Methodology of historical linguistics

Author: April McMahon


The article addresses issues of good practice in teaching the methodology of historical linguistics (including reconstruction, classification, variation and change and corpus-based work) at undergraduate and graduate level.

Table of contents


Many undergraduate degree programmes and Masters courses include modules on historical linguistics or the histories of specific languages. Historical linguistic issues may also be relevant in discussions of language contact and its consequences, from pidginisation to language endangerment; in sociolinguistics and dialectology, which overlap with change in progress; and in corpus linguistics. It is likely that demand for courses in this area will increase as students encounter variation and change during the English Language A-Level.

Historical linguistics is well served by accessible textbooks, from the very introductory Aitchison (2001) and Crowley (1997), through McMahon (1994), Campbell (2004) and Millar (2007), for example. Excellent overview articles are to be found in Joseph and Janda (2003). There are separate literatures on the histories of individual languages, too extensive to be included here (though see van Kemenade and Los 2006 on the history of English). However, none of these focus specifically on methodology. While methodology is probably not an appropriate topic for entire modules, it is central to the way historical linguistics is done, and therefore to the way it is taught - and students are often very interested in methodological issues, since they relate to obvious questions, like 'How do we know?', 'What evidence is there for this hypothesis?', and 'How confident can we be that this is the right answer?' It may be helpful here to consider just three possible topics where methodology is central.

First, the data of historical linguistics has been enriched immensely by the use of corpora; a session on the historical application of corpora could allow discussion of both the quality and quantity of historical data, and of what is needed to track a historical change. Second, courses on the histories of individual languages have sometimes relied on processions of completed changes, while students may benefit from considering ongoing changes; thus, discussions of connections with dialectology and sociolinguistics may be fruitful. Finally, the methods of even the most traditional subfields of historical linguistics are currently under active discussion, as researchers attempt to apply computational techniques to language classification; this work is still in its early stages, but may ultimately allow more detailed measurement of linguistic 'closeness', closer connections with other disciplines like anthropology, archaeology and genetics, and more effective demonstration of language relatedness.


Aitchison, J. (2001). Language Change: Progress or decay? 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, L. (2004). Historical Linguistics. 2nd edition. Edinburgh University Press.

Crowley, T. (1997). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.

Joseph, Brian D. and Richard W. Janda (eds.) (2003).  The Handbook of Historical Linguistics.  Blackwell.

McMahon, A. (1994). Understanding Language Change. Cambridge University Press.

Millar, Robert McColl (2007). Trask’s Historical Linguistics. 2nd edition. Hodder Education.

Van Kemenade, Ans and Bettelou Los (eds) (2006)  The Handbook of the History of English.  Blackwell.

Related links


The British National Corpus

Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English

Variation and change

Labov, W. (1994, 2001) Principles of Linguistic Change. 2 volumes. Blackwell.

The Atlas of North American English

The Sound Comparisons Project (McMahon et al)

Classification and relatedness

Durie, M. and M. Ross (1997). The Comparative Method Reviewed. Oxford University Press.

McMahon, April (ed.) Special issue of Transactions of the Philological Society, 2005, Quantitative Methods in Language Comparison.

McMahon, April and Robert McMahon (2005) Language Classification by Numbers.  Oxford University Press.

Computational Phylogenetics in Historical Linguistics (Warnow, Nakhleh, Ringe et al)

Austronesian basic vocabulary database (Gray et al)

The ARHC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, UCL

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