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What is Historical Linguistics?

Updated on May 7, 2013

Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages are connected. It is the study of how languages change and how they develop. Historical Linguistics is concerned with:

  • Examining changes in languages
  • Grouping languages into language families, depending on how they are related
  • Developing theories of how language changes
  • Exploring the history of speech communities
  • Studying the history of words

How Many Languages Are There In There World?

There are over 7000 spoken languages in the world. However, 90% of these languages are used by fewer than 100,000 people. The most popular language in the world is Mandarin Chinese. It is spoken as a native language by about 935 million people.

What are the Indo-European Languages?

The Indo-European Languages are a family of languages and dialects which are related. This group of languages includes most major languages in Europe, as well as languages from the Indian subcontinent.

What is the History of Historical Linguistics?

Historical Linguistics began to be properly studied in the 18th century. It grew out of philology, the study of ancient texts. The field became popular in the 19th century when data on early Indo-European languages was studied. These languages had long histories so these languages tended to be the ones that linguists concentrated on.

In the 1870s, a group of German historical linguists called the Neogrammarians gained prominence. Their ideas regarding Indo-European languages were particularly important.

In the 20th century, the ideas of historical linguistics which were explored in the 19th century began to be applied to non-Indo-European languages. For example, there has been a lot a work done on Austronesian languages (languages from the islands of South East Asia and the Pacific) and Native American languages.

Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern have written an easy to read Introduction to Historical Linguistics which details all the key concepts and provides examples from different languages. Their book has a particular emphasis on languages from the regions of Australia and the Pacific.

What are Cognates?

To study the relationship between languages, linguists take note of cognates. Cognates are words from two or more languages which have a similar sound and refer to the same thing. These words provide clues to linguists about how languages are related to each other.

What are the Areas of Study of Historical Linguistics?

Historical linguistics can be broken down into a number of sub-categories:

  • Comparative Linguistics is connected with comparing languages to see how they are related historically. This involves creating language families. Language families are languages which are related because they are descended from a common ancestor, known as as proto-language.
  • Etymology is the study of the history of words. It is concerned with how words have entered a language, where they came from and how they have changed. One way in which words enter a language is a 'loan word.' This means they are borrowed from another language. Examples of loan words borrowed by English include bungalow (from Hindi), trek (from Afrikaans) and orangutan (from Malay). When languages have a long history, etymology can make use of philology. This is the study how words change over time.
  • Dialectology is the study of dialect. The term dialect refers to a variety of language that is characteristic of a group of language speakers. It is usually used to talk about the way in which people from a particular region speak.
  • Phonology is the study of the sound systems of a language. Phonology is used to explain how sounds function in a language.
  • Morphology is the study of structure of a language's morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest grammatical unit of a language. Morphemes do not just include words. They can also be parts of words, such as prefixes (un-, pre-, dis-) or suffixes (-tion, -ation, -ble).
  • Syntax is the study of the rules for constructing sentences in languages. It is the study of how words are ordered in languages so that they make sense.


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      This is a very interesting and useful introduction to the field of historical linguistics. I have found this field extremely interesting since living in both Taiwan and Thailand. Voted up and sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning.