Comparative Historical Linguistics Lexicon: 
Linguistics 450  

Glossary | Definitions | Etymology

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P  R S T U V W


Abduction The only of the three logical processes that can create novel ideas, it infers from a law and a result what might have possibly been the case; for example, from the statements "All fish swim" (the law) and "This animal swam" (the result), one would infer by abduction that "This animal is a fish."

Ablaut A variation in vowels that indicates a change of grammatical function for a word; in English, the vowel sound in the verb give changes in the form gave to indicate the past tense.

Accusative languages Type of language which marks subjects of both transitive and intransitive verbs the same way.

Acronym A word formed by combining the initial letters of a set of words, as in the word RADAR from RA(dio) D(etecting) A(nd) R(anging).

Actuation The manner in which linguistic changes begin.

Adaption A word borrowing process in which the loanword is converted into the phonotactic system of the recipient language.

Adoption A word borrowing process in which the loanword is brought into the recipient language without substantial phonological modification.

Affixation The process of adding bound morphemes to a root morpheme; in English, it is usually done with prefixes (pre-, bi-) or suffixes (-hood, -ing).

Afro-Asiatic family A family of languages found primarily in the Middle East and northern Afria including the Berber, Semitic, Chaldic, and Cushitic languages; formerly known as Hamito-Semitic.

Age-area Hypothesis A theory of reconstructing the homeland of a proto-language that contends that the area with the largest number of subgroups is likely to be the original homeland.

Agglutinating languages Languages where morphemes are strung together in a fixed order with each morpheme representing one meaning.

Altaic family A family of languages found primarily in Asia including the Mongolian, Tungus, and Turkic languages.

Amelioration A semantic change toward a more positive connotation in the meaning of a word or morpheme; for example, the English word nice, which meant "foolish" in Middle English, now means kind or pleasant. Other examples of amelioration include the elevation of the Latin word casa ‘hut, cottage’ to Modern Spanish casa ‘house,’ and the change in meaning of Old English cniht ‘boy, servant’ to Modern English knight (Campbell p.63).

Amerind family Joseph Greenberg’s highly controversial proposed super grouping of virtually all 150 Native American language families into one family.

Analogical extension This process increases irregularity in a paradigm by replacing a regular form with an irregular form because of its similarity to already existing irregular forms. For example, the regular past tense form of dive, dived, is being replaced by the irregular form dove, making analogous to other forms such as ride/rode.

Analogical leveling The process of reducing opacity within a paradigm by selecting one allomorph or allophone while discontinuing the use of all others in that paradigm; for example, there used to be several plural morphemes in English, but over time the plural noun paradigm was reduced to include only one morpheme, "-s."

Analogy An irregular language change that reduces irregularity within a language by keeping the relationship between phonotactics, syntax, and semantics transparent, it is expressed mathematically in the form a:b = c:d. It occurs when the expected form is overgeneralized and applied in situations where an irregular form is the standard, thus the expected form gradually becomes the new standard.

Analytic languages (see isolating languages)

Anaphora The use of a word to refer to a word or group of words used previously. In the phrase "Billy’s nice, but he is often impatient" he is an anaphora for Billy.

Anaptyxis The insertion of a vowel into a word to break up a consonant cluster.

Aphaeresis The loss of initial consonants in words or morphemes.

Apocope The loss of word final phonemes.

Arbitrariness The idea that there is no natural or transparent connection between a word’s form and its meaning.

Archeology The science of reconstructing the pre-historic past by material clues left by early humans; it includes epigraphy, the deciphering of ancient texts.

Assimilation The process by which one sound influences the articulation of a neighboring sound so that the sounds become similar or the same. May be either progressive or regressive, immediate or distant.

Attested forms Linguistic constructions from an earlier stage of a language that were preserved in written form.

Austronesian A family of languages found primarily in Asia and the Pacific including the languages of the Philippines, Taiwan, and Polynesia.

automorphism An iconicity or similarity of forms that enables prediction. For example, because the idea of plurality connotes more, we expect the singular form of a word to be the base form that the plural marker is added to, making both the form and the meaning larger. Indeed, the majority of the world’s languages have a q marker for singular and a morpheme for plural.


Babel The name of a Biblical city, it is the traditional religious explanation for the presence of many languages in the world. In the Biblical story, the people of the city of Babel, in an excess of pride, sought to build a tower to heaven. In response, God confounded their languages so that they could no longer understand each other. Religious scholars dated the beginning of the polylinguistic world to this incident.

Baby talk One theory of the formation of pidgins that maintains that relates the formation of the pidgin to incorrect second language acquisition. In this explanation, the speakers of the substratum language learned the superstratum language incorrectly, thus forming the pidgin. This imperfect learning is assumed to be the result of restricted access to the superstratum language, which restricts the L2 imput. This theory was largely influenced by western stereotypes of speakers of pidgin languages, who were not considered sophisticated enough to learn the correct grammar of the language. Now considered a racist theory, it also has been shown to ignore the complexity of pidgin languages.

Back-formation A new word produced by analogy when people remove a supposed affix from the perceived stem of a word; the verb peddle was created in English when people began removing the supposed affix -ar from the noun peddlar.

Basic constituent order A language’s syntactic typology, or most common ordering of subjects, verbs and objects.

Basic vocabulary (see core vocabulary)

Bifurcation A semantic change in which a word gains a meaning that is similar to its original meaning. It is often the result of metaphor.

Bilingualism A condition in which one speaker has some amount of knowledge of at least one language besides their native language. When there is widespread bilingualism in a speech community, as in a contact situation, lexical, phonological, and even syntactic borrowing can occur.

Biological metaphor The idea of relatedness of languages, indicating that several languages spring from the same source then grow and develop separately. It has sometimes erroneously been seen as evidence of relatedness of speakers of the languages.

Bleaching A process which weakens the meaning of a word, making it less specific, and thus allowing it to be used in more contexts. In terms of the markedness continuum of inverse proportionality, this means that a word becomes less deep (less marked) and more broad (able to carry more meanings.

Blending A word formation process in which parts of two different words are combined to create a new form; for example, snirt results from snow and dirt to describe a bad winter storm; portmanteau.

Bloomfield One of the most prominent Structuralists, his work was influential in many areas of language studies, including language acquisition, language contact, semantics, and many other areas of linguistics.

Borrowing The process by which a new word, pronunciation, phrase, or sense enters one language from another; for example, the loan word racoon came into English from the Native American language Algonquin.


A lexical borrowing strategy in which the recipient language, rather than copying the phonological form of a word or term, translates each morpheme directly into the native language, creating an equivalent idiom. For example, early translators of the Bible in English rendered the Latin term remorsus ‘remorse’ as "again-bite" and the Latin term reflectěre ‘reflect’ as "again-shine."

Case The grammatical role that words play in a language. In English, the subject form of words is nominative (as in the pronoun I); the direct object form is accusative (as in the pronoun me); the indirect object form is dative (also me); and the possessive form is genitive (as in the adjective my and the pronoun mine). Other languages have designated additional roles such as the instrumental, the locative, and the oblique.

Cataphora The use of a word to refer to a word that will appear later in the statement or conversation. In the sentence "He’s a nice boy, but Billy is impatient," he is a cataphor for Billy.

Category Change A process by which a word changes its grammatical function or acquires a new grammatical function; functional shift. 

Center embedding A relatively rare syntactic phenomenon in which two clauses or phrases are made into one by embedding one into the middle of the other, for example *The boy [the dog [the girl had] licked] was not upset. Such sentences are difficult to process, possibly because of their demands on short term memory. Languages avoid them by creating other embedding strategies. This avoidance is seen as evidence of the importance of consistency, or consistent syntax, in languages; cf. consistent languages.

Chain An explanation for certain kinds of systematic changes in a language, these occur when phoneme’s are changed either because they are pulled in to full a gap or because they are pushed out of their former position in the paradigm by some new or changing feature. This can also occur when one phoneme’s change triggers changes in other related phonemes.

Child language acquisition The process of learning one’s own native language. Imperfect child language acquisition is one of the explanations for language change.

Clipping A word formation process that shortens an existing word to create a new word; for example, the word ad from advertisement.

Clitics Bound morphemes that are attached to a whole phrase, rather than a single word. These are often the result of grammaticalization of an earlier free morpheme.

Cluster reduction A common phonological change in which one consonant of a cluster (two adjacent consonants with no intervening vowel) is lost. Examples include words like knight and lamb, in which the spelling indicates an earlier pronunciation, while double consonants have been reduced in the modern pronunciation.

Cognates Two words in different languages that are of the same descend and are similar in form and meaning.

Comparative historical linguistics The discipline that compares the features of genetically related languages and establishes the historical links between different languages; language reconstruction compares attested forms to establish historical relationships between languages in the past; language change explores the development of languages and dialects from the past to the present.

Comparative method The approach to diachronic linguistics in which the researcher analyzes either several daughter languages of the same ancestor or several stages in the history of one language in order to describe the linguistic development of that language over time.

Compensatory lengthening A particular type of phonetic fusion in which the only feature of the deleted consonant that is adopted by the preceding vowel is its phonetic space; for example, when proto-Celtic *magl "prince" lost the consonant [g] in Old Irish, the phonemic space of the deleted [g] was fused to the preceding vowel, yielding ma:l (Crowley, p.46).

Compounding A process that forms words from two or more words; for example, blackbird from the words black and bird.

Compression (see clipping)

Consistent languages Languages in which the basic constituent order is mostly without exception and in which the basic sentence constituent order is mirrored in each individual phrase type.

Consonant shifts Systematic phonological changes among the consonants of a language caused by drag or push chains. Cf. Grimm’s law and the Second Germanic Consonant Shift.

Contact The phenomenon the arises when two different linguistic groups are brought together, it may range from long term and intense to short term and casual.

Contamination A sort of analogical change in which a word’s form is influenced by the form of another word in the same semantic field; for example, the English number "four" should have an initial [k], but has been influenced by the following number in the series, "five."

Content words Words that carry semantic, rather than grammatical, meaning.

Contiguity A phenomenon that, in terms of proximity of forms or referents, is responsible for creating ellipsis, or metonymy.

Convergence A type of contact-induced change in which languages of equal social prestige with many bilingual speakers mutually borrow morphological and syntactic features, making their typology more similar.

Convergent development A word borrowing process that occurs when words from two separate languages that are similar in form and meaning are borrowed simultaneously into a third language, where they merge into one single word; for example, the English word "kit" was merged with the M~ori word kete "basket" by the P~keh~ New Zealanders who use the word to refer to a specific sort of basket (Crowley, p.239).

Conversion (see category shift)

Core vocabulary The basic set of words found in all of the world’s languages, including terms for body parts, family relationships, and numbers.

Cratylus A character in a work by Plato who debates with Socrates and Hermogenes over whether language is conventional (arbitrary) or natural (iconic).

Creole A language that develops when an undeveloped contact language expands in complexity and becomes the native language of the next generation of children in a discourse community, such as Gullah in the Carolina islands.

Cross-category harmony The theory that, although head ordering need not be consistent for one constituent type in a language, the ratio of preposed to postposed modifiers will tend to spread to other constituent types. Thus, if sixty percent of noun phrase constructions in a language have modifier-head order, and forty percent have head modifier order, the same percentages will tend to be found for verb phrases, prepositional phrases, etc. The theory further contends that the more heads that follow this model, the more common the language type will be.

Cultural reconstruction The gain of insights into ancient people’s lifestyles using evidence from their languages.


Daughter Languages Part of the family tree metaphor, this term describes languages that evolved from an earlier language. For example, Spanish, Italian, French, Portugese, and Romanian are all daughter languages of Latin; they all are different products of the development of Latin in different parts of Europe. Latin, in turn, is a daughter language of Italic, itself a daughter language of Proto Indo-European.

Declension Sets of morphemes used for marking cases on the various noun classes of a language. In historical comparative linguistics, these have given evidence of paradigmatic change in languages.

Decreolisation A type of language suicide, it occurs when a creole remains in close contact with the more prestigious superstratum language. Speakers gradually incorporate more and more features of the superstratum language until the creole is virtually indistinguishable from the superstrate.

Deduction One of the three formal logical processes that are postulated to affect grammar testing and use, it is most often associated with perscriptive or formal grammar anaylsis. Using a deduction, a speaker takes a rule (English plurals are formed by adding an ‘s’ suffix to a singular noun), and a case (‘dog’ is a singular English noun), then from these deduces the result (‘dogs’ is the plural of ‘dog’)

Degrammaticalisation see lexicalisation

Deontic In terms of modal meaning, a quality associated with necessity.

Derivation The process of changes that an etymon passes through dichronically to arrive at its modern form or reflex. For example, ???

Diachronic linguistics The study of language development through time and history, in contrast with the study of a language at a particular time.

Dialects Varieties of a language that are used synchronically by different groups of speakers of the language. While the dividing line between being two dialects of a language and two different languages is ill-defined at best, dialects are generally considered to have the same parent and to be mutually intelligible for most speakers. Most related languages started as dialects that evolved in different ways. Borrowings of dialectal forms is also often a source of language change.

Diffusion The process by which specific linguistic changes are incorporated into the idiolects of speakers in a language.

Directionality A concept related to "drift," it is the eventual "goal" of the language changes that occur in a system. For example, Sapir isolated an incidence of drift in the English case marking system, in which the complicated system of Old English inflectional morphemes was gradually phases out of the language. In this case, the leveling of case marking in English was the direction.

Dissimilation The process by which one sound influences the articulation of a neighboring sound so that the sounds become less similar or more distinct; for example, the Pre-Shona *bwa "dog" became bpa in Shona, as the labio-velar *w became velar when following a labial (Ohala as cited in McMahon, p.16).

Divergence The process of dialects dividing off from the parent language.

Doublet Two words in the same language that were both borrowed from the same root word in a different language, but at different times, so that their phonological and semantic forms represent the changes the word underwent in the intervening time; for example, the English words "shirt" and "skirt" were borrowed at different times from the same Danish word.

Dravidian family A family of languages found primarily in India and surrounding countries including Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

Drift A series of individual changes in a single language that move in the same direction in which each change is pre-conditioned by the changes that preceded it and sets up the conditions for the changes that will follow it. Sapir isolated some examples of this in English including leveling case distinctions and fixing word order.


Ellipsis The omission of a syntactic, morphological, or semantic structure which is recoverable from the rest of the discourse, text, or context. In the sentence The summers are sunny, and the winters rainy, the verb are is omitted from the second parallel clause, it is a result of contiguity of form.

Epenthesis The insertion of a segment into the middle of a word or morpheme usually with the effect of simplifying articulation; for example, a [b] was inserted into Old English zymel to create the modern word "thimble."

Epistemic In terms of modal meaning, a feature indicating probability or likelihood.

Equilibrium see homeostasis.

Ergative language Type of language which marks the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb the same way, and the subject of a transitive verb differently.

Etymology The history of a word’s diachronic developments in form and meaning.

Etymon A lexical form from an earlier stage in the history of a word from which the modern word is derived; root.

Euphemism A more positive word or less offensive expression used as a substitute for a term associated with unpleasant or sensitive topics; for example, sanitary engineer for garbage collector; or passed away for died.

Exceptionality A description of relationship of the deep and surface structures in a grammar. Some linguists have posited that when the surface structures become too different from the deep structure (in other words, when the degree of exceptionality reaches a currently undefined threshold), speakers will reanalyze the grammatical meaning, or reform the grammar to keep the surface structures more like the deep structures. A high degree of exceptionality may thus be an impetus for syntactic change.

Excrescence The insertion of a consonant into a consonant cluster that lengthens the cluster, such as the insertion of [p] into the final consonant cluster in the word warmth.

Extension An generalization in the meaning of a word to include wider applications and connotations; the word holiday initially referred only to religious days but has broadened to include other festive days; generalization, broadening.

External reconstruction The process of reconstructing a proto-language by comparing data from several of its daughter languages, rather than using only language internal data.


Family tree model Part of the metaphor of language organicism, it explains the family connections among languages and the possibility of many daughter languages descending from one ancestor.

Folk etymology A process by which the meaning of a word or phrase is reinterpreted because of similarity in form to other morphemes or words in a language.

Foreigner Talk A corollary to the ‘baby talk’ hypothesis of pidgin creation, it assumes that the speakers of the superstrate language use a simplified version of the language when communicating with the speakers of the substrate language, who thus have limited standard input and therefore use non-standard forms when seeking to use the superstrate language, thus creating a limited version of the superstrate. This theory, like the baby talk hypothesis, was largely created from western stereotypes of pidgin speakers, and is considered racist. Further research into the structure of pidgin languages has shown that this theory cannot account for the complexity of contact languages.

Fortition The (relatively unusual) change from a weaker to a stronger sound; for example, the English word "knife" ([naif]) underwent this process in Tok Pisin, where the corresponding word is [naip] (Crowley, p.38).

Function word A word that carries primarily grammatical, rather than content, meaning.

Functional load The quantitative measure of the communicative importance of a phonemic distinction that is estimated by the sum of minimal pairs that exist in a language for any two contrasting sounds. For example, the distinction between /t/ and /d/ is important in English because they have a high functional load (i.e., many word pairs, such as tank and dank, are distinguished by them. Phonemes with a high functional load are less likely to merge, as this would cause much homophony.


Gap The concept of having holes in a language paradigm, unfilled spaces within the expected parameters or paradigms of a language.

Geminization Also called total assimilation, it is a phonological process by which two adjacent sounds become identical, creating a double, or longer phoneme. For example, Icelandic has undergone a regular geminization process in which the second consonant in certain clusters has become identical to the first. Therefore *mun› ‘mouth’ has become munna and *un›an ‘love’ has become unna Crowley p.50).


Generativism A theory of linguistics that claims syntax as the primary force behind language and language change, it claims that speakers have acquired a finite set of rules and words, but with these can produce an infinite number of unique utterances.

Genetic relationship Part of the metaphor of language organicism, it explains the family connections among languages and the possibility of many daughter languages descending from one ancestor language.

Glottochronology A mathematical method for estimating the date that two sister languages separated using the percentage of the cognates in the core vocabulary and a fixed rate of change.

Grammaticalization The process by which a content word comes to have only functional meaning; for example, the Old English nouns h~d "state, quality" and l§c "body" have become the Modern English suffixes "-hood" and "-ly" (McMahon, p.160).

Grassman’s Law A classic example of dissimilation involving aspirated consonants, that took place in both ancient Sanskrit and ancient Greek, in which aspirated consonants lost their aspiration if followed by another syllable containing an aspirated consonant.

Great Canine Shift A semantic shift in English that proves that semantic change can be systematic and directional; it began when an Old French word mastiff was borrowed into Old English, causing other words in the same semantic class to restrict or extend semantically.

Great Vowel Shift A set of sound changes in the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English (15th-18th centuries) that affected long tense vowels. Mid and low vowels moved higher; for example, the pronunciation of the word sweet changed from /swet/ to /swit/. High vowels became diphthongs; for example, the pronunciation of the word house changed from /hus/ to /haus/.

Greenberg, Joseph One of the pioneers of typology and language universals, he uses a wide-range of world languages to look for properties that most languages share and also to group languages in families.

Grimm's Law A series of systematic consonant changes that distinguished Germanic languages from other branches of the Indo-European language family; for example, voiceless stops became fricatives; thus, the /k/ sound in the Indo-European root *kerd- became an /h/ in the English word heart.


Hamito-Semitic family The former, now unused name for the Afro-Asiatic family. The name assumed that the Semitic languages formed one branch of the family, and the other Afro-Asiatic languages (called Hamitic for Ham, the son of the biblical figure Noah) the other. This splitting was proposed because of an unwillingness to group more closely languages spoken by African and Caucasian peoples, rather than on careful linguistic analysis.

Haplology A rare, sporadic sound change in which an entire syllable is lost if it is found next to an identical or very similar syllable.

Harmony Most often associated with vowels and nasals, it is a type of assimilation at a distance that has become mandatory in an entire language. In Korean, for example, roots and inflections are connected with a monosyllabic morpheme which must phonetically "match" the last vowel of the stem.

Heaviness Serialisation Principle A corollary to the theory of Cross Category Harmony that states that certain modifiers that are "lighter" (like determiners in the noun phrase) will tend to be found to the left of their head, regardless of language type. Likewise, "heavy" modifiers (like clauses) will tend to appear to the right of head.

Historical linguistics Also known as philology, it is the study of language change. The discipline involves following the developments in a language from it’s earliest form to the present, as opposed to comparative linguistics, which uses modern evidence to reconstruct the earlier forms of the language. Together, historical linguistics and comparative linguistics cover all forms of dichronic language study.

Homeostasis A state of balance within a language, also referred to as systemic equilibrium or symmetry. When change upsets the balance in a language, further changes will be made to restore it.

Homograph A word that has the same written form as another word but differs in meaning and/or pronunciation; for example, lead the verb ("guide") and lead the noun ("heavy metal").

Homophone A word that has the same pronunciation as another word but differs in written form and meaning; for example, pear ("fruit"), pair ("two of a kind"), and pare ("peel").

Homonym A word that has the same written form and the same pronunciation as another word but differs in meaning; for example, bear the verb ("carry") and bear the noun ("large mammal").

Homonymic clash Often used as evidence for the theory of teleology in language, it explains the certain words in a language may not follow regular changes, thus becoming exceptions, in an effort to avoid creating homonyms, the supposition being that a language can only tolerate a certain amount of homonymy without a breakdown in meaning.

Humbolt’s Universal The theory that languages prefer linguistic uniformity, and that when uniformity in a system is interrupted by sound change, other linguistic processes will restore it, it is a declaration of the preferability of isomorphism.

Hyperbole A semantic change in which a word with a comparable "stronger" meaning weakens in meaning, often from overuse. For example, the word awesome is the relatively stronger of the pair good and awesome. The colloquial use of awesome, however, in recent years has weakened to be almost synonymous with good, rather that retaining its former meaning of ‘overwehlming.’

Hypercorrection A linguistic overcompensation used by a speaker to avoid a form which is mistakenly assumed to be incorrect; for example, the use of the nominative I instead of the objective me in the sentence He wrote to Sally and I.

Hyponymy A hierarchical semantic relationship between two words in which the meaning of one is encompassed in the meaning of the other, but not vice versa; for example, the meaning of the word "flower" encompasses the meaning of the word "rose," but the meaning of the word "rose"does not encompass the meaning of the word "flower."


Iconicity The principle that prompts related elements to be similar in both form and meaning, it is the result of linguistic forms resembling their referents.

Idiolect The linguistic variety of a language spoken by an individual speaker. Idiolects are used to document the transmission of change in a speech community, because the comparison of the presence or absence of innovations from speaker to speaker and within the idiolect of each speaker is similar to the pattern of change diachronically.

Implementation The spread of a language change throughout a language or speech community; transmission.

i-Mutation A type of regressive assimilation at a distance in which a vowel in fronted because of the influence of a front vowel in the following syllable.

Indo-European languages A family of languages found in India, Iran, and most of Europe including English, German, Spanish, Russian, Irish, Greek, Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Armenian, and Avestan.

Induction One of the three formal logical processes related to language learning, it is performed when a law is derivedfrom cases and results. In the case of language acquisition, the learner examines a few cases of English plural nouns such as dogs, cats, and pigs, and induces that the law for forming English plurals is to add an ‘-s’ to the end of the word.

Inflecting languages A type of language in which each function morpheme carries several different meanings, i.e., case, gender, number, at the same time.

Inflection An affix or form change which indicates grammatical relationships without changing the meaning or category of a word; English has eight inflectional suffixes which mark functions such as number, person, aspect, and verb tense; for example, the inflection -ing marks the present participle forms of verbs in English. These form paradigms in languages, and are vulnerable to change by analogy.

Internal reconstruction A method of reconstructing an earlier form of a language using data from the language itself, rather than comparing the language with its sister languages.

Isogloss A line drawn on a map of a speech area to show the boundary of the presence of a particular form. These have been used in dialect studies to show where certain forms are and are not found. For example, a dialectal researcher might elicit data from speakers in several areas of the southern US to find the presence or absence of the word y’all in their dialect. He would use the data to draw an isogloss to divide where y’all was likely to be heard from where it would not likely be used. A group of such isoglosses could together form a dialectal boundary. Historical linguists like Georg Wenker to study the implementation of sound changes.

Isolate A language that is unrelated to any other language and thus forms its own language family; for example, Basque.

Isolating languages A type of languages in which each word is comprised of only one morpheme, and thus has little or no affixation.

Isolationism The study of language that divides language study into separate areas such as syntax and semantics, rather than looking at language change as a whole.

Isomorphism A type of iconicity which refers to one form having only one meaning, and one meaning only one form; for example, in Old English there were two stems for the word "book" bÇk (singular stem) and b‘k (plural stem), which were consolidated into the current word, so that now there is only one form for that one meaning.


Jakobson, Roman A member of the Czech structuralist school, his work on semantics and morphology were particularly influential. He described semantic relationships in terms of similarity (metaphor) and contiguity (metonymy).

Johnson, Samuel One of the first most prominent of the British lexicographers and the author of the most comprehensive English dictionary before the OED, Dictionary of the English Language.

Jones, Sir William A British colonel in India, he was the first to propose a connection between an ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, and ancient European languages, Latin and Greek.


Kuryłowitz’s laws A set of six generalizations about the direction of analogy built upon the researcher’s intuitions about language change and analogy.


Labov, William One of the pioneers of sociolinguistics, he used variation in language in one speech community as evidence of changes taking place and discovered that there are two different kinds of sound change that display different implementation patterns — one similar to that proposed by the Neogrammarians and the other similar to the model of lexical diffusion.

Language academy A committee or institution officially designated to make pronouncements about the acceptability of various linguistic forms or structures within a particular language, they are responsible for language planning and the formation of language policy.

Language Acquisition The process of learning a language, it is conventionally divided into child and second language acquisition. Child (or primary) language acquisition is the learning of one’s native language as a young child. Some linguists have postulated that innovations in language that occur over generations are the result of children generating a different set of rules to account for linguistic input. Their innovative analysis can then lead to language change.

Adult language learning is often necessitated in language contact situations, and is an integral part of the formation of contact languages, as well as a prominent source of innovation (such as additions to the lexicon) in language.

Language Bioprogram Hypothesis Bickerton’s theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles, it contends that humans are born with a cognitive set of semantic and syntactic parameters, and that when children receive as insufficient input — such as in the case of a pidgin — these parameters guide the children of pidgin speakers in expanding the language to creole status, thus explaining the many structural similarities that exist between all creole languages.

Language change The manner in which the phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of a language are modified over time, it is the topic addressed by historical linguistics. Whereas language reconstruction looks at language in the present and seeks to reconstruct the past, language change looks at past states of language and seeks to explain what led up to the present state.

Language contact see contact

Language death The process by which a community of speakers of one language become bilingual in another, more prestigious language, and gradually shift allegiance to the second language until they no longer use their original language.

Language genesis Early developmental processes of a language. It is perhaps the least understood and most difficult to study area of historical linguistics, as each step back has lead not to the beginning, but to an earlier stage. To date, most work on language genesis has been conducted on contact languages, which have been created in the last two centuries.

Language murder A process of language obsolescence in which the less prestigious of two non-related or distantly related languages is gradually abandoned by native speakers, reserved for fewer and fewer occasions until it is unused. This process is not marked by borrowing of structures or vocabulary from the prestigious language.

Language planning The attempt by languages academies or boards, grammarians, teachers, and others to determine which forms will and will not be considered acceptable in a given language. A famous example is the French Language Academy, which has sought to keep foreign loan words out of French by creating French calques of English, German, and other terms. Such efforts have generally been fruitless in terms of maintaining language purity, but historically language planning has affected language change by stabilizing and standardizing language use. Language planning can also refer to the efforts of socio- and educational linguists to make decisions about the language varieties that are to be used in public settings, such as in government or schools.

Language shift The process by which the entire speech community of a language shifts to speaking another language. This is a part of the process of language death.

Language suicide A process of language obsolescence in which the speakers of the less prestigious language of two closely related languages borrows so many words and structures from the more prestigious language that the two become virtually indistinguishable.

Lenition A common sound change in which a stronger phoneme is replaced with a weaker phoneme.

Lexical phonology A Generative model that links synchronic data to diachronic theories of sound change, dividing the levels where phonological rules are applied to the lexicon and thus accounts for the two types of sound changes proposed by Labov.

Lexicalization A process by which a functional morpheme gains semantic content; for example, the bound derivational morpheme anti- is sometimes used as a noun.

Lexical shift A change in the meaning of a word; the word thatch used to mean "roof" in Old English, but now it refers to a kind of roofing material.

Lexicography The skill of dictionary makers, it is the process of defining a word including its meaning and usage as well as its history and development. Through lexicography, much knowledge of etymology, onomastics, and philology has been gained.

Lexicon The body of words in a language or work, including their meanings, usage, and distribution. This can refer to an actual book of words, such as a dictionary, or to the mental lexicon that is part of a speaker’s linguistic competence. Changes in the lexicon are seen in semantic change, grammatical change, and changes in the appropriate contexts for word use.

Lexicostatistics A manner of determining subgroups of language families used mainly with lesser known languages that uses the percentage of cognates in the core vocabulary of two languages to determine their likely relationship.

Lingua Franca An already existing language chosen as a medium of communication by people who would otherwise not share a common language; for example, French in several countries in Africa.

Lumping The tendency of some philologists, including Greenberg, to group several dialects as one language or several language subgroups into larger family.


Mańczak’s tendencies A set of nine generalizations about the characteristics of analogical change proposed by a Polish linguist based on a statistical study of analogy in the history of several European languages.

Metaphor A semantic link established between two words based on similarity or relatedness of meaning; for example, the statement "My sister is a doll" is based on the similar features of the sister and the doll.

Metathesis A phonological change in which two adjacent phonemes switch their order.

Metonymy A semantic link established between two words based on contiguity of meaning or an actual physical connection between them. 

Mixed languages Languages that seem to come from more than one proto-language. They are languages that have undergone convergence to such an extent that it is no longer possible to describe their orthogenetic line.

Monogenesis One theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles that contends that they have all evolved from a single proto-pidgin.

Morphological Fusion The manner in which agglutinating languages become synthetic. Two previously separately interpretable morphemes merge together and form one inflection. After fusion, they can no longer be interpreted as two morphemes.

Mother Tongue The secularized version of the Adamic language theory, it is the idea that all human languages have descended from one original proto-language.

Murry, James A.H. The first and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, he is considered to be one of the greatest philologists of the English language. He worked on the project for 35 years until his death in 1915.


Naturalness A rating of linguistic constructs in terms of their relative markedness. Unmarked terms are preferable to more marked terms.

Natural Morphology A theory of markedness in language developed by Dressler, Wurzel, and Mayerthaler that claims that unmarked forms are preferred by speakers. It also explains why certain constructions do not appear in any language.

Natural Serialization The theory that there is a certain tendency towards uniformity in word order among all constituents in a language according to the basic order of the verb and objects, and that a language whose phrases do not all follow this tendency will rearrange constituents in the various phrase type to promote uniformity.

Neogrammarians A school of linguists based in and around Leipzig in the nineteenth century who sought to explain language change in terms of sound laws without exceptions and postulated that modern irregularities in language were the result of past regular sound changes.

Neologism A newly coined term or expression; a new word that fills a lexical gap or conceptual gap in a language. The word quark was created to describe a newly discovered sub-nuclear particle.

Nonce word New words that are introduced into a language to be used for a specific purpose, they are often used briefly and then drop out of usage.

Nostratic family A highly controversial proposed super-grouping of several language families including Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Uralic, Dravidian, Altaic, and other families.


Onomastics The study of the history of proper nouns, place names, and given and family names.

Onomatopoeia A word such as swish or buzz that is imitative of actual, natural sounds; an utterance that sounds like what it means.

Opacity A rating of exceptionality, the degree to which a surface structure is removed from its deep structure.

Orthogenetic line The direct lineage of a modern language that starts at the proto-language, traces the developments at other earlier stages, and ends with the modern language itself.


Palatalisation A type of assimilation in which a non-palatal sound becomes a palatal sound because of the influence of a neighboring front vowel or palatal semi-vowel.

Paradigmatic relations A grouping of grammatical or phonological features of a language that have psychological reality at least for speakers or the language and are often the area for analogical change. These are relations at the metalinguistic level based on similarity, as opposed to linguistic level relations which are based on contiguity.

Peirce An American semiologist and philosopher who defined the theory of icons and iconicity and their relationship to signs. The "icon" of Drs. Robertson and Manning.

Pejoration A semantic change in a word or morpheme toward a more negative connotation; the English word silly ("foolish") used to mean "holy" or "blessed" in Old English.

Periphrasis A longer way of saying something that could be expressed in one word or morpheme; for example, saying "I am able to" as opposed to "I can."

Peripheral vocabulary Words that refer to culturally specific items or phenomena that do not necessarily have an equivalent in other languages.

Philology The study of language in context with particular regard to history, comparative linguistics, written texts, rhetoric, poetry, literature, anthropology, and etymology.

Phonemic shift A phonological change that occurs when a two words that formed a minimal pair in an earlier stage of the language are still contrasted by one phoneme, but the phonemes that are contrasted are different.

Phonemic split A phonological change in which one phoneme changes differently in different conditions and is eventually reanalyzed as two phonemes; for example, in the Angkamuthi language of Australia, the original phoneme [l] split into two phonemes in the word initial positions: [j] when followed by [a] or [i], and [l] when followed by [u] (Crowley, p. 78).

Phonemic fusion The loss of a distinction between phonemes due to sound change; for example, the proto-Matu words *ayan "name" and the *asan "gills of fish" are were contrasted by the fricatives, are now homophones, because [y] and [s] have become one phoneme, [d] (Crowley, p.?????).

Pidgin A language variety that develops between groups not speaking a common language; they typically combine basic elements of two different languages and lack many grammatical features found in fully-developed languages.

Polysemy The capacity of a word to have multiple but related meanings; the English word foot has a central meaning (body part), a peripheral meaning (bottom part of something), and an extended meaning (unit of measurement).

Preterite present verbs A marked class of Indo-European past tense verb forms that became English auxiliary verbs, indicating notions such as permission, possibility, obligation, or probability; for example, may, might, can, could, shall, should, will, would, and must.

Prothesis A type of epenthesis in which the inserted phoneme is added at the beginning of words; for example, pre-Motu *au "I, me" became lau .

Proto-language An earlier unattested language from which one or more modern languages are derived.


Rask A pre-Neogrammarian who was the first to describe the First Germanic Consonant Shift and one of the first to use cognates as a basis for comparative phonology work.

Reanalysis A grammatical change in which the original grammatical function of a word or morpheme is taken over by a marginal or new function, which eventually becomes the main function of the word in the lanaguage’s grammar.

Reflex A word in a comparatively more recent form chronologically; derivative.

Regularity Hypothesis A tenet of Neogrammarian thought that decrees sound change to be completely regular and without exception, claiming that any apparent irregularity was the result of another, unexceptional rule.

Relexification One theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles that claims that the substrate grammar is preserved, but the superstrate vocabulary has been adopted into that structure.

Rephonemicisation The creation of a new pattern of oppositions in a language by changing around existing phonemes or by changing existing phonemes into new phonemes, e.g. by merger, shift, or split.

Restriction A semantic change in which the meaning of a morpheme moves from general to more specific, from a broad meaning to a narrower application. In English, the word meat used to mean "food" but has since changed to mean a particular type of food; narrowing

Rhotacism A type of lenition in which an intervocalic alveolar fricative becomes a /r/. For example, Old English wasen became waren, which in Modern English is "were."

Rule ordering The process of determining from language data the chronology of sound changes.


Saussure A Swiss linguist, he was one of the first to divide synchronic linguistics from diachronic linguistics and is known for his binary model of the linguistic sign. One of his main contributions to historical comparative linguistics was his discovery of the PIE laryngeals, which first gave evidence of the validity of the comparative method.

Semantic Shift A change in the connections between form and meaning of words with related meanings caused by the introduction of a new word or by the acquisition of a new primary meaning by one word.

Sino-Tibetian family A language family found primarily in Asia, it includes the Chinese languages as well as Burmese and Tibetian.

Sonority Hierarchy A ranking of phonemes from the strongest (voiceless consonants) to the weakest (long vowels).

Sound change Conditioned or unconditioned, this is a diachronic shift in the phonology or phonetics of a language.

Sound correspondences A set of phonemes found in cognates in two or more languages that appear to have descended from the same sound in the protolanguage.

Spelling pronunciation An influence of literacy on phonology, this occurs when people vocalize a word according to its graphemic form; for example, many English speakers say the name of the German writer, Goethe ([gÉtc]), as [goe›].

Splitting The tendency of some philologists to divide languages and language families into many different smaller sub-groups.

Spoonerism The accidental switching of the initial sounds or syllables of two words; for example, saying "our queer old dean" instead of "our dear old queen."

Sturcturalism A school of linguistic thought founded mainly on Saussure’s ideas about the primacy of synchronic linguistics and the division between the signifier (the lexeme or grapheme) and the signified (the meaning). These linguists saw language as a system in which there was a place for all linguistic phenomena.

Sturtevant’s Paradox The statement about the relationship of sound change and analogy as diachronic processes, it explains that although sound change occurs regularly, it creates irregularity within the system, whereas analogy, which occurs irregularly, creates regularity.

Subgrouping The process of establishing the various branches of a language family based on shared innovations that occur in only two or more of the languages.

Substrate In a diglossia, the language that is associated with lower overt prestige and is eventually replaced by the more prestigious language. It may, however, have an influence on the lexis and grammar of the dominant language; for example, traces of Celtic influence can be found in English.

Superstrate In a diglossia, the language that is associated with greater overt prestige. From that position it influences the lexis and grammar of the non-dominant language without replacing it; for example, Norman French influenced but never supplanted English after the Norman conquest.

Suppletion A phenomenon that is found when semantically related words in a language do not have the similar forms that would be predicted by the regular inflectional processes of that language because they come from different etymons; for example, the comparative set "good," "better," and "best."

Synchronic linguistics A study of language that looks at a language within the same time period.

Syncretism A phenomenon that occurs in grammatical systems when more than one meaning is carried by the same form.

Syncope The loss of word internal phonemes; for example, pronouncing "policeman" as [pli:zmcn].

Synonymy A semantic relationship in which the meanings of two words are similar or identical.

Syntagmatic relations Relationships among linguistic units that are found in sequential order and therefore linked by contiguity, as opposed to the metalinguistic relationships among words that are similar.


Taboo words Terms that are marked, restricted, or forbidden except in specific or sacred contexts; for example, words for private body parts and functions in western culture.

Teleology The philosophy that language change is directional and that languages know in a sense where they are ultimately headed.

Trace Erasure Principle The theory that the gap left by the movement of a noun phrase by a transformational rule may be filled only by certain words such as there or it.

Transparency Principle The phenomenon that controls the amount of exceptionality that a language can tolerate; it was first described by Lightfoot. Cf. Opacity.

Typology Different systems of classifying languages in terms of their morphological or syntactical characteristics.


Umlaut A type of assimilation in which a back vowel is fronted or a low vowel raised because of the influence of a front vowel in the following syllable.

Unpacking A phonological change that occurs when one phoneme loses one or more of its distinctive features.

Uralic family A language family found primarily in northern and northeastern Europe, it includes Finnish, Samoy, Estonian, and Hungarian.


Verner’s Law An explanation of the irregularity that is found in the First Germanic Consonant Shift, it formalizes the rule that Germanic intervocalic voiceless fricatives became voiced when preceded by an unaccented vowel.

Vowel breaking A phonological process in which a dipthong is formed from a monopthong by adding a vowel or a semi-vowel to the monopthong.


Watkins The author of the Indo-European Roots dictionary; Dr. Robertson's dissertation director at Harvard; he believes that linguistic evidence is extremely valuable for archeology and anthropology in learning about people and cultures.

Wave model An alternative to the family tree notation that uses isogloss lines to show the influences that varieties have on other dialects that are related or unrelated, these give mostly synchronic data and do not presuppose genetic relatedness.

Word order variation The different patterns that languages have for aligning grammatical classes in a sentence or phrase, Watkins has characterized their study as revolving around ‘various permutations of the magical letters S, V, and O.’ It is also the focus of Greenbergian typologies.


Heather Nord
April 2002