We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is the Comparative Method in Linguistics?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
Our promise to you
Language & Humanities is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At Language & Humanities, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

In linguistics, the comparative method is a standardized way to compare different languages in order to determine their relationship to one another. The comparative method is based on the principle of regular sound change, which holds that any changes in the sounds of a language that happen over time occur in a regular way, with no exceptions. Languages are analyzed using the comparative method to determine whether they share a common mother language, a single language from which several others evolve. The comparative method can also suggest which branches of a language family developed earlier or later in time.

Historical linguistics uses the language of genetics and familial relationships as an analogy to discuss the relationships between languages, so two languages that grew out of a single language - say English and German - are referred to as sisters, the daughters of a single mother language - in this case the hypothetical Germanic. Languages with common "ancestry" are grouped together into families. It is important to note that this is simply analogy, and does not mean anything about the genetic background of a language's speakers; an English speaker in the modern world is not necessarily a descendant of someone who spoke "Germanic".

The comparative method generally makes use of a large list of words with the same definitions in the languages being compared. Words that are likely to have native terms in each language are preferable, to prevent the confusion that could result from borrowed terms. The words are then compared to each other, and correspondences between sounds are noted. As an example, the f sound in German corresponds to the p sound in Latin at the beginning of a word: Latin pater ("father") has the same meaning as German Vater (pronounced Fah-tuh).

In the comparative method, the linguist records all correspondences between the languages in question, then sets about writing sound rules to explain the changes. A sound rule for the above example would account for how a single sound in the mother language became p in Latin and f in German. The location in a word of a sound correspondence must always be taken into account. Latin p, for example, only corresponds with German f at the beginning of a word.

When one is comparing two or more sister languages, and no record of a mother language exists, the linguist can use the comparative method to reconstruct a hypothetical mother language. One of the most well known and thorough of these reconstructed languages is Proto-Indo-European, from which hundreds of European, Middle Eastern, and Central and South Asian languages have evolved, including the above examples of Latin and German.

Because the rule of regular sound change stipulates that there are no exceptions to a sound change rule, anything that looks like an exception must be investigated and explained in a way that satisfies linguistic principles. An apparent anomaly may be due to the effects of another sound change rule or to the chronological order in which multiple sound changes occurred, or it may appear because the word in question entered the language after the sound change took place. After determining the sound change rules for a set of languages one is investigating, the next step in the comparative method is to determine the order in which the sound changes occurred. This step is where those things that seemed to be exceptions to the postulated rules can come in handy.

As you may have surmised, the comparative method can be a complicated and lengthy process, and sometimes an educated guess is the best conclusion one can come to. Nevertheless, the comparative method is an indispensable tool for historical linguists and responsible for nearly all currently accepted language genealogies.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
Learn more
Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.