On the usefulness of historical linguistics

There’s a line of thought among New Testament scholars who study Ancient Greek grammar that historical linguistics, the comparative method, and so forth ought to be treated with suspicion or as some kind of failed experiment. Statements on this question inevitably get some vague reference to “modern linguistics” and “Saussure” as if that’s all the justification or explanation needed. Perhaps a comment is then provided explaining how synchronic study is superior to diachronic study. And perhaps something is said about how historical reconstruction of proto-languages is entirely speculative.

All of this is said, of course, without any irony at all.

There seems to be a general lack of awareness that Saussure is one of the most important historical linguists in history, or for that matter, awareness that his own work in proto-language reconstruction using the comparative method (in his case, proto-Indo-European) is one of the best examples we have of its efficacy as a linguistic method.

Ferdinand de Saussure used the comparative method to extrapolate the existence of an entire set of consonants that didn’t exist in any known Indo-European language at the time.

And then we discovered Hittite.

The comparative method is one of the most successful scientific enterprises in the history of the study of language.

P.S. If you’ve already read Course in General Linguistics, perhaps its time to read directly from the source rather than student notes. Saussure’s own manuscripts was discovered in a desk in Geneva in 1996. See below.

Recommended reading

Lehmann, Winfred P. Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics. London:; Routledge.
Sanders, Carol. 2005. The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. 2006. Writings in General Linguistics. Translated by Simon Bouguet and Rudolf Engler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.