Change is the only inevitable thing in universe, and languages are not excluded from change. But why do languages change, and why do we have so many of them? The Bible has an answer, given in the story of the Tower of Babel and its annihilation. However, allegories are not acceptable in terms of scientific study, so we must try another, more empiric approach, and leave mystical symbolism to a different domain. Linguists are interested in the “mundane” aspect of language, which are, nonetheless, captivating. Historical linguistics is a branch within the language science that studies changes in language.
To state what this implies and to try to give an answer in terms of empirical knowledge – means facing several problems. The key concepts, language and change, are not easily defined. What language is in some theoretical works depends on whether the term is used with a social or a linguistic meaning, whereas the change is one of the most important topics of historical linguistics and it is central for many theories.
This text is an attempt to summarise important aspects of the study of language history, at the preference of its author. The starting point for this is Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method by Mark Hale, or to be precise the first chapter of it. Further theoretical frame is provided by the work of Herbert Schendl, Winfred P. Lehman, Lyle Campbell, Steven Pinker and R. L. Trask. The bibliography is available here.
Early Works in Historical Linguistics (400 BC – 18th century)
We will trace back meticulous interest in language to 400 BC. It is assumed that a man named Panini, who lived at that time, bequeathed us a detailed Sanskrit grammar. He was motivated by a wish to preserve Vedic texts as integrally as possible, in order to convey and preserve divine thought for the future generations.
In the times of Old Greek and Latin languages, scholars were particularly interested in oratorical and philosophical nuances of language. The Greeks were especially concerned with etymology.
The interest in language in medieval Europe was vivid also due to religious interests, and from this period originates rich Latin corpus.
Hebrew thinkers wanted to know what the origin of language was, and why there were so many languages (Lehmann 23). The same questions puzzle modern science, although allegorical explanations of the past have no impact on modern reasoning as they had on Hebrews and Christians in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century religious thought still thrived, helped by then “accepted … authority of the Old Testament” (Lehmann 26). One of the most prominent thinkers of the age was Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), who made a classification of languages in his work Mithridates (1655). Like most of the scholars of that time, including Dante Alighieri and Samuel Butler (Wardhaugh 29), he believed that Hebrew language was the source of all languages. This “Hebraic hypothesis” (Lehmann 26) was rejected by Gottfried William von Leibniz (1646-1714), who studied ethnic origins and the connections among languages. Although his classifications were not very conclusive (ibid), they paved the way for the successive thinkers of the period.
A well-known “linguist” of the eighteenth century was Eugene Aram (1704-59), who inferred that Celtic is one of Indo-European languages, and that Latin was not derived from Greek, as Leibniz had believed.
Up to the eighteenth century, most of the works about language were of non-investigative, descriptive nature. However, scholars interested in language began collecting significant pieces of the linguistic material. A new discipline was on the verge of its creation, backed up by a paper by Sir William Jones (1746-94) who claimed that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek were strongly connected. The interest in the new discipline gained a new momentum during the Romantic period, when the Grimm brothers published their famous collection of fairy tales, which was a reflection of the widespread belief of the period that knowledge from the past was the best means to gain fresh knowledge. They also published “a large work on early Germanic law” (Lehmann 27).