Indo-European, Semitic, and Uralic languages. This has advanced the temporal perspective of linguistics and has yielded material for the historical typology of languages.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, developments in comparative-historical linguistics took place primarily in Germany, Aus-tro-Hungary, and the Scandinavian countries. Research in comparative-historical linguistics is now being conducted extensively in the USSR (studies of Slavic and other Indo-European languages, Uralic, Altaic, Caucasian, and Hamito-Semitic languages), the USA (research on Indo-European and American Indian languages), Western Europe (chiefly studies of Indo-European and Oriental languages and, in Finland and Sweden, Uralic and Altaic languages), and Hungary (studies of Uralic and Altaic languages). Research in Slavic and Indo-European linguistics is currently conducted in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria; Slavic and Oriental languages are studied in Czechoslovakia. Interest in comparative-historical linguistics is increasing in Japan, India, Israel, and Australia (research on the languages of the respective regions).


Meillet, A. Vvedenie v sravnitel’noe izuchenie indoevropeiskikh iazykov, 3rd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938. (Translated from French.)
Thomsen, V. Istoriia iazykovedeniia do kontsa XIX v. Moscow, 1938. (Translated from Danish).
Obshchee i indoevropeiskoe iazykoznanie. Moscow, 1956.
Ivanov, Viach. V. Obshcheindoevropeiskaia, praslavianskaia i analoliiskaia iazykovyesistemy. Moscow, 1965.
Shcherbak, A. M. Sravnitel’naia fonetika tiurkskikh iazykov. Leningrad, 1970.
Illich-Svitych, V. M. Opyt sravneniia nostraticheskikh iazykov, vol. 1. Moscow, 1971. Pages 38–102. (A survey of the literature on comparative-historical linguistics.)
Dolgopol’skii, A. B. Sravnitel’no-istoricheskaia fonetika kushitskikh iazykov. Moscow, 1973.
Osnovy finno-ugorskogo iazykoznaniia. Moscow, 1974.
Etimologicheskii slovar’ slavianskikh iazykov: Praslavianskii leksicheskiifond, fase. 1. Moscow, 1974.
Hoenigswald, H. Language Change and Linguistic Reconstruction. Chicago, 1966.
Current Trends in Linguistics, vols. 1–12. The Hague-Paris, 1963–74.
Haas, M. The Prehistory of Languages. Paris-The Hague, 1969.
Kurytowicz, J. Inflectional Categories of Indo-European. Heidelberg, 1964.
Kurylowicz, J. Indogermanische Grammatik, vols. 2–3. Heidelberg, 1968–69.
Zvelebil, K. Comparative Dravidian Phonology. The Hague-Paris, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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This is all quite reminiscent of the "false friends" scenario in comparative-historical linguistics.
The papers in the volume could have been grouped into 2 main parts: Linguistics (Part I, II and III) and Linguistic and Literature (Part IV); or into 3 parts: Comparative-Historical linguistics (Part I, II) Semantics (Part III) and Linguistic and Literature (Part IV).
(See The American Heritage Dictionary [Boston, 1993], 1592.) The author's "English sound law" reflects a lack of understanding of the basics of comparative-historical linguistics.
The book is also interesting because Semitic and Afroasiatic/Hamitosemitic linguistics has so far contributed only a little to the development of theory and methodology of comparative-historical linguistics, although there have been notable exceptions like the late Robert Hetzron's studies of the subject--not to mention those of J.
John Huehnergard's paper on the vocalism of the piel is a rigorous application of comparative-historical linguistics (pp.

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