Talk:Historical linguistics

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The 10,000 year limit[edit]

You know, it occurs to me that the only way I can think of to justify a bald claim like that there will be no detectable similarities after 10,000 years is glottochronology, which is rightly pretty discredited. Is that where this claim comes from, or does someone know of a different argument for it? - Mustafaa 06:49, 29 Apr 2004 (UTC)

Linguistic landscape in 500 years[edit]

Please somebody make a page talking about what we will all be speaking in e.g., 500 years.

I.e., will we all be speaking English? No page I can find on Wikipedia discusses what the linguistic landscape will look like in 500 years. Jidanni 21:50, 13 October 2007 (UTC)

Wikipedia is not a crystal ball. --189.31.60.216 (talk) 10:29, 23 March 2008 (UTC)

Sinai vs Yemen[edit]

"Additionally, it contradicts genetic evidence that suggests the first humans migrated from the Horn of Africa into Yemen, rather than across the Sinai peninsula." How so? As the article stands, that looks to me like a complete non sequitur. - Mustafaa 06:08, 29 Apr 2004 (UTC)

Seconded the question -- how so?
Jorge Stolfi 05:11, 4 May 2004 (UTC)

Perhaps because the Horn of Africa was once connected with the Arabian peninsula and Yemen, before ancient geologic events (Red Sea spreading, creation of great rift valley, etc.)? But I can't say what the writer meant. I thought those events were supposed to have happened long before "humans" in their present form evolved. 172.165.13.58

Historical linguistics is not philology[edit]

It strikes me as odd to make this a redirect to Philology. --Brion

Agreed. Stephen C. Carlson

English language[edit]

What about English- its history hasn't been mentioned...

Uh, it has been on the English page. I don't think there is a particular need do discuss the history of English on this page. Although examples drawn from the history of English would be an excellent way to improve the article.

Wesley Holt, June 2007.

Merge with "Historical-comparative linguistics"[edit]

There is another page Historical-comparative linguistics which seems like it should be merged with this one. Anyone disagree? Dduck 12:28, 13 Nov 2003 (UTC)

I agree. Opus33 19:18, 13 Nov 2003 (UTC)

They're now together. At last! ;) Dduck 09:52, 14 Nov 2003 (UTC)

Validation[edit]

Use of the comparative method is validated by its application to languages whose common ancestor is known. Thus, when the method is applied to the Romance languages (which include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian), the reconstructed common ancestor language comes out rather similar to Latin--not the classical Latin of Horace and Cicero, but something perhaps more akin to the Latin that must have been spoken in various dialects during the Dark Ages, following the breakup of the Roman Empire.

what is this? Spoken Latin was different from the written latin. Since allways!!! There was a latin that was spoken, and a latin that was written both were used in the today's latin countries and IN ROME! just, the spoken latin suffered local chanches. And the "classical" latin were also official. At least in Portugal classical latin was the officially used language till 1290!Pedro 01:10, 16 Mar 2004 (UTC)

IIRC, the divergence between spoken and written latin is attested only by the end of the 1st century BC, when the Roman empire and the city had already grown much beyond the original town, where classical Latin was born. It seems highly unlikely that the written language differed from the spoken language in the 4th century BC, when Rome was just a small kingdom. Moreover, the "Latin" that gave origin to Romance was the language of the Roman army, which was largely made up of people who were not native of Rome. So it was probably some sort of lingua franca that Scythian soldiers could use to talk to Iberian soldiers; distinct not only from the classical written Latin, but also from the Latin spoken in Rome. Jorge Stolfi 17:38, 24 January 2006 (UTC)

The tree model[edit]

There are two assumptions that seem to be implicitly made in this page: that language evolution can be described as a tree-like branching process, and that parents who learned language X from their parents will teach the same language to their children. Are these "dogmas" fundamented/discussed somewhere?
Jorge Stolfi 05:17, 4 May 2004 (UTC)

The former isn't 100% true, of course - see Michif language. It's just a useful approximation that in practice works almost all the time, like thermodynamics; the evidence for it is simply the statistical idea that so much of the language evolution that we've examined (Indo-European, Semitic, Algonquin, Pama-Nyungan...) works that way. The second, of course, is false - there must be an article on language shift. But it is true for the minority of languages that aren't in the process of dying out... - Mustafaa 06:10, 4 May 2004 (UTC)
But I agree that the article should make those points explicit. - Mustafaa 17:34, 4 May 2004 (UTC)
Hoenigswald, Henry M. 1990. "Does language grow on trees? Ancestry, descent, regularity". Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 134(1):10-18. Also by Hoenigswald, "Language family trees, topological and metrical", in Biological Metaphor and Cladistic Classification: An interdisciplinary perspective, eds. H. M. Hoenigswald and L. F. Wiener, (1987) pp. 257-267. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Bn (talkcontribs) 17:26, 11 August 2010 (UTC)

Conservative, Innovative, Archaic[edit]

"Norwegian and Danish have drastically simplified their grammar." I don't know either language (nor proto-Germanic), but I seriously doubt this statement. They have probably simplified their *inflectional morphology*, but there's more to grammar than morphology; and often when a language simplifies in one area, it complexifies in others. (Ok, I made that word up :-).) In this case, I'm betting the modern syntax is more complex. But I'll leave it to someone who actually knows about the history of these languages to change this if need be. Mcswell (talk) 03:52, 5 July 2011 (UTC)


 I don't know much about Norwegian or Danish, but I do know that English once had a fairly complex case system that has almost completely died out over the last couple hundred years. Just sayin' that it's possible that Norwegian or Danish could have undergone a similar change.

Lifetime of pronouns[edit]

"…extremely common words like "I" and "you" last so long that it is not possible to even estimate their life span without reconstructions going further back in time than those that are universally accepted."

Um, what? Have you guys heard of some little words called "thou" and "ye"? Those words were pretty cool, until they completely died out between 1700 and 1850 (though "ye" died through evolution into "you"). To give another example, in Japanese the common word for "I" for a long time was "ware." Now, the most common word for "I" is "watashi" which used to mean something like "private," but there are also a lot of other words for "I" in circulation like "boku" = "servant" and "atashi," a variant on "watashi". Japanese didn't even have true personal pronouns for a long time, and there are a number of common words for "you" ("kimi", "anata", "omae", etc.) and the like.

Japanese still doesn't have personal pronouns. Grammatically, they function as nouns, as they can take modifiers, etc. True pronouns, like in English, are closed class words, resistant to addition or deletion (how many words for "I" are there in English?). Open class words may be added or lost much more freely. Just because boku gets translated as "I" doesn't mean it's a pronoun.

Anyhow, the sentence needs to be revised, because it's clearly wrong, as "thou" demonstrates.--Carl 09:00, 13 Oct 2004 (UTC)

Evolution is not the same thing as dying... =S
Also, "Thou" comes from an IE root , *tu , found in a lot of IE branches, and used daily (AFAIK) in at least most of all germanic and romance languages (except english and dutch).
The PIE roots *eg (I), *tu (thou) and *me (me) are thousands of years old and has changed rather little...
Although all languages change, I don't think you have disproven this with your "thou" example...
Also, just a note. Ye and You are not "sound evolutions". They were different words. "Ye" were used in the nominative case, while "You" were used in the accusative and dative case. Sadly all of sing/plur 2nd pronoun words and nom/acc/dat cases merged, possibly causing confusion and unclearness...

Indeed not. The claim is statistical, not absolute, and is not disproven by individual counterexamples; if you suggested that it is less stable in some areas (eg SE Asia) than it has been shown to be in IE, you might have a better argument... - Mustafaa 01:55, 4 Nov 2004 (UTC)

But yes, Japanese is probably the best counterexample I know of, though apparently Thai and Javanese (all heavy-politeness-system languages) are similar. - Mustafaa 02:01, 4 Nov 2004 (UTC)

Maybe that is more due to the development of a more complex social system, than to linguistic change. Just a thought...

>

 You is obviously a variant of *tu, and I believe the Dutch word sounds pretty similar. And German and Greek don't use *tu, German uses du and Greek uses σου (sou), but they're all obviously closely related.  — Preceding unsigned comment added by 72.198.93.69 (talk) 19:15, 26 August 2012 (UTC) 

Monogenesis[edit]

"Not all scholars believe that such a language even necessarily existed, since some models of human evolution may allow the independent appearance of human speech in several parts of the world, resulting in several linguistic families with no common ancestral language"

This sounds rather...avant-garde. It's been my impression that no one is really opposed to monogenesis, only that's it's thought to be undemonstrable.

Can anyone provide a cite? If someone has a theory advocating heterogenesis, I should like to hear about it.

Timothy Usher 24 apr 2005

Partly my fault.... The previous version of the article (as I undestood it) said simply that the *existence* of a common ancestor to all languages was not universally accepted by linguists. I tried to clarify that statement, and the only alternative to monogenesis I could think of was multigenesis.
I know that the same issue exists with regards to the origin of modern Homo sapiens. The mainstream theory is that the species appeared in Africa, as a small population, then spread to the entire world, overwhelming other preexisting Homo-like species that got there in previous eras. But there are those who believe that the older species evolved in parallel throughout the world into modern Homo sapiens, by gradual gene diffusion. For these scientists, there is no "common ancestral population" to all mankind --- at least not a Homo sapiens population. I just presumed that the "non-monogenetic" theory of language evolution was similar.
Greenberg's number presumably comes from the monogenetic theory of modern humans' evolution and the assumption that the ancestral tribe of all modern humans already had language. In that case he probably got the date wrong; IIRC the current estimate is closer ot 100,000 years ago. Of couse no one knows when language was "invented", but it seems a reasonable bet that it is at least as old as modern humans. Jorge Stolfi 17:38, 24 January 2006 (UTC)
Well, there is still monogenesis under the candelabra theory, it's just that the root node is Homo Erectus. The real question there is, how much similarity is due to horizontal factors, how much to vertical descent? And to that degree, is the heirarchal model of descent appropriate? Some linguists do have similar inclinations, like Dixon, but that's not really multigenesis (though if anyone will propose this, it will likely be him if not Johanna Nicols). Multigenesis asserts several root nodes. Say, one group heard the other talking and it seemed like a good idea, so they made up a languahe, or just that people came up with it independently, like the Mayan writing system. - Tim

Historical linguistics = comparative linguistics?[edit]

Is indeed "historical linguistics" the same thing as "comparative linguistics"? By logic, the latter term should include both diachronic (historical) and synchronic comparative linguistics. Jorge Stolfi 16:39, 8 February 2006 (UTC)

There are two problems here. The first is the false equation of comparative and historical linguistics - but comparative linguistics is only about establishing genetic relationships. That would be fairly easy to deal with by rewriting the opening para. But the second problem is that almost the entire content of the page relates solely to comparative linguistics. Perhaps ideally this page should be renamed "Comparative linguistics" and linked from a page on "Historical linguistica", but admittedly that's quite a bit of work. Pfold 17:33, 4 March 2006 (UTC)

Books on comparative linguistics[edit]

I was wondering, do anyone here know the best books to buy to get a general overview of comparative linguistics, particularly Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic, and as well as of the current discussions in the field. I've looked around for a number of books, but I'm not sure what the best ones to get are, and the German ones listed doesn't help me too much, as my knowledge of English is far greater than that of German. Any help is accepted. Thanks in advance. Satanael 13:19, 18 February 2006 (UTC)

I would recommend Anthony Arlotto's "Historical Linguistics" for a good general overview. Theodora Bynon's "Historical Linguistics" is more comprehensive but also a much heavier read and assumes a little more in linguistics background. Dixon's "The Rise and Fall of Languages" is a very interesting read but he does directly espouse certain theories and decry others, so it might not be the best start if you're looking for a completely objective overview. Beyond that, I would say that most introductory Linguistics texts (eg. O'Grady and Dobrovolsky) worth their salt give a good general overview of historico-comparative Linguistics. Hope this helps. Susan W

Please, please, can an expert (which excludes me) write a section on recommended readings for beginners? For example, should we recommend Hock, Campell, etc (in addition to the texts mentioned by Susan W). What about introductory books by McWhorter and others? This should be separate from a general bibliography. Also, what are the standard textbooks used in contemporary graduate programs in linguistics? Wesley Holt. 30 June 2007.

Revised Intro[edit]

I've rewritten the intro so it really is about historical linguistics and not just reconstructing proto-languages. I've also put some modern stuff in the bibliography.

Given the existing pages on comparative method and masss lexical comparison, I think most of the other material on this pages could usefully be moved there, and we can start to look at some of the other material that should be covered on this page. --Pfold 21:07, 28 March 2006 (UTC)

Cut comparative material[edit]

Since there is now an independent page on comparative linguistics (replacing the old redirect) and there are existing pages on comparative method, glottochronology and mass lexical comparison, I have cut the sections devoted to those topics on this page. Here they are for future reference, and so that appropriate material can be moved to those pages. --Pfold 21:58, 7 April 2006 (UTC)

Language evolution and the comparative method[edit]

Languages change over time. What were once dialects of the same language may eventually diverge enough that they are no longer mutually intelligible and can be considered separate languages.

One method to illustrate the relationship between such divergent yet related languages is to construct family trees, an idea pioneered by the 19th century historical linguist August Schleicher. The basis for the trees is the comparative method: languages presumed to be related are compared with one another, and linguists look for regular sound correspondences based on what is generally known about how languages can change, and use them to reconstruct the best hypothesis about the nature of the common ancestor language from which the attested languages are descended.

Use of the comparative method is validated by its application to languages whose common ancestor is known. Thus, when the method is applied to the Romance languages (which include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian), the reconstructed common ancestor language comes out rather similar to Latin — not the classical Latin of Horace and Cicero, but Vulgar Latin, the colloquial Latin spoken in various dialects in the late Roman Empire.

The comparative method can be used to reconstruct languages for which no written records exist, either because none have been preserved or because the speakers were illiterate. Thus, the Germanic languages (which include German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Yiddish, and the extinct Gothic) can be compared to reconstruct Proto-Germanic, a language that was probably contemporaneous with Latin and for which no records are preserved.

Germanic and Latin (more precisely, Proto-Italic, the ancestor of Latin and a few of its neighbors) are themselves related, being both descended from Proto-Indo-European, spoken perhaps 5000 years ago. Scholars have reconstructed a Proto-Indo-European languae on the basis of data from its nine surviving daughter branches, which are: Germanic, Italic, Celtic, Greek, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, and from the two dead branches Tocharian and Anatolian.

The comparative method aims to distinguish so-called genetic linguistic descent — that is, the passing of a language from parents to children, down through the generations — from resemblances that are due to cultural contact between contemporary languages.

For example, about 30% of the vocabulary of Persian is taken from Arabic, as a result of the Arab conquest of Iran in the 8th century and much subsequent cultural contact. Yet Persian is considered to be a member of the Indo-European language family — because of its core vocabulary, which generally has Indo-European cognates (as in mâdar = "mother"), and of many characteristically Indo-European features of its grammar (as in bûd = "was", formed from a root related to English "be" and a suffix related to the English past tense ending "-ed".)

Once the various changes in the daughter branches have been worked out, and a fair amount of the core vocabulary and grammar of the protolanguage are understood, then scholars will quite generally agree that a relationship of genetic relatedness has been proven.

Non-comparative method theories[edit]

Much more controversial are hypotheses about relatedness which are not supported by application of the comparative method. Scholars who attempt to probe deeper than the comparative method supports (for example, by tabulating similarities found by mass lexical comparison without setting up sound correspondences) are often accused of scholarly wishful thinking. The problem is that any two languages have a huge number of opportunities to resemble one another just by accident, so merely pointing out isolated resemblances has little evidentiary value. A famous example is the Persian word for "bad", which is pronounced (more or less) just like English "bad". It can be shown that the resemblance between these two words is completely accidental, and has nothing to do with the (rather remote) genetic connection between English and Persian. For further examples, see False cognate. The idea is that this linguistic "noise" may be reduced by comparing large amounts of words, which is exactly the point of mass lexical comparison. However, by ignoring known historical changes in the languages, mass lexical comparison incorporates known randomness, and therefore its conclusions are inherently inaccurate to an extent that is impossible to assess.

Since supporting distant genetic relationships is so difficult, and the method for finding and proving such relationships is not well established (in the way that the comparative method is), the field of locating remote relationships is riven with scholarly controversy. Nevertheless, the temptation to pursue remote relationships remains a powerful lure to many scholars-- after all, Proto-Indo-European must have seemed a rather wild hypothesis to many when it was first proposed.

This uncertainty also relates to estimates of how long it would take for languages to diverge completely. One commonly cited opinion is that if a group of people were sent to a distant galaxy, after 10,000 years they would be speaking a language that would be no more similar to their native language than any other language selected at random. This figure is based on glottochronology, using a simplified assumption of a constant 14% loss rate each millennium and a chance similarity rate of 5%. However, other work by Isidore Dyen[1] and Sergei Starostin indicates that in fact words have wildly differing expected life spans; thus, for instance, a specialized word like "goshawk" might on average last a mere millennium or two, whereas extremely common words like "I" and "you" often last so long that it is not possible to even estimate their life span without reconstructions going further back in time than those that are universally accepted.

The ultimate in remote reconstruction is the recovery of a Proto-World language. Not all scholars believe that such a language even necessarily existed, since some models of human evolution may allow the independent appearance of human speech in several parts of the world, resulting in several linguistic families with no common ancestral language. Nevertheless, Joseph Greenberg suggested that Proto-World was the language of people coming out of northeast Africa around 50,000 BC. On the other hand, according to current archaeological evidence, the native languages of South America must have been isolated from those of the Old World for 10,000 years or more; and those of Australia may have split off from the putative world language tree even earlier than that. Therefore, if one accepts the estimate that no relationships would be recognizable after 10,000 years, then we stand little chance of demonstrating a common origin for all the world languages — unless, against current expectations, they all had a common ancestor within that time span.

Dené-Caucasian has also been postulated to include Na-Dené (North America), Sino-Tibetan, Ket (Siberia), Burushaski (Pakistan), North-East Caucasian (Chechen and the Dagestan languages), and Basque. This language family is extremely hypothetical.

The Nostratic hypothesis was proposed by a Dane named Holger Pedersen, in 1903. The hypothesis claims that the Nostratic grouping includes such widely ranging language families as Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Uralic, Altaic, Sumerian, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Others claim other sets of languages. Some have speculated that the Nostratics were refugees from a Black Sea Flood of around 5600 BC, and some think this is the origin of Noah's Flood from the Bible. However, linguists have reached no firm conclusion about the validity of the Nostratic hypothesis. Its proponents, unlike Greenberg, use the traditional comparative method; however, their comparisons are often accused of being far-fetched or involving too many semantic shifts, while some also accuse them of simply grouping together the language families most familiar to them and neglecting to compare each of them to language families further afield.

Mass comparison etc.[edit]

I have rewritten the paragraph that mentions alternatives to the comparative method because the previous version treated such techniques as later developments intended to overcome limitations of the comparative method when in fact these techniques are the remnants of prescientific historical linguistics.Bill 06:49, 15 May 2006 (UTC)

Tower of Babel[edit]

Why is there no section here on the Tower of Babel?--Filll 03:17, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Because it has nothing to do with the modern discipline of historical linguistics --Pfold 08:31, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

But why do you guys not get attacked by the rabid biblical literalists on here like some other articles?--Filll 15:01, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Well, it doesn't seem to specifically reject a Babal-like event as far as this article is concerned, its not very detailed though. Homestarmy 15:12, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

You know though what historical linguistics teaches dont you? It completely violates the Tower of Babel account !--Filll 15:54, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

Reading this article, I get the sense historical linguistics is less certain about things than most other fields when things go farther back in time. Homestarmy 16:19, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

It is a bit tougher to get good data, of course. When you go back before written languages, things get even more difficult.--Filll 16:31, 19 January 2007 (UTC)

And there are so many languages about which there is little knowledge. My favorite are language isolates, about which there are lot of really good speculation, but no good theories. I especially loved the one that tied Basque, Na-Dene and Caucasian (that would be the language of Caucasus region) together. When you get this kind of information, the Tower of Babel may not be a bad metaphor for all of this. But in 100 years, everyone will be speaking English, and then what happens? The end of the world?  :) Orangemarlin 16:45, 19 January 2007 (UTC)
I have always been fascinated with the purported link between Finnish, Hungarian (Magyar) and Ainu.--Filll 17:40, 19 January 2007 (UTC)
The link between Finnish and Hungarian is pretty much certain. Much less certain is any link between those languages and Ainu. Or any languages and Ainu, for that matter. --86.138.30.7 (talk) 06:22, 1 November 2008 (UTC)

Template:Berber languages[edit]

Watchers of this page may be interested in a discussion currently ongoing at Template:Berber languages. - Lameen Souag (talk) 16:20, 24 October 2011 (UTC)

Weird chart[edit]

I removed a weird chart that compared 'traditional' and 'modern' comparative linguistics. It included such absurd claims as that modern comparative linguistics is more interested in syntax than in phonology. One look at a journal such as historische Sprachforschung would prove this false. If there is anything of value in this chart it must be totally rewritten and thoroughly cited. Tibetologist (talk) 17:18, 1 November 2011 (UTC)

.... Not saying that you're wrong, but you can't disprove a wide general claim like that with only one source. Even sourcing multiple sources in only a single language is kind of a stretch, seeing as how there are trends within culture, era, and even in individual parts of individual countries.  — Preceding unsigned comment added by 72.198.93.69 (talk) 19:20, 26 August 2012 (UTC)