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This page last updated March 22, 2001 at 10:45 p.m. MDT by Daniel Roundy, dqr@ttt.org


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Definitions for Historical/Comparative Linguistics (Linguistics 450)

Actuation: The manner in which linguistic changes begin.

Accusative Languages: See Ergative languages.

Adaption: A word borrowing process in which the loanword is converted into the phonotactic system of the recipient languages.

Adoption (Importation): In relation to borrowing from one language to another, the word is borrowed directly in its original form (contrast Adaption/Substitution).

Afro-Asiatic Language Family: Language family that includes languages of northern Africa and southwestern Asia.

Age-Area Hypothesis: The hypothesis that in studying language change and migration, the area that has the greatest amount of linguistic variation is most likely the area where the first group of speakers lived. This hypothesis assumes the fewest number of migrations to account for the spread of the language.

Agglutinating Languages: Languages where morphemes are strung together in a fixed order with each morpheme representing one meaning.

Altaic Family: A family of languages found primarily in Asia including the Mongolian, Tungus, and Turkic languages and possibly Japanese, Korean, and Ainu.

Amelioration: A semantic change toward a more positive connotation in the meaning of a word or morpheme; for example, the English word nice, which meant "foolish" in Middle English, now means kind or pleasant.

Amerind Family: The family of languages that encompasses Native American languages.

Analogy: An irregular language change that reduces irregularity within a language, expressed mathematically in the form a:b=c:d. It occurs when an expected form is overgeneralized and applied in situations where an irregular form is the standard, thus the expected form gradually becomes the new standard.

Aphaeresis: The loss of initial consonants in words or morphemes. (Atata>Tata)

Apocape: The dropping off word final vowels. For example, the silent "e" in many English words used to be pronounced.

Assimilation: The process by which one sound influences the articulation of a neighboring sound so that the sounds become similar or the same. May be either progressive or regressive, immediate or distant.

Attested Forms: Linguistic constructions from an earlier stage of a language that were preserved in written form.

Austronesian Family: Language family that includes Malay, Indonesian, Polynesian languages, Filipino languages, and many other languages ranging from Madagascar to Hawaii and Easter Island.

Automorphism: An iconicity or similarity of forms that enables prediction. For example, because the idea of plurality connotes more, we expect the singular form of a word to be the base form that the plural marker is added to, making both the form and the meaning larger. Indeed, the majority of the world's languages have a Ø marker for singular and a morpheme for plural.

Backformation: A new word produced by analogy when people remove a supposed affix from the perceived stem of a word; the verb peddle was created in English when people began removing the supposed affix –ar from the noun peddlar.

Leonard Bloomfield: One of the most prominent American Structuralists, his work was influential in many areas of language studies, including historical linguistics, language acquisition, language contact, semantics, and many other areas of linguistics.

Case: The grammatical role that words play in a language. In English, the subject form of words is nominative (as in the pronoun I); the direct object form is accusative (as in the pronoun me); the indirect object form is dative (also me); and the possessive form is genitive (as in the adjective my and the pronoun mine). Other languages have additional roles such as the instrumental, the locative, and the oblique.

Calque: A lexical borrowing strategy in which the recipient language, rather than copying the phonological form of a word or term, translates each morpheme directly into the native language, creating an equivalent idiom. For example, early translators of the Bible in English rendered the Latin term remorsus "remorse" as again-bite" and the Latin term reflectere "reflect" as "again-shine."

Category Change: When the part of speech of a word changes because of the addition of a derivational affix.

Cognates: Two words in different languages that are of the same descent and are similar in form and meaning.

Contamination (Blending): A sort of analogical change in which a word's form is influenced by the form of another word in the same semantic field; for example, the English number "four" should have an initial [k], but has been influence by the following number in the series, "five."

Contiguity: A phenomenon that, in terms of proximity of forms or referents, is responsible for creating ellipsis, or metonymy.

Convergence: A type of contact-induced change in which languages of equal social prestige with many bilingual speakers mutually borrow morphological and syntactic features, making their typology more similar.

Creole: A language that develops when an undeveloped contact language expand in complexity and becomes the native language of the next generation of children in a discourse community, such as Gullah in the Carolina islands.

Diachronic Linguistics: The study of language development through time and history, in contrast with the study of a language at a particular time.

Dialect: A specific variety of a language distinguished from other varieties of the same language by differing syntax, phonology, and lexicon. Dialects also differentiate groups socially, ethnically, regionally, or historically.

Diffusion: The process by which specific linguistic changes are incorporated into the idiolects of speakers in a language.

Dissimilation: A process whereby one sound in a word changes to become less like a sound near it. For example, the "n" in the Latin "anma" became an "l" in the Spanish "alma" to differentiate it more distinctly from the "m."

Dravidian Family: A family of language found primarily in India and surrounding countries including Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

Drift: A series of individual changes in a single language that move in the same direction in which each change is pre-conditioned by the changes that preceded it and sets up the conditions for the changes that will follow it. Sapir isolated some examples of this in English including leveling case distinctions and fixing word order.

Ellipsis: The process of leaving out a certain structure in a sentence that can be figured out by the rest of the sentence or context, for example, in the sentence "He may have told her, or she have told him," the word "may" was left out of the second part of the sentence by ellipses.

Epenthesis: The insertion of a sound into a word, usually with the effect of simplifying articulation; for example, in pronouncing athlete, saying [æ (schwa)lit] instead of [æ lit]. (Asta>Asata)

Ergative Language: Type of language which marks the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb the same way, and the subject of a transitive verb differently.

Etymology: The history of a word's diachronic developments in form and meaning.

Euphemism: A more positive word or less offensive expression used as a substitute for a term associated with unpleasant or sensitive topics; for example, sanitary engineer for garbage collector; or passed away for died.

Excrescence: A type of epenthesis in which a consonant is inserted between other consonants, usually resulting in a consonant cluster that is easier to pronounce; for example, a [b] was inserted into ole English þymel to create the modern word "thimble."(Amra>Ambra; Anra>Andra)

Extension: A generalization in the meaning of a word to include wider applications and connotations; the word holiday initially referred only to religious days but has broadened to include other festive days; generalization broadening.

Folk Etymology: A process by which the meaning of a word or phrase is reinterpreted because of similarity in form to other morphemes or words in a language.

Fusion: The process by which a word becomes fused to other words and thus becomes an affix (for example, -hood and -ly used to be full words in English, but are now affixes).

Generalization: In the context of language change, refers to the expanding of the meaning of a word to include a more extensive definition. For example, the English word "holiday" used to only refer to special religious days, but now includes other types of celebration or remembrance days as well.

Generativist Approach: A theory of linguistics that claims syntax as the primary force behind language and language change, it claims that speakers have acquired a finite set of rules and words, but with these can produce an infinite number of unique utterances.

Glottochronology: A mathematical method for estimating the date that two sister languages separated using the percentage of the cognates in the core vocabulary and a fixed rate of change.

Grammaticalization: The process by which a content word comes to have only functional meaning; for example, the Old English nouns hâd "state, quality" and lîc "body" have become the Modern English suffixes "-hood" and "-ly" (McMahon, p.160).

Grassman's Law: A classic example of dissimilation involving aspirated consonants, that took place in both ancient Sanskrit and ancient Greek, in which aspirated consonants lost their aspiration if followed by another syllable containing an aspirated consonant.

Great Vowel Shift: A set of sound changes in the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English (15th-18th centuries) that affected long tense vowels, Mid and low vowels moved higher; for example, the pronunciation of the word sweet changed from /swet/ to /swit/. High vowels became diphthongs; for example, the pronunciation of the word house changed from /hus/ to haus/.

Grimm's Law: A series of systematic consonant changes that distinguished Germanic languages from other branches of the Indo-European language family; for example, voiceless stops became fricatives; thus the /k/ sound in the Indo-European root *kerd- became and /h/ in the English word heart.

Haplology: A rare, sporadic sound change in which an entire syllable is lost if it is found next to an identical or very similar syllable. For example, the country name England was once Anglaland (the land of the Angles), but one of the –la syllables was taken out (Crowley p.43).

Historical Linguistics: The area of linguistics that studies how languages are related to each other historically and how languages change throughout time.

Homeostasis: A state of balance within a language, also referred to as systematic equilibrium or symmetry. When change upsets the balance in a language, further changes will be made to restore it.

Homograph: A word that has the same written form as another word but differs in meaning and/or pronunciation; for example, lead the verb ("guide") and lead the noun ("heavy metal").

Homonyms: Two words are homonyms if they have the same written form and the same pronunciation, but have different definitions.

Homophone: Two words are homophones if they are pronounced the same way but are spelled differently, and have different meanings.

Humboldt's Universals: The theory that languages prefer linguistic uniformity, and that when uniformity in a system is interrupted by sound change, other linguistic processes will restore it; a declaration f the preferability of isomorphism.

Hyperbole: A shift in meaning due to exaggeration by overstatement; for example, the words terribly, horribly, awfully have come to mean "very" rather than being associated with their root words terror, horror, and awe.

Hypercorrection: A linguistic overcompensation used by a speaker to avoid a form which is mistakenly assumed to be incorrect; for example, the use of the nominative I instead of the objective me in the sentence He wrote to Sally and I.

Iconicity: The principle that prompts related elements to be similar in both form an meaning, it is the result of linguistic forms resembling their referents.

Idiolect: The language spoken by one person, as opposed to that spoken by a language group. An individual may have certain items or features in his own idiolect that other members of his language group may not have in theirs.

Implementation (Transmission): In relation to language change, it means how the language change spreads.

Importation: See Adoption.

Indo-European Language Family: Language family that includes languages of Europe, as well as of Iran and India. The Indo-European Language Family includes all languages that have been identified as descendent languages of the reconstructed language Proto-Indo-European. Among these are English, French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, Latin, Armenian, Sanskrit, German, and many others.

Internal Reconstruction: A method of reconstructing an earlier form of a language using date from the language itself, rather than comparing the language with its sister languages.

Isogloss: A line drawn on a map to indicate the boundary where one sound or word stops being used and another begins to be used in its place.

Isolate Languages: A language that is unrelated to any other language and thus forms its own language family; for example, Basque.

Isomorphism: A type of iconicity which refers to one form having only one meaning, and one meaning only one form; for example, in Old English there were two stems for the word "book" bôk (singular stem) and bçk (plural stem), which were consolidated into the current word, so that now there is only one form that one meaning.

Sir William Jones: A British colonel in India, he is famous for research on the connections between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.

William Labov: One of the pioneers of sociolinguistics, he documented language variation in speech communities as evidence of language changes and discovered that there are two different kinds of sound change that display different implementation patterns—one similar to the Neogrammarian model and the other similar to the model of lexical diffusion.

Language Bioprogram Hypothesis: Bickerton's theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles, it contends that humans are born with a cognitive set of semantic and syntactic parameters, and that when children receive insufficient input—such as in the case of a pidgin—these parameters guide the children of pidgin speakers in expanding the language to Creole status, thus explaining the many structural similarities that exist between all Creole languages.

Language Death: The process by which a community of speakers of one language become bilingual in another, more prestigious language, and gradually shift allegiance to the second language until they no longer use their original language.

Lenition/Weakening: A common sound change in which a stronger phoneme is replaced with a weaker phoneme; for example, intervocalic stops in Latin, which were voiceless (p,t, and k) changed to voiced stops (b,d, and g) in Spanish.

Lexical Diffusion: In historical linguistics, lexical diffusion refers to a change that occurs at first in a small set of a few words and later spreads to the rest of the lexicon.

Lexical Gap: A gap in the lexicon that occurs because technology or contact with other people introduces new concepts to the language for which there are not yet words existing.

Lexical Phonology: A Generative model that links synchronic date to diachronic theories of sound change dividing the levels where sound rules are applied to words and thus accounts for the two types of sound changes proposed by Labov.

Lexicon: A set of words. This could be a dictionary-like collection of words and definitions, or it could simply be the set of words and their properties used by a particular speaker or speech community. A lexicon could also be a smaller collection of words that are gathered and used for a specific purpose.

Lexicostatistics: A manner of determining subgroups of language families used mainly with lesser known languages that uses the percentage of cognates in the core vocabulary of two languages to determine their likely relationship.

Lingua Franca: An already existing language chose as a medium of communication by people who would otherwise not share a common language; for example, French in several countries in Africa.

Manezak's Tendencies: A set of nine generalizations about the characteristics of analogical change based on a statistical study of analogy in the history of several European languages.

Markedness: A quality of a word that distinguishes it from a form that is considered more basic. For example, in the English question, "How big/small was the house?" the word "small" would be marked (if it is used, it implies an additional meaning--that the house was indeed small), whereas the word "big" is not (if it is used the house could still be any size).

Metonymy: A semantic link established between two words based on contiguity of meaning or an actual physical connection between them. For example, the term White House can be used to refer to the president of the United States of America, as in the phrase The White House has just released a report.

Monogenesis: One theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles that contends that they have all evolved from a single proto-pidgin.

Mother Tongue: The secularized version of the Adamic language theory, it is the idea that all human languages have descended form one original proto-language.

James A. H. Murray: The first and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, he is considered to be one of the greatest philologists of the English language. He word on the project for 35 years until his death in 1915.

Narrowing: A type of language change in which a word with a more general meaning moves to take on a more specific meaning, and loses its earlier meaning, for example, the OE "hund" meant "dog" (a dog of any kind), but in ME the corresponding "hound" refers only to a specific kind of dog.

Natural Serialization: The theory that there is a certain tendency towards uniformity in word order among all constituent in a language according to the basic order of the head and complements, and that a language whose phrases do not all follow this tendency will rearrange constituents in the various phrase type to promote uniformity. Languages with all their word order properties in harmony are termed consistent languages; constituency is considered to be natural.

Neogrammarian Approach: A theory of linguistics that sought to explain language change in terms of sound laws without exception and postulated that modern irregularities in language were the result of past regular sound changes.

Neologism: A newly coined term or expression; a new word that fills a lexical gap or conceptual gap in a language. The word quark was created to describe a newly discovered sub-nuclear particle.

Nonce Word: A word that follows all phonemic and morphological rules in a language, (it would be a completely acceptable word in that particular language) but doesn’t have any meaning associated with it in that language. (for example, "boke" and "slin" are nonce words in English).

Oligogenesis: Theory that all languages descended from a small set of source languages.

Onomatopoeia: A word such as swish or buzz that is imitative of actual, natural sounds; an utterance that sounds like what it means.

Orthogenetic Line: The direct lineage of a modern language that starts at the proto-language, traces the developments at other earlier stages, and ends with the modern language itself.

Overgeneralization: The generalizing of a rule into contexts where it is not appropriate to apply it, for example, overgeneralizing the plural morpheme -s in English to say "mans" instead of "men."

Pejoration: A semantic change in a word or morpheme toward a more negative connotation; the English word silly ("foolish") used to mean "holy" or "blessed" in Old English.

Pejorative: A meaning that is negative in its connotation.

Peripheral Vocabulary: Words that refer to culturally specific items or phenomena that do not necessarily have an equivalent in other languages.

Periphrastic (Periphrasis/Circumlocution): A longer way of saying something that could be expressed in one word or morpheme; for example, saying "I am able to" as opposed to "I can."

Phonetic Fusion: The loss of a distinction between phonemes due to sound change; for example, the proto-Matu words *azan "name" and the *asan "gills of fish" were contrasted by the fricatives, are now homophones, because [z] and [s] have become one phoneme, [d].

Pidgin: A language with no native speakers that develops to allow communication between groups of people who do not speak each other’s languages. Pidgins generally are simplified syntactically and morphologically, and lexically they are generally based upon a more dominant language.

Polygenesis: Theory that all languages descended from many, many different source languages.

Polysemous: A word having two or more similar meanings. (See Polysemy).

Polysemy: The capacity of a word to have multiple but related meanings; the English word foot has a central meaning (body part), a peripheral meaning (bottom part of something), and an extended meaning (unit of measurement).

Polysynthetic Language: Language that attaches many affixes to words, so that a meaning that, in other languages, may be expressed with an entire sentence, can be expressed in one long inflected word.

Prestige: Prestige in language may be overt or covert. In overt prestige, members of lower classes try to imitate the speech of the upper classes. In covert prestige, members of the lower classes intentionally use language that is within the norms of the lower class to be identified with that social group.

Prothesis: A sound change in which a phoneme is added at the beginning of words; for example, pre-Motu *au "I, me" became lau. (Tata>Atata)

Proto-Language: An earlier unattested language from which one or more modern languages are derived.

Relexification: The idea that in the formation of creoles, there isn’t much change in the grammar of the language, but the vocabulary is simply replaced with vocabulary from another language.

Rhotacism: A type of lenition in which an intervocalic alveolar fricative becomes an /r/. For example, Old English wasen became waren, which in Modern English is "were." (VsV>VrV).

Root: The most basic form of a word, to which affixes, other words etc. may be added. For example, the root of "localization" is "local."

Ferdinand de Saussure: A Swiss linguist, he was one of the first to divide synchronic linguistics from diachronic linguistics and is known for hi binary model of the linguistics sign. One of his main contribution to historical comparative linguistics was his discovery of the PIE laryngeals, which gave evidence of the validity of the comparative method.

Semantic Shift: A change in which a word takes on a new meaning (often somewhat related to its original meaning) and loses its original meaning. For example, the word "immoral" at one time meant "not customary."

Sino-Tibetan Family: A language family primarily in Asia, it includes the Chinese languages as well as Burmese and Tibetan.

Sonority Hierarchy- A ranking of phonemes from the strongest (voiceless consonants) to the weakest (long vowels).

Sound Change: A gradual change of sounds in a language over a period of time.

Splitting: The tendency of some philologists to divide languages and language families into many different smaller sub-groups.

Sturtevant's Paradox: The statement about the relationship of sound change and analogy as diachronic processes; it explains that although sound change occurs regularly, it creates irregularity within the system, whereas analogy, which occurs irregularly, creates regularity.

Substitution: See Adaption.

Substrate: In a diglossia, the language that is associated with lower overt prestige and is eventually replaced by the more prestigious language. It may, however, have an influence on the lexis and grammar of the dominant language; for example, traces of Celtic influence can be found in English.

Suppletion: A phenomenon that is found when sematically related words in a language or paradigm do not have the similar forms that would be predicted becase they come from different etymons; for example, the comparative set "good," "better," and "best."

Synchronic Linguistics: The study of language at a particular point in time (contrast diachronic linguistics).

Syncope: The loss of word internal phonemes; for example, pronouncing "policeman" as [pli:sm n]. (Atata>Atta)

Synonymy: A semantic relationship in which the meanings of two words are similar or identical.

Syntagmatic: Relationships among linguistic units that are found in sequential order as opposed to the metalinguistic relationship among words that are similar; for example, the relationship between the words in a sentence like Mary likes to sing, rather than the perceived relationship between the words fork, knife, and spoon.

Synthetic Language: A type of language in which each function morpheme may carry several different meanings, i.e., case, gender, number, at the same time.

Teleology: The philosophy that language change is directional and that languages know in a sense where they are ultimately headed; language has an eternal destiny.

Transparency Principle- The phenomenon that controls the amount of exceptionality that a language can tolerate first described by Lightfoot (cf. Opacity).

Uralic Family: A language family found primarily in northern and northeastern Europe, it includes Finnish, Samoyed, Estonian, and Hungarian.

Vowel Harmony: Most often associated with vowels and nasals, it is a type of assimilation at a distance that has become mandatory in an entire language. In Korean, for example, roots and inflections are connected with a monosyllabic morpheme which must phonetically "match" the last vowel of the stem.

Calvert Watkins: The author of the Indo-European Roots dictionary; Dr. Robertson's dissertation director at Harvard; he believes that linguistic evidence is extremely valuable for archeology and anthropology in learning about people and cultures.

Wave Model: A way of mapping languages and dialects using isogloss lines to show the influences that language varieties have on each other; these give mostly synchronic data
and do not presuppose genetic relatedness.

Word Order Variation: The different patterns that languages have for aligning grammatical classes in a sentence or phrase. Watkins has characterized this study as revolving around ‘various permutation of the magical letters S, V, and O.' It is also the focus of Greenberg's language typologies.

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