Comparative linguistics

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech (Gen. 11:1, KJV).

Dear All,
Have you ever heard the story about the tower of Babel? It is described in Genesis 11:1-9. The quote above is the beginning of this story. What is important for us in this discussion is that there is a statement that there was only one language on the earth. Then God scattered people to different places and confounded their language,

“(t)herefore is the name of it called Babel*; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9, KJV).

As can be seen from the quote above, at certain point after the events took place in Babel, people spoke different languages. How is this story related to CL? Well, first of all, let us define comparative linguistics (CL) and its objectives:

Comparative linguistics (=comparative philology) is a branch of historical linguistics that compares languages to determine their relatedness.

The objective of CL as can be seen from the definition suggests is to find out how languages are related to one another (e.g. what languages should be included in the Germanic family of languages). Another important goal of CL is to find the origin of individual languages and language families tracing this origin as far back in history as possible.

Starting at least by Italian writer Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), linguists began to notice and inquire into similarities and possible relatedness of languages. In his essay entitled “De vulgari eloquentia”, Dante wrote about the identical origin of Italian, French, and Provençal. More work in this area was done by Guillaume Postel (1510 – 1581) in his work “De affinitate linguarum”, by Friedrich Schlegel (1772 – 1829), Franz Bopp (1791–1867), Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (1785 – 1863), Rasmus Christian Rask (1787 –1832), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835), and other scholars who suggested theories and found linguistic evidence that multiple languages had the same origin. This language is referred to as “Proto-Indo-European” (PEI) as the linguistic evidence suggests the languages that are now spoken in Europe all the way to India derive from it.

Building on research over the past several centuries, linguists have managed to trace back the origin of a lot of individual languages and language families. The results of this research can be depicted in the diagram below:

IndoEuropeanTreeDielli1.svgImage credit: Zoti Zeu, “Indo European Tree Language” February 24, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The languages highlighted in green in the diagram above are living; the languages highlighted in red are extinct. The languages without any highlight are language families (e.g. Germanic, Romance, Slavic). The left half of the graphic is centum languages** and the right half is satem*** languages.

What is the major method that is used by CL scholars to identify that one language is related to another language? The major method used in CL is comparison of morphemes. Importantly, similar words are not considered to be a proof of relatedness between two languages since words can be easily borrowed from one language to another (the vocabulary of some languages consists of up to 70% of borrowed words).

How does this method work? Knowing how phonemes shifted in one language and how they shifted in a different language allows, on the one hand, revealing identical morphemes in these languages and therefore establishing their relatedness, and on the other hand reconstructing separate morphemes (including roots) or the whole words in a proto-language (the predecessor of given languages).

For instance, comparing the word “new” in Armenian “nor“, French “nouvel“, German “neu“,Greek “νέος“, Latin “novus“, Ukrainian “новий” and knowing the laws according to which phonemes shift (phonetic laws) in languages, it is possible to reconstruct the Indo-European proto-form *nevos****.

In order to determine, whether languages are related or not, CL scholars hold to the rule that “if the quantity of shared parts of words exceeds the quantity of shared words, then languages are related; if the quantity of shared words exceeds the quantity of shared parts of words, then the languages are not related or distantly related” (Kocherhan, 2010, p. 363).

4 principles are fundamental to CL research: 1) comparison of languages can reveal their relatedness – the shared proto-language; 2) shift of sounds in a language happens based on strict linguistic laws due to which it morphemes are stable and it is possible to reconstruct earlier versions of a language and its proto-language; 3) according to how languages are related they can be grouped into families, groups, and subgroups; and 4) the differences between languages can be explained by their individual development.

To advance CL research linguists compare forms both between different languages (outside reconstruction) and within the same language (inside reconstruction).

CL scholars often conduct their research on ancient manuscripts. However, with the development of computers, CL scholars also take advantage of computers to compile and analyze databases with considerable amounts of forms and languages to study. One of the linguistic tools that is available to the public and can be used for CL research is Ngram Viewer.

In conclusion, CL research has advanced considerably over the last several centuries, however, more is still to be discovered. For instance, how is the language described in Gen. 11:1 related to modern languages? Is this the PIE language or was PIE a “descendant” of that language? How to refine research tools to answer this and other CL questions? These are some of the outstanding tasks of CL and I hope that this post may encourage you to think over these matters and possibly to take the CL research one step further.

To recapitulate, this post has defined comparative linguistics and briefly discussed its objectives, and the major method. The post has also discussed the story about the tower of Babel in connection with CL. The discussion has concluded by looking at some possible directions of further research in CL.

* “Babel” – from Heb. בָּבֶל [bavel] “Babylon”, from בִּלְבֵּל [bilbel] “confuse”.
** Centum languages are those languages in which the word the word for “100” (from Lat. centum – hundred) is pronounced with the initial [k].
*** Satem languages are those languages in which the word for “100” is pronounced with the initial [s].
**** The “*” sign is used in CL to identify a reconstructed form (i.e. not something that was found in an original text, but what linguists have found relying on CL methods and principles).

More similar posts:
What is linguistics?
Structure of linguistics
Applied linguistics
Theoretical linguistics
Descriptive linguistics
What is language

Kocherhan, M.P. (2010). Zahal’ne movoznavstvo (3rd ed.). Kyiv: Academiia.




    1. What is linguistics? | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
    2. Structure of linguisitcs | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
    3. What is language | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
    4. Descriptive linguistics | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
    5. Theoretical linguistics | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
    6. Applied linguistics | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS

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