Historical Linguistics

What is historical linguistics?

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Historical linguistics is the study of how languages have changed over time. English, for example, has changed significantly throughout history. Its earliest form, Old English, is unintelligible to modern English speakers. Read the below excerpt from Beowulf, the oldest surviving Old English poem (written between 700-1000 A.D.) and try to decipher its meaning.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

– Beowulf, Anonymous

It’s difficult, right? English has changed so much since Beowulf was written, we don’t even use some of the same letters! Now find below a more modern translation of the same lines.

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings

of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

-Beowulf, translated by Frances B. Gummere

Through knowledge of historical linguistics, particularly of the English language, the translator is able to decipher this Old English text. Read on to find a little bit about the areas of historical linguistics! And if you’d like to read more Beowulf, you can find the poetry foundation’s Old English version here and the modern English translation here.

What are the areas of historical linguistics?

Some subfields of historical linguistics are:

  • Comparative linguistics focuses on comparing languages in order to determine whether they have historic links, such as a common ancestor or word-borrowing. If you are interested in learning more about how languages are related, check out our page on language families here.
  • Etymology is the study of the history of words: their form, their meaning and how these have changed over time. Etymologists investigate when a word enters a language and where it came from.
  • Dialectology is concerned with the differing features of linguistic varieties (dialects) of a particular language. Dialects are associated with particular groups and often based on geographical distribution.

Other subfields of historical linguistics relate to the main areas of linguistics more generally. Phonology and phonetics (sounds), morphology (words) and syntax (sentence structure) are all topics of interest to historical linguists.

If you would like to learn more about historical linguistics, check out the crash course video below!