Historical Linguistics Explained or What's English got to do with Lithuanian?

April 14, 2016 / by Lilia Mouma

Mango_Languages_Historical_Linguistics.jpgDuring his talk at the Polyglot Conference 2015, in New York City, Tim Doner described how historical linguists work. Historical linguistics is a branch of linguistics that examines how languages change and evolve over time. Languages are not unrelated to one another, but they form families. For example, you may have heard that Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian all come from Latin, so they form a family called Romance languages (which by the way has nothing to do with romance; they are called so because they come from a language that Romans, the inhabitants of ancient Rome, had spoken.) 

Tim, with whom Mango Languages had an interview recently, is a linguistics student at Harvard who was hailed a prodigy when at 16, he could speak over 20 languages at various levels. However, he says that the number of languages one speaks or their fluency in them is not the most important aspect in language learning. What matters most of is that through language learning you come to understand other people’s culture and mentality and hence you find a shared humanity. We are happy that at Mango Languages, our priority is not to simply teach language, but to connect it with culture. This is the reason we do not offer, for example, only Parisian French but also Canadian French. Or not only MSA Arabic but also the dialects.

Tim started his talk by asking what criteria one uses to decide if two languages are related. One criterion could be what words the two languages may share. Be it one or many words, Tim showed that this is not a good criterion because languages always lend and borrow words. Japanese, for example, has imported a load of English words as you can see in our “English Loanwords” Japanese course, but this does not make it a sister of English — as those who study it can attest.

Instead of relying on words to argue whether two or more languages are related, historical linguists go below the surface. The forefather of Historical Linguistics is WIlliam Jones, who while working in India and learning Sanskrit, noticed that the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar in Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek have such an affinity that cannot be attributed to coincidence. All three languages must have sprung from some common source.

In order to find this common source, we try to find patterns. For example, by looking at several words, it was noticed that wherever English has an f, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit had a p. One example is:

English                 Greek                  Latin                   Sanskrit

foot                        podós (g)             padis (g)              pád

After establishing that there are some patterns, we need to try to figure out what the common ancestor may have looked like. Did the word have an f or a p? We can establish that p was the original sound by looking at various other languages in the same region. This method of analysis is called The Comparative Method. One law of this method states that when a sound changes, it changes everywhere. For example, English will always have an f where other languages will have a p. However, this method of establishing ancestor language can only go back to 3000-4000 BC.

German and Gothic also have the f noted in English, so we can tell that these three languages are sisters. This means that some time in the past, their mother language, that is the language that these three languages came from, changed from p to f. But because most languages have a p we can assume that the ancestor language also had a p.The same rule applies for other consonants.
How about vowels? The same method is followed: we try to see patterns and so figure out the vowels of the ancestor.

By doing all this comparative analysis, scientists grouped all related languages together and formed one big happy language family, the Indo-European family. Take a look at the image of the post and try to find English and its sisters.

There are many such grand language families in the world. One example is the Finno-Uralic family to which the Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Sami belong. Yep, not all European languages belong to the Indo-European family.

What else can we learn by going back in history? Since language and culture are correlated - with language being the expression of the culture - we can learn about these ancestors: what tools they used, what they ate, what they drank, how they lived, and what animals they kept etc. Using this information, we can also figure out where they lived. The prevailing hypothesis, called Kurgan Hypothesis, is that they lived somewhere in southern Russia and they spread as far as China in the east and England in the west. This is amazing because we managed to learn so many things about them without even having a written record of them.

So how is all this related to language learning? First of all, languages that belong to the same family or subfamily can be much easier to learn. Want to try it out yourself? Try our courses by searching for free Mango access through your local library.

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PS. Check out the Mango Languages interview with Tim Doner

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Lilia Mouma

Written by Lilia Mouma

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