The Comparative Method

Theoretical issues

Authored by: Mark Hale

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


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I will use the phrase ‘the Comparative Method’ (or ‘the Method’) in this chapter to refer to a fairly well-defined process of scientific hypothesis formation which leads to the reconstruction of ancestral linguistic objects, given linguistic data from a set of (sub)grouped, related ‘daughter’ languages. Like all serious scientific pursuits, the implementation of the procedure requires the careful consideration of a variety of types of evidence (in this case, directionality limitations on change events, triviality indices of change events, probability of borrowing, chance, and iconic similarities, etc.). The Method allows for (indeed, strictly speaking demands) the reconstruction of ‘intermediate’ proto-language forms (i.e., those of the ancestor of any subgroup) as well as the (ultimate) proto-language forms themselves. Since the Method produces proto-forms (including the ‘intermediate’ proto-forms of subgroups), and daughter forms are its input, it provides initial, intermediate and termination data points for (some of) the forms of the languages under investigation. It is therefore possible on the basis of the reconstructed material to construct a historical grammar of the languages, indeed, the decision about what to reconstruct is simultaneously an implicit claim as to the events which comprise that historical grammar.

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