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Linguistics Comparative-Historical Linguistics
Joseph Salmons, Emily Utz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • 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. This area is often regarded as the oldest branch of modern scientific linguistics, and it is one of the most active areas today. 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, historical linguistics is directly connected to all subfields.


The textbook market in historical linguistics is lively today 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 run the general length of university textbooks for a semester-long course and often include exercises for students (Campbell 2021 and Crowley and Bowern 2010, for instance) and suggestions for further reading and/or glossaries. Others are more theoretically oriented (especially Ringe and Eska 2013) or reflect particular schools of thought (Bybee 2015) with usage-based approaches. Hock and Joseph 2009 provides particularly expansive coverage.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139096768Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Over a long 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. 2021. Historical linguistics: An introduction. 4th ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

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    A straightforward and relatively traditional introduction by a leading specialist, clear and readily accessible even to beginning students. Indo-European data are balanced against 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.

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    This volume has evolved greatly over its editions, now including, for instance, a chapter on computational and statistical methods in comparative linguistics. 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: 10.1515/9783110214307Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of the more detailed and extensive of the current introductions. 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.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511980183Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The broadest and perhaps 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.

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