Derek Nurse
Table of contents

Linguistic reconstruction grew out of nineteenth century work in comparative linguistics, itself an offshoot of an older synchronic tradition. European scholars since the Roman period had studied Latin grammar. The Renaissance reawakened interest in Ancient Greek, and awareness grew of Hebrew and Arabic. European expansion into new areas of the world also brought an increased consciousness of non-European languages. The greatest, but not the only, single stimulus to historical research occurred in the late eighteenth century when Western scholars came across Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India. They quickly recognized the similarities between it and both the classical and modern languages of Europe. They further recognized that while such similarity might result from coincidence (or from contact, only later acknowledged), it most likely resulted from genetic relationship, which implied a common ancestor. This recognition gave rise to the energy and activity that characterized work on historical and comparative linguistics, work that continued unabated throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Comparative linguistics here is understood as working backwards in time, from current or attested languages to an earlier state, whereas historical linguistics is understood as the study of the development of a language or languages over time, thus moving forward in time.

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