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What is Diachronic, Historical Linguistics

What is Diachronic, Historical Linguistics

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and this scientific study of language is divided into various branches. Each branch of linguistics deals respectively as per its subject matter and expertise. Here two branches of linguistics are considered most important for discussion; Historical or Diachronic Linguistics and Descriptive or synchronic Linguistics. And our concern is for Historical Linguistics. Here we will discuss it in detail.

Historical or Diachronic Linguistics

Historical or Diachronic Linguistics deals with the development of language throughout the time. It studies how languages change or maintain their structure over time. Diachronic means “history calling.” That is why this field has been named as diachronic linguistics. Here is another term philology. The fundamental difference between philology and historical linguistics is that the first one deals with the developments in all languages in the period of history. In contrast, the second one deals with the developments in a particular language. Historical linguistics not only study the history of a language but also keenly observes the changes within a language and how languages are interlinked with each other. When the term history connected with linguistics, then some people think that it is a dry and dull subject. However, it is not the truth; Historical linguistics is an exciting field that always has a change and diversity in it.

It studies the relationships, differences, similarities, and many other things among languages in the period of history. Diachronic linguistics also examines the changing pattern of a language. It also investigates how multiple languages calved from one language and appraises themselves through the period as well as how cultural, and societal differences influence the languages and bring change. And even after some time, there are multiples differences among the languages that have the same root and origin. On the other hand, the Descriptive or synchronic linguistics studies a particular language without the limit of time, and the word synchronic means at a given time, not necessarily at present.

Read also: cognitive linguistics

According to Brian D.Joseph, “Historical linguistics is the branch of linguistics that is concerned with language change in general and with specific changes in languages, and in particular with describing them, with cataloging them, and ultimately with explaining them.” Diachronic and Synchronic linguistics are interlinked with each other. The strict division between the two branches is only due to the misconception of the relationship between the two aspects of the study. Diachronic linguistics always needs synchronic data for the research.

Historical Linguistics
Historical Linguistics

Change in Language 

Change is the most crucial concept of human life. It would be unnatural if someone says there is no change. Everything in human life is continuously changing, and nothing is stable here. Moreover, the beauty of language is also in its changing features. If a language is stable and does not alter itself as per the requirements of time, there are chances that soon, that very language will be in the list of endangered languages, and its survival will probably be difficult. Languages are not static and are the ever-changing phenomenon of human life.


The main concern of the historical linguistics is phonological, grammatical, and semantic changes. It studies the reconstruction period of the earlier stages of the language. It also focuses on the discovery and applications of the methods that show the genetic relationship among the languages. Its roots are linked to an etymological supposition of the classical, medieval time with Greek and Latin. These were the studies of Greeks that described the nature of language, and in their Etymological speculations, that meaning of the words are logical connections to the things.

Renaissance Period of Language/Linguistics 

After the medieval times, there is an abrupt change in the field of language. As new trade routes opened and languages came under scrutiny. In that very time, it was an outstanding effort to classify languages following their resemblance, and from that point, the study of etymology gets momentum.

Linguists Silvia Luraghi and Vit Bubenik point out, “The official act of birth of comparative historical linguistics is conventionally indicated in Sir William Jones’ The Sanscrit Language, delivered as a lecture at the Asiatic Society in 1786, in which the author remarked that the similarities between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit hinted to a common origin, adding that such languages might also be related to Persian, Gothic and the Celtic languages,”.

Read also: Applied linguistics

Subject Matter of the Historical Linguistics 

As per the subject matter of historical linguistics, all languages have equal importance and are in the form of continual change. When languages interact with each other, get influenced. The language of trade culture, literature, and education influence the language of society. In this way, new words and vocabulary included in societal language as well as a societal language also show its influence on the other language and also adopt essential aspects of the culture. There is a change on both sides. So except some universals of a language, other things get the influence of other languages.

There are various reasons for a change within a language. According to the non-specialists view, language change occurs due to geographical and cultural exchange as someone moves from one place to another place. However, he speaks the language of that very place where he lives; nevertheless, there is a variation in his language. He also includes some words from his back-grounded language. He influences the grammar, accent, and vocabulary of the language of the society in which he is residing in the present.

Read also; An Introduction to Corpus Linguistics

Concept of Linguistics Inferiority 

The other main reason for the language change is that when people of a particular culture consider their language as inferior and try to speak the language of high class as there is a craze for English in Pakistan. The middle-class community is trying to shift their children from Urdu to English. This craze is very dangerous for a language.

Language change and Linguists viewpoint 

Linguists also provide some reasons for the language shift. At the very first point, they describe the functionality of the language as the language performs various functions in society. So while delivering its functionality in a particular field, it absorbs some terminologies from other areas and gets influence. Psycho-linguistic changes also play a vital role in language change as every new generation receives the language from its ancestors. As a new and modern generation, it also has some needs, and there are also some cultural influences on it. So their psychological order adopts a change in their language. Sociolinguistics factors are also as responsible as the other factors are. So above said professional views, as well as local people’s opinions, describe the change in language. These elements are always present in any culture and society, so the difference in a language system is always present.

Aims and scope of historical linguistics

Historical linguistics studies the history of a particular language based on its available synchronic written data. It examines the prehistory of languages, based on reconstruction and comparison. Ongoing changes are observed in historical linguistics.

Historic liguistics
history of a particular language based written data.

It also answers the following questions;

What is changed in language?

How is it changed?

Why did the change occur?

Various changes happen in language as time passes. Here we will try to discuss the changes in language, their reasons, and effects.


Words having the same meaning, sound, etc. in different languages are called cognates. Cognates are vocabulary words from two or more languages, which sound similar and refer to the same thing. Historical linguists find the answers to these questions by their study by observing the vocabulary of the same family languages. They also try to find the same words and sounds with the same meaning in various languages and then try to find the root of these languages wherefrom these languages get birth. Furthermore, why do changes occur at a broad level? 


It is a sociolinguistic phenomenon that there is a language variation from one particular place to another place. In simple words, we can say that the role of sociolinguistics variables is present in the language and the regional dialects of a specific language are different from the standard language. When we observe the English Language, then the Standard variety/ dialect of the English Language is the Queen English or BBC English. However, the other varieties of English are also present and differ from the standard language. So the Dialects are the geographical variations of a particular language and having differences in vocabulary, grammar, and phonology as well. American English, Australian, and British English are all English.

Nevertheless, they now become Englishes as they have multiple variations in vocabulary, grammar, and phonology. These dialects of English originate from the same language, but by the time there are numerous changes among these. Historical Linguistics deals with these dialects and observes these changes from time to time. 

Extension or broadening of meaning 

For this purpose, metaphors and Metonymy are used. The generalization of the meanings from particular to general is studied here. A metaphor involves the transfer or term because of an imagined similarity. At the same time, Metonymy uses the name of an attribute to denote the whole entity, such as a white house for the American president.

The semantic narrowing and Grammaticalisation
The semantic narrowing is also studied here. It is a reverse extension from general to particular. Grammaticalisation is also considered under the umbrella of Historical Linguistics. Semantic bleaching, a specific type of semantic change, is connected with Grammaticalisation as when English will develop from its full verb meaning ‘to want’ into the modern auxiliary will, which now only has grammatical meanings.
Speaker’s evaluation 

Historical linguistics also studies how words change there meaning throughout history. The term used in the assessment of the meanings of words is ‘speaker’s evaluation.’ Speakers can interpret this evaluation as positive, negative, or neutral. Interpretation of the meanings of the words is subject to change. These different evaluations or interpretations of the words are due to the different contextual use of the words. The meaning of the words is changed from time to time and context of the application. When we observe the word ‘knight,’ we observe an amelioration of meaning here. In the beginning, it was used in the meaning of a boy, youth, or attendant. But in the modern era, its purpose has been changed. And now it is used in different contexts or meanings. This shows the positive change in the meaning of the word. A negative change in meaning also occurs. The word ‘knave’ in old English was used for a boy, after it for a peasant or farmer, and now for a villain. So here, the change occurs in a negative context.

Borrowing of words 

Speakers of the languages also borrow words from other languages. This conception makes communication attractive. It happens when people consider that new terms will be more influential for their communication. In this way, the borrowed or loaned word becomes more prominent in the language as Chapman is used for a merchant. It is an example of the borrowing of a word.

Historic linguistics
Language makes communication attractive.

Factors involved in the Semantic change

Extra Linguistics factor

Linguistics and non-linguistic factors are involved in semantic change. In non-linguistic elements, there are needs and psychological factors involved. According to historical linguistics, people use different words in a different context as per their requirements as well for the sake of exaggeration and emphasis. People do not want to reference the unpleasant and disgraceful concept directly in their language. So these tendencies become the cause of semantic change in a language.

Read also: What is Language

Linguistics Factors

The meaning relation plays a significant role in semantic change—a tendency to avoid synonym words for the reason for the economy.

Homonymic (clash in meaning), For example, the old English word la tanto let) and latter (to hinder); they have opposite meanings but became homonym under the form let. Then gradually latter to hinder) disappeared due to this homonymic clash.

In the end, we can say that historical linguistics observes all happening in the field of language keenly. In this field of study, researchers find and analyze how various styles came into existence? Wherefrom originated? What changes happened throughout history within a particular language? How different verities and types came into existence in one language and many other questions. Moreover, it also studies the changes in meaning as well as in language structure.


Written  & Reviewed by: Muhammad Asad Kasra,


M.Phil Scholar, Riphah Institute of Language and Literature, Riphah International University Lahore, Pakistan.


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