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Introduction to Historical-Comparative Methods in Linguistics - LAN00048H

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  • Department: Language and Linguistic Science
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Giuseppe Longobardi
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

This module will introduce some key concepts of classical and formal historical linguistics. It will address long-standing questions about the transmission of languages through time, and students will learn about and apply old and new techniques to probe into the past of our species, building on their existing skills in language and linguistics.

Pre-requisite modules

At least one of the following:

  • History of English I (LAN00002C)

  • Intermediate Phonetics & Phonology (LAN00009I)

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will have gained basic understanding of:

  • the idea of linguistic kinship and the origin of Indo-European languages;
  • the scientific methods to make discoveries on the prehistory of languages and peoples;
  • the concepts of reconstruction and historical explanation in modern linguistics;
  • family trees in biology and linguistics;
  • what is true and false regarding popular debates on 'long-range' issues such as: 'is Japanese related to Turkish?' or 'when was proto-Indo-European spoken?';
  • some exciting new tools that current linguistic theory (and biostatistics) might provide for digging ever deeper into the past of human languages.

Special exemplification of the classical comparative method will be provided on proto-Indo-European morpho-phonology during the seminar sessions, and the students will eventually be able to reapply the procedures to other linguistic domains, possibly including aspects of their native languages.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 30
Extended data analysis
N/A 70

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Re-assessment: Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Written feedback within 20 working days.

Indicative reading

Clackson, J. (2010). Indo-European Linguistics, ch. 1-2. OUP.

Diamond, J. (2005). Guns, Germs and Steel. Epilogue.

Longobardi, G. (2003). Methods in parametric linguistics and cognitive history. Linguistic Variation Yearbook.

Lindeman, F. (1988). Introduction to Laryngeal Theory, pp.19-35.

Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery, short excerpts.

Trask, R.L. (1996). Historical Linguistics, ch. 12-13. Routledge.

Suggestions for reading before the module starts

Pedersen, Holger. (1959) The discovery of language: Linguistic science in the nineteenth century. Translated by John Webster Spargo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cavalli Sforza, Luca, and Francesco Cavalli Sforza. (1995) The great human diasporas: The history of diversity and evolution. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Pedersen (1959) and the first six chapters of Cavalli Sforza & Cavalli Sforza (1995) are enjoyable preliminary readings for students who have not yet attended any course in historical linguistics or comparative anthropology, respectively.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.