Comparative Method


Comparative Method

The comparative method in historical linguistics is concerned with the reconstruction of an earlier language or earlier state of a language on the basis of a comparison of related words and expressions in different languages or dialects derived from it. The comparative method was developed in the course of the 19th century for the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European and was subsequently applied to the study of other language families.

It depends upon the principle of regular sound change—a principle that, as explained above, met with violent opposition when it was introduced into linguistics by the Neogrammarians in the 1870s but by the end of the century had become part of what might be fairly described as the orthodox approach to historical linguistics. Changes in the phonological systems of languages through time were accounted for in terms of sound laws.

The most famous of the sound laws is Grimm’s law (though Jacob Grimm himself did not use the term law). Some of the correspondences accounted for by Grimm’s law are given in It will be observed that when other Indo-European languages, including Latin and Greek, have a voiced unaspirated stop (b, d ), Gothic has the corresponding voiceless unaspirated stop (p, t) and that when other Indo-European languages have a voiceless unaspirated stop, Gothic has a voiceless fricative (f, θ).

The simplest explanation would seem to be that, under the operation of what is now called Grimm’s law, in some prehistoric period of Germanic (before the development of a number of distinct Germanic languages), the voiced stops inherited from Proto-IndoEuropean became voiceless and the voiceless stops became fricatives.

Comparative Method

The situation with respect to the sounds corresponding to the Germanic voiced stops is more complex. Here there is considerable disagreement between the other languages: Greek has voiceless aspirates (ph, th), Sanskrit has voiced aspirates (bh, dh), Latin has voiceless fricatives in word-initial position (f) and voiced stops in medial position (b, d), Slavic has voiced stops (b, d), and so on.

The generally accepted hypothesis is that the Proto-Indo-European sounds from which the Germanic voiced stops developed were voiced aspirates and that they are preserved in Sanskrit but were changed in the other Indo-European languages by the loss of either voice or aspiration. (Latin, having lost the voice in initial position, subsequently changed both of the resultant voiceless aspirates into the fricative f, and it lost the aspiration in medial position.) It is easy to see that this hypothesis yields a simpler account of the correspondences than any of the alternatives. It is also in accord with the fact that voiced aspirates are rare in the languages of the world and, unless they are supported by the coexistence in the same language of phonologically distinct voiceless aspirates (as they are in Hindi and other north Indian languages), appear to be inherently unstable.

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