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ENG 2003

Historical Linguistics
Historical Linguistics

- the study of how language changes of time and of the historical relationships
between languages and dialects

Languages change over time…like a lava lamp

Old English: 450CE – 1100CE (Beowulf)

And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum
and to rihtre woroldlage. [royal proclamation]

An I make known to you, that I will be a civilized lord faithful to God’s rights and to
the worldly laws.

Middle English: 1100 – 1500 (Chaucer)

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…

When April with its sweet showers

Early Modern English: 1500 – 1700 (Shakespeare)

Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name…
Historical Linguistics

Old Korean (before 1000 AD) – very little known

woraka (used by ruling class)/kici (used by commoners) – ‘king’

kuti – ‘falcon’
tohel – ‘field’

Middle Korean (approx 1000 – 1700)

Middle Modern English

namo namu 나무 tree
kamakoj kkamaky/ɥi 까마귀crow
talɔ talɨ 다르 different
skum-ɨl kkum-ɨl 꿈을 dream-ACC
muzwu mu: 무 turnip (length distinction lost for most speakers)

Historical Linguistics

Modern historical linguistics started with Sir William Jones in the late 18th century
(and with Gaston-Laurent Cœurdoux).

Both scholars proposed that the languages of India (including Hindi, Gujarati,
Marathi, Punjabi, etc.) were related to the languages of Europe [NB The languages
of southern India are NOT related to the former.]

careful study of Sanskrit, Latin and Greek  Indo-European languages.

Sir Williams Jones later hypothesized that Persian was also related to the Indo-
European languages…a hypothesis which turned out to be correct.

Regularity of Sound Change

cot/caught merger affects all words with [ɔ] and [ɑ]…not just ‘cot’ and ‘caught’

Northern Cities Vowel Shift (in US) - [ɑ]  [æ] “socks” [sæks]

This gives rise to sound correspondences – Consistent and pervasive…all words

with [æ] in Northern Cities dialects have [ɑ] in other dialects
Some Historical Changes in English

Great Vowel Shift 1400-1600

[i]  [ae] ([aj] in some sources)

“bite” [bitə]  [baet]

Trisyllabic Laxing

tense vowels become lax in words of three

syllables or more.

Before GVS After GVS

‘divine’ [divinə] [dəvaen]

‘divinity’ [dəvɪnəti] [dəvɪnəti]
(flapping notwithstanding)

Some Historical Changes in English

Loss of verb-second (V2)

Germanic languages exhibit a phenomenon called ‘verb-second’ – the tensed verb

(or auxiliary if there is one) must appear after the first major constituent in the

Peter hat das Brot gegessen [German]

Peter has the bread eaten
‘Peter ate the bread.’

Das Brot hat Peter gegessen

the bread hat Peter eaten
‘Peter ate the bread.’

Heute hat Peter das Brot gegessen

today has Peter the bread eaten
‘Peter ate the bread.’ / ‘Today, Peter ate the bread.’

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer…[Richard III]

Now the winter of our discontent is made glorious summer…
Some Historical Changes in Korean

Loss of [z]

Middle Korean muzwu  mu: (무)

musu 전라, 충청, 강원도, 함경남도

musi: 전라, 경상남도
mu: 충청남도, 강원도, 경기도, 황해, 평안북도, 함경남도
mui: 강원도, 황해
mu.yu: 경기도, 황해

Back to the 18th and 19th Centuries

Sound correspondences noted for Sanskrit, Latin and Greek

These survive in modern languages – extensively studied by Jakob Grimm

English French

father père
foot pied
fish poisson

Romance: /k/ ‘softened’ to /s/ in French and Portuguese before front V

hundred Latin ‘centum’ with /k/ French ‘cent’


Comparative Reconstruction

From the observations above, it can be determined that English, German, Dutch,
etc. have once common ancestor. Also, French, Spanish, Portuguese have another
common ancestor. Along with Hindi, all these languages have one common

Historical Linguistics
Palatalization – A type of assimilation. An alveolar sound becomes post-
alveolar or palatal before a palatal glide or a front vowel.

t  ʧ / ___ j d  ʤ / ___ j
s  ʃ / ___ j z  ʒ / ___ j

Say “wait your turn” slowly and carefully – then say it quickly.

The words sugar and sure used to be pronounced /sj…/, but they became
palatalized over time.

Words like Tuesday and duke optionally palatalize depending on speaker and

Historical Linguistics
Affrication – A stop becoming an affricate.

Here’s an example from Latin  Old French

Latin Old French

centum [k] cent [ts]

Quebec French

tu [ʦy] ‘you.SING’ hostile [ausʦɪl] ‘hostile’

Dion [ʣiɔ̃] surname du [ʣy] ‘of the’

tes [te] ‘your’ donner [daune] ‘to give’

Historical Linguistics
Umlaut – The change in vowel quality as the result of the presence of a vowel in
another syllable.

Pre Old English I Pre Old English II Old English Modern English

[ɡos] [ɡos] [ɡos] [ɡus] ‘goose’

[ɡosi] [ɡøsi] [ɡøs] [ɡis] ‘geese’

[mus] [mus] [mus] [maʊs] ‘mouse’

[musi] [mysi] [mys] [maɪs] ‘mice’

Historical Linguistics
Metathesis – The transposition of two segments

This is heard often in child English:

spaghetti  pasghetti

Early Old English Later Old English Modern English

wæps wæsp wasp

Modern English:

ask [æsk]  [æks] (holdover from Middle English)

Historical Linguistics
Vowel Reduction – Vowels in unstressed position often become /ə/.

general  generality

Vowel Deletion – Unstressed vowels often become deleted.

Old English Middle English Early Modern English

(vowel reduction) (vowel deletion)

stanas [a] stones [ə] stones [Ø]

stanes [e] stones [ə] stone’s [Ø]
nama [a] name[ə] name [Ø]
talu [u] tale [ə] tale[Ø]

Historical Linguistics
Consonant Weakening – Consonants become ‘weaker’ in certain positions
(often between two vowels)

apa  aba


stronger voiceless stops

voiceless fricatives/voiced stops
voiced fricatives
weaker glides

In intervocalic position, consonants tend to move from the stronger position to

the weaker position.

Historical Linguistics
To go back in time linguistically, we must “undo” these changes

the change apa  aba is phonetically plausible

the change aba  apa is phonetically implausible

Genetic lineage among languages is often determined by examining


English German Dutch Proto-Germanic

mother Mutter moeder *mōder
brother Bruder broer *brōðar
house Haus huis *hūsam

It is not difficult to see that English, German, and Dutch are related. As we
have discussed, they come from Proto-Germanic. (Reconstructed forms are
marked with *)

Language Genealogy
phylum – The largest known grouping of a set of languages – also called a
language family

isolate – A language with no other known relatives: ex, Basque, not Japanese
(Okinawan is now a distinct language, see below also), Ainu, Haida, Zuni, etc.
Where did language come from?

monogenetic theory – all languages have one common ancestor

extremely difficult to establish. Language is thought to have evolved 50 000
years ago, around the time of our emigration from Africa.

Proto-World – the hypothetical ancestor to all human languages

Language Genealogy
polygenetic theory – the theory that language evolved more than once and in
different locations.
Capacity for language may have evolved once in early humans
Humans may have started using language after human populations started

Some proposed super-families that might be useful to remember:

Nostratic – contains all the languages of Europe, most of Asia, Africa and
North America – not widely held
Altaic – contains Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic (somewhat widely believed, but
not fully accepted) and Korean and Japanese (less widely believed)

Language Genealogy
Newly establish family: Dene-Yeniseian
Na-Dené (proto-language of Tlingit, Eyak and Athabaskan languages)
Yeniseic (represented today only by Ket, in Siberia; 200 speakers)
2nd well-established genetic linkage between Asia and North America

Language Genealogy
Some phyla that might be worth remembering:
Indo-European: English, French, Hindi, Russian, Yiddish
Sino-Tibetan: Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Burmese
Afro-Asiatic: Arabic, Hebrew, Hausa
Dravidian: Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Sinhala

…others as we proceed

spoken from Turkey, across
central Asia, to northeastern

well-known members: Turkish 60 000 000

Uzbek 15 000 000
Kyrgyz 2 000 000
Uighur 6 700 000 – northwestern China

well-known members: Manchu 60 speakers in China (formerly Manchuria)
Xibe 40 000 speakers in China

bi tere niyalma-i emgi gene+he

I that person-GEN with go+PAST
‘I went with that person.’


Japanese and Okinawan are generally agreed to be distinct languages

Two members: Korean and Jeju

Altaic Hypothesis – Not universally accepted…still bitterly debated

spoken by 15 speakers in Hokkaido
(northernmost island of Japan).

Shares many properties with Japanese due to contact.

Used to exhibit extensive noun incorporation, but now quite rare.