Historical linguistics

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Historical linguistics (also called diachronic linguistics) is the study of language change. It has five main concerns:

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


History and development

Modern historical linguistics dates from the late 18th century. It grew out of the earlier discipline of philology, the study of ancient texts and documents dating back to wikt:antiquity.

At first, historical linguistics was comparative linguistics. Scholars were concerned chiefly with establishing language families and reconstructing prehistoric proto-languages, using the comparative method and internal reconstruction. 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 specialised field. Most research is being carried out on the subsequent development of these languages, in particular, the development of the modern standard varieties.

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