Historical and Comparative Methods in Linguistics.

Introduction

 

This essay will analyse the phonological correspondences between English and German, using the given data. Before doing that it will explain the value of the classical comparative method for the sake of proving language relatedness. Then the sound correspondences between English and German for vowels and consonants will be extracted from the data. After that, it will be explored whether the consonant correspondences are sufficient evidence to prove the relatedness of English and German.

In conclusion, the reasons why we do not find such correspondences between languages, which are more loosely related or not even demonstrably related, such as English and Japanese, will be clarified.

 

  1. The value of the classical comparative method.

 

The classical comparative method is a reconstruction process used by historical linguists to prove language relatedness and identify historical development of language. This method consists in finding sound correspondences between two or more languages comparing sets of words. First of all, it is necessary to identify languages that are likely to be related on the ground of pre-theoretical resemblances, external cues or similarities in improbable phenomena, such as alternating and irregular morphology. After that, the second step is to choose ‘the comparanda’, which are the words to be compared. The way to select ‘the comparanda’ is to focus on apparently similar words in both form –sound– and meaning, leaving aside ‘borrowings’ and ‘false cognates’. Then, the crucial point is to establish recurrent correspondence sets among phonetic segments. Indeed, if there are many regular correspondence sets, then a common origin becomes a virtual certainty, particularly if some of the correspondences are non-trivial or unusual. That is precisely the value of the classical comparative method: taking into account many words at the same time, instead of only one, is a way to guarantee the soundness of the ‘discoveries’. Indeed, if two words from different languages sound similar, the similarity may just be chance or the result of earlier language contact. However, if ten inherited words in one language can be matched to ten inherited words in a second language with the same correspondence of sound, the likelihood is that the sound correspondence results from changes to an original sound.

 

Indeed, one of the goals of the classical comparative method is to reconstruct unattested proto-phonemes of the ‘ancestor’ or ‘parent tongue’. However, before doing that it is important to establish the distribution of the correspondence sets. Indeed, if two (or more) sets apply in complementary distribution, they can be assumed to reflect a single original phoneme. Having established the correspondence sets, their distribution and the corresponding proto-phonemes, it is finally possible to formulate the appropriate phonological rules. Postulating the sound changes is the best way to systematize the ‘evolution’ of a language, tracing back the development from the ancestor language to the daughter ones, therefore proving the relatedness of two or more languages. Moreover, since this method allows to take into account even more than two languages at a time it is a very efficient way to trace genetic links between languages and establish which language is more conservative i.e. more resistant to change and which one is more innovative i.e. less resistant to change. Sound correspondences between English and German will be provided in the next paragraphs as a practical demonstration of the use of the classical comparative method.

 

  1. Sound correspondences for vowels.

 

 

Proto-phoneme English German  

 

 

         

 

*i ɑɪ ɑɪ [1-35]          
*ei ɑː [2]          
  ə [3,7,8,11,12,14,15,17,18,22,25,28,32,33,35,36,42,43,46,47,48,50]
*oi ɑɪ [36-55]          
*i i ɪ [54]          

 

  1. Sound correspondences for
  2. E.         G.

(1)            *bʰ            b-            b-            [1,11,51]   Grimm’s Law

(2)            *p            f-            f-            [2,32,38] Grimm’s Law

(3)            *r            r            r            [2,4,7,8,14,17]

(4)            *d            d            t            [2,7,15,16,17,18,19,49,53]

(5)                        ∅            g            [2,25,49,50,54]

(6)            *p            p-            pf-            [3,34]

(7)            *p            -p            -f            [3,4,36]

(8)            *l            l            l            [5,9,10,15,16,23,24,26,32,33,34,35,37,42,43,53,54,55]

(9)            *bʰ            -f            -b            [5,6,37]

(10)            *w            w            v            [6,13,19,22,29,31,35,41]

(11)            *bʰ            -v            -b            [7,8]

(12)                        ∅            n            [7,8,11,12,14,15,17,28,43]

(13)            *sʰ            sh-            sh-            [8,28]

(14)            *m            m            m            [9,10,12,27,33,38,39,46]

(15)            *s            s-            sh-            [10,12,25,29,48,52]

(16)            *t            t            s            [11,12,13,14,40]

(17)            *gʰ            g            g            [15,40,45] Grimm’s Law

(18)            *s            s            z            [18,21,36]

(19)            *n            n            n            [20,26,27,28,29,30,31,50,51,52]

(20)            *s            z            z            [22]

(21)            *g            k            x            [23, 47,48]

(22)            *dʰ            ð            d            [30,42,43]

(23)            *k            h            h            [39,54,55]

(24)                        ∅            r            [42]

(25)            *dʰ            ѳ            d            [44]

 

  1. Relatedness of English and German

 

4.1. Introduction

 

In order to find enough evidence to prove the relatedness of English and German it is necessary to look more closely at the correspondence sets given. In the previous pages of the essay correspondence sets have been given both for vowels and for consonants. Analysing the corresponding sets for vowels it is evident that the two languages are related since there is a very straightforward correspondence between /ɑɪ/ in English and /ɑɪ/ in German from 1 to 35 and between /oʊ/ in English and /ɑɪ/ in German from 36 to 55. Leaving vowels aside, the next paragraph will demonstrate that even the correspondence sets for consonants are sufficient evidence to prove the relatedness of English and German.

 

4.2. Patterns between consonant variations

 

The first evidence of the relatedness of the two languages is that in 10 of the 25 correspondence sets given (therefore in almost half of the total correspondence sets), English and German have exactly the same consonants. This is the case of (1), (2), (3), (8), (13), (14), (17), (19), (20) and (23). Interestingly, 4 of these 10 correspondence sets are resonants, as in (3), (8), (14), (19).

 

Moreover, analysing the remaining sets, even though the consonants differ in English and in German, it is possible to recognize some patterns. For example, in sets (6), (7), (9), (11), (16), (21), (22) and (25) there is sometimes a slight variation of the place of articulation between the English and the German consonant, but what changes consistently is the manner of articulation: in every set there is a plosive and a fricative consonant.

 

In both sets (6) and (7) the proto-phoneme is *p. In English *p stays the same, while in German *p becomes pf if it is word-initial, as in [3, 34] and f if it is not word-initial i.e. word middle or word final, as in [3,4,36]. Therefore in English there is a voiceless plosive in both cases, whereas in German there is either a voiceless labiodental fricative f or a voiceless sound, which is in between a bilabial plosive and a labiodental fricative, such as pf.

 

In both sets (9) and (11) the proto-phoneme is *bʰ. When it is not word initial *bʰ becomes b in German, whereas in English it becomes f for nouns, as in [5, 6, 37] and v for verbs as in [7,8]. Therefore in German there is a voiced bilabial plosive in both cases, while in English there is a labiodental fricative, which can be either voiceless, such as f, or voiced, such as v.

 

In (16) and (21) the voicing and the place of articulation stay the same, whereas there is a change in the manner of articulation: in English there is a plosive, whereas in German there is a fricative. In (16) there are two voiceless alveolar, t in English and s in German, while in (21) there are two voiceless velar, k in English and x in German.

 

In both sets (22) and (25) the proto-phoneme is *dʰ. In German *dʰ becomes always d. In English *dʰ becomes ð if it is followed by a vowel or a voiced consonant, as in [30,42,43[1]], whereas it becomes ѳ if it is not followed by a vowel or a voiced consonant, as in [44]. Therefore in German there is a voiced alveolar plosive in both cases, whereas in English there is always a dental fricative, which can be either voiced such as ð or voiceless such as ѳ.

 

Another two sets in complementary distribution are (15) and (18). In both sets the proto-phoneme is *s. In English *s stays the same, while in German *s becomes sh if it is followed by a consonant, as in [10, 12, 25, 29, 48, 52], whereas it becomes z if it is followed by a vowel, as in [18,21,36]. Therefore in this case the manner of articulation is always the same, because they are all fricatives. However, while in English there is a voiceless alveolar fricative in both cases, the German fricative, compared to the English one, has a different place of articulation in (15), because it is post-alveolar, and a different voicing in (18), because it is voiced. Another set of consonants that differ only for the voicing is (4): both in English and in German there is an alveolar plosive, however in English it is voiced i.e. d whereas in German it is voiceless i.e. t.

 

Of the remaining sets there are two, (12) and (24), in which German and English seem to radically differ, therefore this would seem a counterevidence of the relatedness of English and German. However, in both sets the variation between English and German depends on the morphology: in set (12) the German suffix – ən is used to create the infinitive; in set (24), which contains the example [42], the German suffix -ər is used to mark the plural, which corresponds to the English –s of the word ‘clothes’. Since the morphology changes in every language, sets (12) and (24) cannot be used as a valid counterevidence of the relatedness of English and German, therefore they do not undermine the purpose of this essay.

 

 

4.3. Conclusion

 

In conclusion, all these patterns which regulate the variations show that similarities and differences between English and German are not due to chance, but are indeed ‘systematizable’ in a solid and coherent scheme. The first step has been to individuate sound correspondences. Between them, the ones in which the English consonant and the German one are the same have been identified. Then the correspondence sets in complementary distribution have been indicated and their respective proto-phonemes have been established.

After having established the proto-phonemes, it was also possible to notice that English is more conservative than German, because in 6 correspondence sets the English consonant retains the proto-sound[2], while that does not happen in German. In conclusion, underlining the general patterns and rejecting some possible instances of counterevidence have proved the relatedness of English and German.

 

  1. English and Japanese

First of all, between languages which are not even demonstrably related, it is much harder, if not impossible, to find ‘comparanda’, because there are probably not words which are similar in sound and meaning, if not ‘borrowings’. Secondly, the Japanese phonological system, for example, is different from the English one, therefore some sounds may not even exist at all. Moreover, even the phono-tactic may differ. For example whereas the “building blocks” of words in English are syllables, in Japanese they are the moras. Therefore it is difficult to compare not only the sounds, one by one, but also the segments of a word, because the correspondence between the English syllable and the Japanese mora may be not clear. On the other hand, comparing English and German was possible because there were enough ‘comparanda’ to analyse and the phonological system of German is very similar to the English one, as well as the phono-tactic. Moreover, even assuming that it is possible to find enough ‘comparanda’ and that the phonological system and the phono-tactic are the same, it is necessary to find the common proto-phoneme in order to prove relatedness[3]. However, if it is not possible to identify general patterns which regulate the variations between the languages the common proto-phonemes cannot be reconstructed and the relatedness cannot be proved.

 

 

[1]

[2] (4),(6),(7),(15),(16),(18).

[3] There is actually still an open debate on this point: some linguists think that it is necessary to reconstruct the proto-phonemes in order to prove relatedness between languages, while some others think that it is not necessary. The first position is sustained in this essay.

 

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