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

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Glossaries
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals

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Linguistics Comparative-Historical Linguistics
Joseph Salmons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0008


Historical linguistics is about how and why language changes over time. Comparative linguistics, in the relevant sense, is the study of linguistic relatedness, that is to say, of genetic or ancestral connections and related matters of subgrouping extending to the reconstruction of unattested ancestral languages or proto-languages. Historical linguistics is often regarded as the oldest branch of modern scientific linguistics. The powerful case put forward by the neogrammarians for the regularity of sound change allowed comparison of linguistic phenomena to the laws of the natural sciences, providing a cornerstone to the scientific status of linguistics. Once focused on the comparison of distinct historical stages (like Latin versus French or Old English versus Modern English), the field now incorporates much research on language change qua process, including work on changes now underway. Since all aspects of language change, save for our cognitive capacity for language, historical linguistics is directly connected to all subfields.


The textbook market in historical linguistics is livelier today than it has been in many years and several fine options are available depending on the course and the particular needs and backgrounds of the students. Most of the works cited here are designed expressly for teaching introductions to the field. They run the general length of university textbooks for a semester-long course and often include exercises for students (Campbell 2004, Crowley and Bowern 2010, Millar 2015, for instance) and suggestions for further reading and/or glossaries (Sihler 2000 has these, along with a glossary of German historical linguistics terms). Others are more theoretically oriented (especially Ringe and Eska 2013). Hock and Joseph 2009 provides particularly expansive coverage.

  • Bybee, Joan. 2015. Language change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Over her career, Bybee has contributed to central discussions on issues ranging from frequency effects in sound change to exemplar theory to grammaticalization. This book draws on those perspectives in the context of a full introduction to language change.

  • Campbell, Lyle. 2004. Historical linguistics: An introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    A straightforward and relatively traditional introduction by a leading specialist, clear and readily accessible even to beginning students. Indo-European data are balanced against extensive material from the languages of the world, especially Finno-Ugric and Mesoamerican languages.

  • Crowley, Terry, and Claire Bowern. 2010. An introduction to historical linguistics. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume has evolved greatly over its editions, now including, for instance, a chapter on computational and statistical methods in comparative linguistics, something most texts lack. It also contains seventeen data sets used in various exercises throughout the book. Data are drawn especially from Australian languages and languages of the Pacific.

  • Hock, Hans Henrich, and Brian D. Joseph. 2009. Language history, language change, and language relationship: An introduction to historical and comparative linguistics. 2d ed. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110214307

    This is one of the more detailed and extensive of the current introductions. It does not contain exercises or problem sets, though it does have suggestions for further reading. The balance of data leans toward the Indo-European family.

  • Millar, Robert McColl. 2015. Trask’s historical linguistics. 3d ed. London: Hodder Education.

    Based on an earlier work by Larry Trask (Historical Linguistics, first published in 1998), this work is aimed at beginners and accessibly written for that audience. It includes “case studies” at the end of every chapter to provide students with one example of current debate and discussion in the field, from Germanic hw in the modern dialects to Greenbergian multilateral comparison.

  • Ringe, Don, and Joseph F. Eska. 2013. Historical linguistics: Toward a twenty-first century reintegration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511980183

    The broadest and probably the most successful of numerous efforts over the last decade to present a broad introduction to historical and comparative linguistics in the context of contemporary linguistic theory.

  • Sihler, Andrew L. 2000. Language history: An introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/cilt.191

    By a leading specialist in Indo-European and especially classical languages, this work is particularly suited for introducing students of those languages to the full field of historical linguistics.

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