The Comparative Method

Authored by: Michael Weiss

The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics

Print publication date:  June  2014
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415527897
eBook ISBN: 9781315794013
Adobe ISBN: 9781317743248

10.4324/9781315794013.ch4

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Abstract

The Comparative Method (CM) is the systematic process of reconstructing the segmental and suprasegmental inventory of an ancestral language from cognate reflexes in the genetically related daughter languages. On the basis of the lexemes in which these reflex segments are embedded one may also reconstruct morphemes and lexemes. Since Schleicher (1852) it has been the key tool for investigating linguistic prehistory. Textual records for languages are in most parts of the world very recent, and even the earliest written records go back only a shallow 5,000 years or so. Thus if we were entirely dependent on written records little historical linguistics could be done on many languages and we would have no clear idea of the inter-relationship and prehistory of even relatively shallow language families like Slavic or Germanic. Fortunately, CM allows us to reach much greater time depths and reconstruct ancestral languages that existed thousands of years before the advent of writing.

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