chapter  2
Methods
Pages 24

This chapter is designed to sketch the development of the methods of historical linguistics. Statements on the methods as currently applied may be consulted in special works like that of Hoenigswald (1960) or in the handbooks on historical linguistics. No satisfactory historical linguistic study was carried out before the beginning of the nineteenth century, and accordingly linguists had to develop appropriate methods for the new field. Like other new sciences, historical linguistics then looked to those that had developed useful methods. The greatest help came from comparative anatomy. Anatomical study had advanced greatly in the eighteenth century,

thanks in large part to Linnaeus. He laid the foundations of biological classification by selecting characteristic items for identification of species and genera, thereupon families and larger groupings. For classifying the higher orders of flowers he selected the reproductive organs, for birds their beaks, for animals their teeth and toes. The method had been so successful that by 1812 Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) could apply it to fossils, in his influential book, Recherches sur les ossemes fossiles de quadrupes.1 It was a small step to apply the method to selected items of languages. Bopp, as we have noted, applied such comparison to verb forms after his

period of study in Paris. The methods developed in anatomy could be readily transferred to the research on early languages. Characteristic items had long been identified in Greek and Latin grammar. Categories recog­ nized for verbs were: voice, tense, mood, number and person. These categories had also been noted by the Indian grammarians. Setting the forms side by side demonstrated their relationship much as had the com­ parison of anthers, pistils and other characteristics among species of flowers. What distinguished Bopp from earlier scholars who compared

related words was his attention to systems. As the title of his monograph of 1816 indicates, he compared the conjugational system of Sanskrit with the systems in Greek, Latin, Persian and Germanic. This approach raised the monograph far above previous works pursuing random comparison; it also justifies his distinction as father of comparative linguistics. The compara­ tive method was now installed in linguistics through Bopp’s innovative work. The method was further established when Jacob Grimm in 1822 applied

it to the consonantal system of Germanic in relation to the other IndoEuropean languages, chiefly Latin and Greek, with some attention to Sanskrit. Having recognized Rask’s accuracy in setting up relationships among the consonants, Grimm in a quickly produced second edition of his 1819 volume on Germanic phonology systematized the relationships in tables (1822: 584; Lehmann 1967: 52). It is instructive to review his presentation in these references. The rules in his format are succinct lists presenting the essential facts.