Historical Linguisics

 Evidence of Linguistic Change in European Languages

Historical linguistic methods and some of its results and complexities can be demonstrated by an example of cognates in a four interrelated European languages as indicated in the following table, which lists the terms used for father, mother, uncle, and aunt in four common and related European languages.


The comparison of these languages is intended to make some basic points about linguistic method and not to duplicate the process which linguists actually use. Standard methods involves the investigation of a word list of a hundred or more words to ascertain a percentage of cognates and these items are restricted to the core vocabulary. (Core terms are words that refer to things that are basic to all human experience, such as parts of the body, and do not include borrowings from other languages.) Our list includes only four terms. The terms for mother and father are part of the core vocabulary; the uncle and aunt terms are not. (Of course every language will have a term to refer to the relatives we classify as uncle and aunt, but these relationships and the terms that mark them are more sensitive to social change than the parental bond as we shall see in the course of discussion.)

A cursory look at the table indicates that we would have to draw two different conclusions about language relationships depending up a focus on each pair of terms. The uncle/aunt terms are obviously cognate and very similar in phonetic form, except for the term tio in Spanish. Let us assume, accordingly, that these similarities are the consequence of a term in a common ancestral language, e.g., Proto-European, and try to trace how each language branched off from it. Since Spanish is the most divergent it must have branched first, followed by English, and final by a split between French and German, which have almost the exact same terms. The historical language relationship that is suggested can be diagrammed hypothecally as follows:

By comparison, the mother/father terms are generally less similar over the four languages than are uncle/aunt but do show some resemblances. Father/mother and Vater/Mutter are clearly cognates as are pere/mere and padre/madre. Furthermore, the mother terms are similar across all four examples, and the father terms could be construed to be related if we allow that a common consonant has changed into f in English and German (v in German is pronounce as f) and p in French and Spanish. These observations suggest that we can pair English and German and French and Spanish into two recently divergent groups, both of which originated in an older protolanguage as follows:

Of course the second senario is more plausible because it is based on core vocablulary rather than the less fundamental terms for aunt and uncle, whose similarities can more reasonably be explained by borrowing from one language to another. It is also consistent with other historical and linguistic findings.

The observations we have made on this example are related to some general processes of linguistic change. They show that language modification is complex and derives from both linguistic forces per se and from social and cultural pressures on language. Purely linguistic forces are reflected in the changes in core vocabulary and take the form of phonetic modifications that appear in:

  1. the divergence of p and f sounds as the Germanic and Romance languages separated from Proto Indo-European,
  2. the subsequent diverence of t and th in German and English and that of r and dr in French and Spanish.
The general process involved is termed a phonetic shift and is the most common and perhaps least understood basic linguistic change. (Note the discussion of the great English vowel shift in Bates and Plog as another example.) Social and cultural pressures are reflected in the borrowing within the non-core vocabulary and mark contacts between cultures and changes in social order and cultural understandings.

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