Chapter 14: Historical Linguistics

Language is always changing. Many people find it inherently interesting to discover historical connections and common origins between words and grammatical structures. But studying language change can provide us with more than just interesting connections. The kinds of change that occur can also tell us a lot about the nature of language. For example, many kinds of language change happen in cyclical patterns. This indicates that there is not an overall trend towards simplification or complexity, but rather that the range of variation in human language is somewhat stable. We cannot travel back in time to see how people used to speak, but in this chapter we will discuss some of the ways that languages have changed, and also what kind of evidence we use to figure it out.

People sometimes have strong opinions about the effects of language change, and advocate for the older, ‘pure’ version of a language. But how far back do we have to go to find the ‘pure’ language? Is 100 years enough? How did that compare to the language from 1000 years ago? The fact of the matter is that, just like different dialects aren’t necessarily any better or worse than each other, neither are different historical stages of a language. Language changes occur in systematic ways that compensate for each other and preserve overall the level of complexity and expressiveness of language.

Learning Goals

When you have completed this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Explain that language change does not, overall, affect the complexity of language.
  • Demonstrate that language change often has complex effects and occurs cyclically.
  • Explain how the methods of historical linguistics can be used to demonstrate and document the historical relationships between and within languages
  • Analyze and classify language changes according to their type and cause, using technical terminology


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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