Freelance reconstruction

Workflows in historical linguistics


A few too many of my blog posts seem to end up ballooning into mini-articles and consequently spend months if not years languishing in my drafts. Let’s see if I can keep this one brief.

An adage sometime seen in historical linguistics is “classification before reconstruction”. On one level, I agree. But, on a few others, this seems to be often abused as an excuse to skimp on proper rigor.

What this means, in my opinion:

What this does not mean:

A more detailed workflow for historical linguistics, if starting from zero, would therefore look something like the following:

  1. Acquire data; sort out some initial vocabulary comparisons that look promising.
  2. Analyze sound correspondences; use these to look for more comparisons.
  3. Look at the big picture to see if some particular subset of languages should be indeed considered related.
  4. Attempt reconstructing the proto-language.
  5. Use the proto-language POV to clarify the status of issues like problematic etymologies, possible external relatives, or possible subgroups.
  6. Use modified analyses of data to improve the proto-language reconstruction.
  7. Iterate 5 and 6 until you’ve run out of insights to gain from the data.

This could also work as a kind of a typology of how far along research on a particular language family is. To date, I don’t think any language family has yet exhausted stage 7. Most are stuck in limbo somewhere around stage 3; only a few have reached stage 5, and Indo-European might be the only one to have indisputably gone through one cycle of stage 7. Big disputed hypotheses grouping well-accepted families together can probably be divided according to if they’re closer to stage 1 (e.g. Amerind, Nilo-Saharan) or stage 2 (e.g. variations of Nostratic). Smaller disputed hypotheses often seem to be either at stage 2 or stage 4, depending on who you ask (e.g. Altaic). (To which I might reply: if these really are supposed to be already at stage 4, bring on stage 5, please.)

Of course there are many major facets of historical linguistics still missing here. We also want to account for typology at some points, morphology too at others, semantics three, periodically research loanwords and then weed them out of the proto-language, maybe entertain some substrate hypotheses.

[1] Some people will claim that vocabulary is strictly optional and you can show relatedness solely on the basis of grammar. I am skeptical; but if this were to be the case — then the implication is that we will not be doing any lexical reconstruction work at any point at all.
[2] Maybe with subscripts to disambiguate overlapping sets if you’d prefer, but anything goes in principle. If your heart desires to see more wingdings in linguistics papers, there is nothing formally wrong in re-labeling a t ~ tʰ correspondence as *☕.