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Introduction to Historical-Comparative Methods in Linguistics - LAN00102M

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  • Department: Language and Linguistic Science
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Giuseppe Longobardi
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

The module will be of special appeal to students with an interest in language diversity, ancient languages and deep-time history, and in the possibility of applying new formal and quantitative methods to address long-standing topics in these fields. The guiding questions addressed will be:

  • Is history possible as a science?

  • How can languages and linguistics (and cognitive science) contribute to this enterprise?

The methods reviewed will be:

  • The classical comparative method

  • New methods based on modern formal grammar and quantitative analyses with biostatistical tools

Related modules

English Past and Present

Acoustic Phonetics and Phonological Analysis

Morphology and Syntax

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The 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 linguistic past of our species, building on their existing skills in language and linguistics.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  • Explain the idea of linguistic kinship and the origin of Indo-European languages;

  • Apply scientific methods (comparative method and biostatistical tools) to make discoveries on the prehistory of languages and peoples;

  • Explain the concepts of reconstruction and historical explanation in modern linguistics;

  • Navigate and interpret family trees in biology and linguistics;

  • Distinguish 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?';

  • Interpret the results of some exciting new tools that current biostatistics might provide for better digging 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.

Module content

One week will be devoted to a conceptual introduction to the notion of language history and language kinship, and 10 weeks to classical (lexical-etymological) comparative procedures.


Task Length % of module mark
Introduction to Historical-Comparative Methods in Linguistics: Syntactic data collection exercise
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Introduction to Historical-Comparative Methods in Linguistics: Syntactic data collection exercise
N/A 100

Module feedback

Oral feedback on written formative assessments within 10 working days.

Feedback on summative assessments within 20 working days.

Indicative reading

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

Diamond, J. (1997). 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. 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. Addison-Wesley.

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.