In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Indo-European Historical Linguistics
  • Language Change
  • Language Contact and Creolization
  • Language Documentation and Revitalization
  • Linguistic Reconstruction and Culture
  • Methodology
  • Philology and Ethnohistory
  • Writing, Literacy, and Language Change

Anthropology Historical Linguistics
David Tavárez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0105


Historical linguistics is a discipline with strong interdisciplinary connections to sociocultural anthropology, ethnohistory, and archaeology. While the study of language change and etymology can be traced back to ancient societies in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia, a number of important methodological approaches emerged in the late 18th century, when European scholars who were engaged in colonial administration set the foundations for research in Indo-European languages. Contemporary historical linguistics has maintained a focus on several large-scale questions, such as the origins of the language faculty; the classification and typology of the world’s languages; the time depth of major language changes; ancient writing systems; the impact of linguistic and cultural contacts on language change; the emergence of pidgins and creoles; the influence of colonial expansion and evangelization projects on language change; and the interface among literacy practices, language change, and the social order. This article outlines all of these important inquiries, with a particular stress on the sustained interaction among historical linguistics, anthropology, and ethnohistory. This survey has two focii: the first one is languages of the Americas, and the second one is ethnohistorical and philological methodology. This choice in focus conveys existing historical strengths and showcases our current knowledge about language contact and language change in the Americas.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide either historically salient or updated introductions to the field for beginning and advanced students. Bloomfield 1933 includes a classic discussion of Americanist approaches to language change in the early 20th century. Campbell 2004 is the most accomplished introduction to the field in print, Crowley and Bowern 2010 is a recent introduction to the field with an emphasis on Austronesian data, Luraghi and Bubenik 2010 presents a wide range of specialized articles on disciplinary subfields, and Joseph and Janda 2003 is an eminently useful reference work. Bynon 1977 and Janson 2002 are highly accessible general surveys, and Hogg, et al. 1992 summarizes several decades of research on the history of English in Great Britain and beyond.

  • Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    An often-cited, influential summary of language typology and historical linguistics written by a leading early figure in Americanist linguistics.

  • Bynon, Theodora. 1977. Historical linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139165709

    A useful introduction to the basic concepts and methodology of historical linguistics, with an emphasis on research in ancient and modern Indo-European languages.

  • Campbell, Lyle. 2004. Historical linguistics: An introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    A critically acclaimed and much admired work that retains its status as the most comprehensive, ambitious, and synthetic one-volume introduction to historical linguistics for beginning and advanced students.

  • Crowley, Terry, and Claire Bowern. 2010. An introduction to historical linguistics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A popular, streamlined introduction to general topics and methods in historical linguistics, with a focus on data from Austronesian languages.

  • Hogg, Richard M., Norman F. Blake, Roger Lass, Suzanne Romaine, Robert W. Burchfield, and John Algeo. 1992. The Cambridge history of the English language. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521264747

    These three volumes, part of a series published by Cambridge University Press, provide a useful and approachable introduction to the historical linguistics and philology of the English language from its origins to the American Revolution. Volume 1, The Beginnings to 1066, edited by Richard M. Hogg (1992); Volume 2, 1066–1476, edited by Norman Blake (2000); Volume 3, 1476–1776, edited by Roger Lass (2000).

  • Janson, Tore. 2002. Speak: A short history of languages. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A highly readable introduction to the origins of language and language families.

  • Joseph, Brian D., and Richard D. Janda, eds. 2003. The handbook of historical linguistics. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756393

    A useful reference work that introduces and contextualizes contemporary issues in historical linguistics, with a focus on methodological issues and proposals about major principles that explain phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic change.

  • Luraghi, Silvia, and Vit Bubenik, eds. 2010. The Continuum companion to historical linguistics. London: Continuum International.

    A recent compilation of specialized survey articles for advanced students authored by a broad range of scholars in the field.

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