In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genealogical Classification

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks on Language Classification
  • Chapters and Articles on Language Classification

Linguistics Genealogical Classification
Søren Wichmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0017


In spite of a long tradition of linguists dealing empirically with the classification of languages, genealogical classification does not stand out as a subfield of linguistics or even of historical linguistics. It is only during the early 21st century that introductions to issues of language classification are beginning to fill more than just a few pages in textbooks. The change is largely due to the increasing popularity and practical viability of computational methods in language classification. The present article is biased toward early 21st-century literature for the same reason. The general criterion for including a work in this bibliography is that it should make an explicit methodological contribution—the only exceptions being the first section on introductory works and the last on empirical contributions. The latter, however, is restricted to classifications on a worldwide basis and to a list of some works that can be viewed as models for establishing relatedness among languages. There is a certain discrepancy between theory and practice in language classification because many proposed methods have had little practical application, and far from all of the empirical work has followed strict, methodological guidelines. Thus the present selection of works is not necessarily representative of the practice of historical linguists, but it does attempt to include all the major theoretical works that have to a greater or lesser extent guided practitioners.

Textbooks on Language Classification

The two books listed here have very different foci, and neither covers all aspects of language classification. Campbell and Poser 2008 is in the tradition of comparative linguistics and focuses on problems of establishing relatedness among languages, while McMahon and McMahon 2005 is interested in quantitative methods. The latter area has seen many developments since the book’s publication, so the field is in need of a more up-to-date introduction.

  • Campbell, Lyle, and William J. Poser. 2008. Language classification: History and method. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486906

    Argues that to successfully demonstrate that languages are related the linguist needs to compare grammatical elements and to establish regular sound correspondences, using the kinds of methods that were developed in the beginning of the 19th century. Later methods, such as Greenberg’s mass comparison or Nichols’s use of typological features for inferring language histories, are criticized.

  • McMahon, April, and Robert McMahon. 2005. Language classification by numbers. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This textbook covers some contemporary computational methods for producing phylogenetic trees and networks based on linguistic data such as lexemes, shared innovations, or phonemes within cognate sets. It also contains chapters on the basics of the comparative method and on lexicostatistics.

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