What is Historical Linguistics? - Introduction to Linguistics - The Scientific Study of Language

What is Historical Linguistics?

The study of linguistic change is called historical and comparative linguistics. Linguists identify regular sound correspondences using the comparative method among the cognates (words that developed from the same ancestral language) of related languages. They can restructure an earlier protolanguage and this allows linguists to determine the history of a language family.

Languages that evolve from a common source are genetically related. These languages were once dialects of the same language. Earlier forms of Germanic languages, such as German, English, and Swedish were dialects of Proto-Germanic, while earlier forms of Romance languages, such as Spanish, French, and Italian were dialects of Latin. Furthermore, earlier forms of Proto-Germanic and Latin were once dialects of Indo-European.

Linguistic changes like sound shift is found in the history of all languages, as evidenced by the regular sound correspondences that exist between different stages of the same language, different dialects, and different languages. Words, morphemes, and phonemes may be altered, added or lost. The meaning of words may broaden, narrow or shift. New words may be introduced into a language by borrowing, or by coinage, blends and acronyms. The lexicon may also shrink as older words become obsolete.

Change comes about as a result of the restructuring of grammar by children learning the language. Grammars seem to become simple and regular, but these simplifications may be compensated for by more complexities. Sound changes can occur because of assimilation, a process of ease of articulation. Some grammatical changes are analogic changes, generalizations that lead to more regularity, such as sweeped instead of swept.

Old English, Middle English, Modern English

Old English 499-1066 CE Beowulf
Middle English 1066-1500 CE Canterbury Tales
Modern English 1500-present Shakespeare

Phonological change: Between 1400 and 1600 CE, the Great Vowel Shift took place. The seven long vowels of Middle English underwent changes. The high vowels [i] and [u] became the diphthongs [aj] and [aw]. The long vowels increased tongue height and shifted upward, and [a] was fronted. Many of the spelling inconsistencies of English are because of the Great Vowel Shift. Our spelling system still reflects the way words were pronounced before the shift took place.

Morphological change: Many Indo-European languages had extensive case endings that governed word order, but these are no longer found in Romance languages or English. Although pronouns still show a trace of the case system (he vs. him), English uses prepositions to show the case. Instead of the dative case (indirect objects), English usually the words to or for. Instead of the genitive case, English uses the word of or ‘s after a noun to show possession. Other cases include the nominative (subject pronouns), accusative (direct objects), and vocative.

Syntactic change: Because of the lack of the case system, word order has become more rigid and strict in Modern English. Now it is strictly Subject – Verb – Object order.

Orthographic change: Consonant clusters have become simplified, such as hlaf becoming loaf and hnecca becoming neck. However, some of these clusters are still written, but are no longer pronounced, such as gnaw, write, and dumb.

Lexical change: Old English borrowed place names from Celtic, army, religious and educational words from Latin, and everyday words from Scandinavian. Angle and Saxon (German dialects) form the basis of Old English phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. Middle English borrowed many words from French in the areas of government, law, religion, literature and education because of the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. Modern English borrowed words from Latin and Greek because of the influence of the classics, with much scientific terminology.

For more information, read the History of English page.

You may also be interested in:

Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.