AskDefine | Define glossology

Extensive Definition

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 and grew out of the earlier discipline of philology, the study of ancient texts and documents, which goes back to antiquity.
At first historical linguistics was comparative linguistics and mainly concerned with establishing language families and the reconstruction of prehistoric languages, using the comparative method and internal reconstruction. The focus was on the well-known Indo-European languages, many of which had long written histories. But since then, significant comparative linguistic work has been done on the Uralic languages, 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 and most research is being carried out on the subsequent development of these languages, particularly the development of the modern standard varieties.

Evolution into other fields

Initially, all modern linguistics was historical in orientation - even the study of modern dialects involved looking at their origins. But Saussure drew a distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistics, which is fundamental to the present day organization of the discipline. Primacy is accorded to synchronic linguistics, and diachronic linguistics is defined as the study of successive synchronic stages. Saussure's clear demarcation, however, is now seen to be idealised. In practice, a purely synchronic linguistics is not possible for any period before the invention of the gramophone: written records always lag behind speech in reflecting linguistic developments, and in any case are difficult to date accurately before the development of the modern title page. Also, the work of sociolinguists on linguistic variation has shown synchronic states are not uniform: the speech habits of older and younger speakers differ in ways which point to language change. Synchronic variation is linguistic change in progress.
The biological origin of language is in principle a concern of historical linguistics, but most linguists regard it as too remote to be reliably established by standard techniques of historical linguistics such as the comparative method. Less standard techniques, such as mass lexical comparison, are used by some linguists to overcome the limitations of the comparative method, but most linguists regard them as unreliable.
The findings of historical linguistics are often used as a basis for hypotheses about the groupings and movements of peoples, particularly in the prehistoric period. In practice, however, it is often unclear how to integrate the linguistic evidence with the archaeological or genetic evidence. For example, there are a large number of theories concerning the homeland and early movements of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, each with their own interpretation of the archaeological record.


  • August Schleicher: Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen. (Kurzer Abriss der indogermanischen Ursprache, des Altindischen, Altiranischen, Altgriechischen, Altitalischen, Altkeltischen, Altslawischen, Litauischen und Altdeutschen.) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Boehlau (1861/62); reprinted by Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1071-4
  • Karl Brugmann, Berthold Delbrück, Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (1886-1916).
  • Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1977) ISBN 0-521-29188-7
  • Richard D. Janda and Brian D. Joseph (Eds), The Handbook of Historical Linguistics (Blackwell, 2004) ISBN 1-4051-2747-3
  • Roger Lass, Historical linguistics and language change. (Cambridge University Press, 1997) ISBN 0-521-45924-9
  • Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Second Edition) (Holt, 1973) ISBN 0-03-078370-4
  • April McMahon, Understanding Language Change (Cambridge University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-521-44665-1
  • James Milroy, Linguistic Variation and Change (Blackwell, 1992) ISBN 0-631-14367-X
  • M.L. Samuels, Linguistic Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 1972) ISBN 0-521-29188-7
  • R.L. Trask,(ed.)Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001) ISBN 1-57958-218-4
glossology in Afrikaans: Diachroniese taalkunde
glossology in Asturian: Llingüística hestórica
glossology in Bengali: ঐতিহাসিক ভাষাবিজ্ঞান
glossology in Catalan: Lingüística diacrònica
glossology in German: Historische Linguistik
glossology in Spanish: Lingüística histórica
glossology in Esperanto: Historio de lingvo
glossology in Persian: زبان‌شناسی تاریخی
glossology in French: Linguistique comparée
glossology in Galician: Lingüística diacrónica
glossology in Korean: 비교언어학
glossology in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Linguistica historic
glossology in Icelandic: Söguleg málvísindi
glossology in Italian: Glottologia
glossology in Hebrew: בלשנות היסטורית
glossology in Kurdish: Zimannasiya dîrokî
glossology in Hungarian: Történeti nyelvészet
glossology in Dutch: Historische taalkunde
glossology in Japanese: 歴史言語学
glossology in Norwegian: Sammenlignende lingvistikk
glossology in Polish: Językoznawstwo diachroniczne
glossology in Portuguese: Lingüística histórica
glossology in Russian: Историческое языкознание
glossology in Slovenian: Zgodovinsko jezikoslovje
glossology in Swedish: Historisk lingvistik
glossology in Chinese: 歷史語言學
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