Internal reconstruction

Internal reconstruction

Internal reconstruction is a method of recovering information about a language's past from the characteristics of the language at a later date. Whereas the comparative method compares variations between languages — such as in sets of cognates — under the assumption that they descend from a single proto-language, internal reconstruction compares variant forms within a single language under the assumption that they descend from a single, regular form. For example, these could take the form of allomorphs of the same morpheme.Fact|date=July 2007

The basic premise of internal reconstruction is that a meaning-bearing element that alternates between two or more similar forms in different environments was probably a single form in the past, into which alternation was introduced by the usual mechanisms of sound change and analogy.Fact|date=July 2007

Language forms reconstructed by means of internal reconstruction are denoted with the "pre-" prefix, similar to the use of "proto-" to indicate a language reconstructed by means of the comparative method; for example, proto-Indo-European. So, an earlier form of English would be referred to as "pre-English", intermediate between hypothetical "Proto-Germanic" and the earliest attested Old English.

It is even possible to apply internal reconstruction to proto-languages reconstructed by the comparative method. For example, performing internal reconstruction on proto-Mayan would yield pre-proto-Mayan. In some cases it is also desirable to use internal reconstruction to uncover an earlier form of various languages, and then submit those "pre-" languages to the comparative method. Care must be taken, however, because internal reconstruction performed on languages before applying the comparative method can remove significant evidence of the earlier state of the language and thus reduce the accuracy of the reconstructed proto-language.Fact|date=July 2007

Role in Historical Linguistics

In the case of languages whose histories are well understood, either via the comparative method or historical attestation of significant time-depth, internal reconstruction is little more than an entertaining parlor-game, at best a kind of test to see if the data and the reasoning applied to them actually "work"; that is, actually conform to what is known about the history of a language from other sources. And to take note of the fact that, as in the example from Spanish, below, the likeliest inferences from such an analysis do not necessarily recover the best history. (In the Spanish case, the result of the best analysis is correct in principle but faulty in detail.)When undertaking a comparative study of a hitherto un(der)analyzed family of languages, however, it is worthwhile to get an understanding of their systems of alternations, if any, before tackling the greater complexities of analyzing entire linguistic structures. For example, the Type A forms of verbs in Samoan (as in the example, below) are the citation forms, i.e., the forms in dictionaries and word lists, but when making historical comparisons with other Austronesian languages it would be a blunder to use Samoan citation forms with parts missing. (And an analysis of the verb sets would alert the researcher to the certainty that many other words in Samoan have lost a final consonant.) Another way of looking at it is that internal reconstruction gives access to an earlier historical stage, at least in some details, of the languages being compared, and this can be valuable: the more time that passes, the more changes accumulate in the structure of a (living) language, and for this reason we always try to use the earliest known attestations of languages when working with the comparative method.Fact|date=July 2007

Internal reconstruction, when not a sort of preliminary to the application of the comparative method, is most useful in cases where the superior analytic power of the comparative method is unavailable.Fact|date=July 2007

Internal reconstruction can also draw limited inferences from peculiarities of distribution. Even before comparative investigations had sorted out the true history of Indo-Iranian phonology, some scholars had wondered if the extraordinary frequency of the phoneme /a/ in Sanskrit (20% of all phonemes together, a stupendous total) might point to some historical fusion of two or more vowels. (In fact, it represents the final outcome of five different Proto-Indo-European syllabics two of which—the syllabic states of /m/ and /n/—can be discerned by the application of internal reconstruction.) But in such cases, internal analysis is better at raising questions than at answering them. The preternatural frequency of /a/ in Sanskrit hints at some sort of historical event, but does not lead, and cannot, to any "specific" theory.

Issues and Shortcomings

Neutralizing Environments

One issue in internal reconstruction is neutralizing environments, which can be an obstacle to historically correct analysis. Consider the following forms from Spanish, spelled phonemically rather than orthographically:


Although modern English has very little affixal morphology, its number includes a marker of the preterite, apart from verbs with vowel changes of the "find/found" sort, and the great majority of verbs that end in /t d/ take /əd/ as the marker of the preterite, as seen in Type I.

Can we make any generalizations about the membership of verbs in Types I and II? Most obviously, the Type II verbs all end in /t/ and /d/, though that is just like the members of Type I. Less obviously they are all without exception basic vocabulary. Note well that this is a claim about Type II verbs and not a claim about basic vocabulary: there are basic home-and-hearth verbs in Type I, too. But there are no denominative verbs in Type II, that is, verbs like "to gut, to braid, to hoard, to bed, to court, to head, to hand". There are no verbs of Latin or (a little harder to spot) of French origin; all stems like "depict, enact, denote, elude, preclude, convict" are Type I. Furthermore, all novel forms are inflected as Type I: all native speakers of English would presumably agree that the preterites of "to sned" and "to absquatulate" would most likely be "snedded" and "absquatulated".

The inference from these considerations is that the absence of a "dental preterite" marker on roots ending in apical stops in Type II reflects a more original state of affairs, i.e., that in the early history of the language the "dental preterite" marker was in a sense absorbed into the root-final consonant when it was /t/ or /d/; the affix /əd/ after word-final apical stops then belongs to a later stratum in the evolution of the language. The same suffix is involved in both types, but with a 180∘reversal of "strategy": other exercises of internal reconstruction would point to the conclusion that the aboriginal affix of the dental preterites was /Vd/ (where V = a vowel of uncertain phonetics, and of course an inspection of Old English directly would reveal several different stem-vowels in the mix). In modern formations, it is stems ending in /t d/ that "preserve" the vowel of the preterite marker; in an earlier day, odd as it might seem, the loss of the stem vowel had taken place already prehistorically whenever the root ended in an apical stop.


In Latin there are many examples of "word families" showing vowel alternations. Some of these are examples of Indo-European ablaut:"pendõ" "weigh", "pondus" "a weight"; "dõnum" "gift", "datum" "a given", "caedõ" "cut" perf. "ce-cid-", "dĩcõ" "speak", participle "dictus", that is, inherited from the proto-language. (Note: all unmarked vowels in these examples are short.) But some, involving only short vowels, clearly arose within Latin. Examples:

"faciõ" "do", participle "factus", but "perficiõ, perfectus" "complete, accomplish"; "amĩcus" "friend" but "inimĩcus" "unfriendly, hostile"; "legõ" "gather", but "colligõ" "bind, tie together", participle "collectus"; "emõ" "take; buy", but "redimõ" "buy back", participle "redemptus"; "locus" "place" but "ĩlicõ" "on the spot" (< *"stloc-/*instloc-"); "capiõ" "take, seize", participle "captus" but "percipiõ" "lay hold of", "perceptus"; "arma" "weapon" but "inermis" "unarmed"; "causa" "lawsuit, quarrel" but "incũsõ" "accuse, blame"; "claudõ" "shut", "inclũdõ" "shut in"; "caedõ" "fell, cut", but "concĩdõ" "cut to pieces"; "damnõ" "find guilty" but "condemnõ" "sentence" (verb); and many, many more of the same sort. Briefly: vowels in initial syllables never alternate in this way, but in non-initial syllables (omitting some details) short vowels of the simplex forms become -"i"- before a single consonant and -"e"- before two consonants; the diphthongs -"ae"- and -"au"- of initial syllables alternate with medial -"ĩ"- and -"ũ"-, respectively.

Now, reduction in contrast in a vowel system (for that is what has happened here) is very commonly associated with position in atonic (unaccented) syllables, but in Latin the tonic accent of say "reficiõ" and "refectus" is on the same syllable as simplex "faciõ, factus", and that is true of almost all of the examples given ("cólligõ, rédimõ, ĩlicõ" (initial-syllable accent) are the only exceptions), and indeed for most of the examples of these alternations throughout the language. Obviously the reduction of contrast points in the vowel system (-"a"- and "-o"- fall together with -"i"- before a single consonant, with -"e"- before two consonants; long vowels replace diphthongs) cannot have anything to do with the location of the accent in attested Latin:

The accentual system of Latin is well-known, partly from statements by Roman grammarians and partly from agreements among the Romance languages on the location of tonic accent: the tonic accent in Latin fell three syllables before the end of any word with three or more syllables, unless the second-to-last syllable (called the "penult" in classical linguistics) was "heavy", i.e. contained a diphthong, a long vowel, or was followed by two or more consonants, in which case that syllable has the tonic accent. Thus "perfíciõ, perféctus, rédimõ, condémnõ, inérmis".

If there is any connection, then, between word-accent and vowel-weakening, the accent in question cannot be that of Classical Latin. Since the vowels of initial syllables never show this weakening (to oversimplify a bit), the obvious inference is that at some point in prehistory, the tonic accent must have been a "stationary" accent always falling on the first syllable of a word. Such an accentual system is very common in the world's languages (Czech, Latvian, Finnish, Hungarian, and, with certain complications, High German and Old English, etc., etc.), but was definitely not the accentual system of Proto-Indo-European. Therefore, on the basis of internal reconstruction within Latin, we discover a prehistoric sound-law that replaced the inherited accentual system with an automatic initial-syllable accent which, in turn, was replaced by the attested accentual system. As it happens, Celtic languages likewise have an automatic word-initial accent (subject, like the Germanic languages, to certain exceptions, mainly certain pretonic prefixes). Celtic, Germanic, and Italic languages share some other features as well, and it is tempting to think that the word-initial accent system was an "areal feature" as it is called, but that would be more speculative than the inference of a prehistoric word-initial accent for Latin specifically.

There is a very similar set of givens in English, but with very different consequences for internal reconstruction. There is pervasive alternation between short and long vowels (the latter now phonetically diphthongs): between /ay/ and /i/ in words like "divide, division; decide, decision"; between /ow/ and /a/ (American) /o/ (British) in words like "provoke, provocative; pose, positive"; between /aw/ and /ə/ (American) /ʌ/ (British) in words like "pronounce, pronunciation; renounce, renunciation; profound, profundity"; and many other examples. As in the Latin example, the tonic accent of present-day English is often on the syllable showing the vowel alternation. In the Latin case, it was possible to frame an explicit hypothesis regarding the location of word-accent in prehistoric Latin that would account for both the vowel alternations and the attested system of accent. Indeed, such a hypothesis is hard to avoid. By contast, the alternations in English do not point to any specific hypothesis, only a general suspicion that word accent must be the explanation, and that the accent in question must have been different from that of modern-day English. Where the accent used to be, and what the rules (if any) are for its relocation in present-day English, cannot be recovered by internal reconstruction. In fact, even the givens are uncertain: it is not even possible to tell whether we are dealing with "lengthening" in tonic syllables or "shortening" in atonic ones. (And in historical fact, both are involved.) Part of the problem is that English has alternations between diphthongs and monophthongs (i.e., between Middle English long and short vowels, respectively) from no fewer than six different sources, the oldest (for example "write, written") dating all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. But even if it were possible (it is not) to sort out the corpus of affected words, sound changes subsequent to the relocation of tonic accent have eliminated the necessary conditions for framing accurate sound laws. It is, in fact, possible to reconstruct the history of the English vowel system with great accuracy, but not by internal reconstruction. (In a nutshell, at the time of the atonic shortening, the tonic accent lay two syllables to the right of the affected vowel and was subsequently retracted to its present-day position. But in words like "division" and "vicious" (cf. "vice") have lost a syllable in the first place, which would be an insuperable obstacle to correct analysis.) () 22:29, 2 February 2008 (UTC)


*T. Givón, "Internal reconstruction: As method, as theory", Typological Studies in Language (2000).
*J. Kuryłowicz, " On the Methods of Internal Reconstruction", Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Linguists (1964).
*Anthony Fox, "Linguistic Reconstruction: An Introduction to Theory and Method", Oxford University Press (1995), ISBN 0198700016.
*cite book | first=Lyle | last=Campbell | authorlink=Lyle Campbell | title=Historical Linguistics: An Introduction | edition=2nd ed. | location=Cambridge (Mass.) | publisher=The MIT Press | year=2004 | id=ISBN 0-262-53267-0 (U.S.).

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