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Research programme

Descriptive and Comparative Linguistics

The research programme Descriptive and Comparative Linguistics brings together LUCL researchers who focus mainly on descriptive and comparative linguistics.

Willem Adelaar

It is striking that all good descriptive work, done both in the past and today, in some way combines thorough synchronic description with family-internal comparison and historical reconstruction, or is grounded in these. Conversely, the quality of comparative linguistic studies crucially depends on the quality of the synchronic analyses of the relevant data. In the case of modern languages, these synchronic analyses are often provided by descriptive linguists. In the case of ancient languages, the synchronic analyses are carried out by philologists, whose methodology often overlaps with that of descriptive linguists. Descriptive and comparative historical linguistics have a number of naturally shared domains of research.

For synchronic language description it is crucial to have or accumulate knowledge about the earlier stages of a certain sound, affix or word, and to investigate how these structural items evolved over time to become what they are in the language today. Therefore researchers in the descriptive linguistic group often engage in comparative research on a group of related languages. This type of research also enables them to contribute to the study of the socio-cultural past.

Two main research domains may be distinguished within the programme: (1) language description and (2) linguistic reconstruction and comparative linguistics.

Language description

Language description, aiming at in-depth analyses of the world’s languages. Descriptive linguistics is concerned with the study of the structure of languages through an analysis of the forms, structures and processes at all levels of language structure: phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, semantics and pragmatics. It is based on data gathered through fieldwork, preferably immersion fieldwork for extended periods of time. It draws on ethnographic and linguistic methods. Languages are of strategic importance in understanding the history and culture of a people and the cognitive capacities of humans, as in Sapir’s idea of linguistics as a science. Our main focus areas are Meso- and South America, North, West and East Africa, and insular Southeast Asia. The researchers in this domain strive to expand the regions of expertise in order to improve the coverage of the world’s linguistic diversity. Leiden University has a long and strong tradition in producing comprehensive grammars of understudied languages. LUCL researchers are active in the development of the new field of language documentation. Language documentation is broader than description: it not only entails the establishment of searchable annotated audio and video corpora, including the most relevant cultural practices, but also involves reflection on data and on the nature of variation. The challenge for the coming years is to strengthen the programme’s position in developing the field of language documentation and to combine this with deeper linguistic analyses of the languages that are studied. The present context of LUCL favours these aims. The world’s heritage of linguistic diversity is endangered in many different ways. Our research group is dedicated to documenting that diversity, and we have been able to raise specific funding for this goal.

Linguistic reconstruction and comparative linguistics

Linguistic reconstruction and comparative linguistics, aiming at describing and understanding diachronic variation and linguistic developments across time, as well as synchronic older language stages in all their varieties. The span of research stretches historically from Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic (4th and 3rd millennia BCE) up to the present day, and geographically from Iceland and the British Isles to India and Western China in Eurasia, Northern and West Africa, Eastern Indonesia and East Timor, the Andes, Meso-America and the Guyanas.

For prehistoric times, the most advanced insights are developed and applied for the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic and their subsequent stages. Supportive evidence from archaeology and genetics is put to use, and researchers concentrate not only on internally motivated language changes, but also on external factors such as language contact and substrate effects.

For historic times, the research programme is strongly data-oriented: it is based on comprehensive philological study of the sources, on close reading of texts within their social, cultural and pragmatic contexts, and on corpus linguistics. At the same time, the research is well informed by the theoretical concepts of modern descriptive and historical linguistics as well as sociolinguistics.


The members of this programme in general cooperate with other researchers in the LUCL in numerous ways. The audiences of the various discussion groups and lecture series within LUCL cut across all groups and enable us to establish fruitful areas of cooperation and exchange in research. Language contact and Afroasiatic linguistics are examples of topics in which LUCL has considerable expertise with potential of synergy. The members of the descriptive linguistics research group have the additional ambition to intensify cooperation with colleagues in their areas of research in order to improve and expand on advanced training in their field, using the annual LUCL summer school and the development of internet-based teaching materials. They aim to expand our coverage of languages of the world.

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