25 Modeling the Past: The Linguistic Approach

  • Bernard Comrie
Reference work entry


First, traditional methods of comparative-historical linguistics are discussed as a means of reconstructing aspects of the past through linguistic means, with particular regard to the comparative method, the Neogrammarian hypothesis of the regularity of sound change, the construction of family trees of genealogically related languages, and linguistic paleontology as a means of reconstructing the physical and cultural environment in which the ancestor language was spoken. More detailed consideration is given to the reliability of different kinds of evidence in the application of these methods, especially problems arising from language contact and resulting horizontal rather than vertical transmission of innovations, and from the gradual splitting of an ancestor language into its descendants and the proposed wave theory model of this process. Emphasis is placed on the need for detailed and painstaking investigation in order to apply these methods. A critical discussion is then given of some more recently proposed methods, in particular mass comparison (with its lack of emphasis on the need to rely on the regularity of sound change), glottochronology (with its assumption of a constant rate of replacement for basic vocabulary), and typological comparison.


Common Ancestor Noun Phrase Family Tree Language Family Sound Change 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg New York 2007

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  • Bernard Comrie

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