Comparative linguistics is the study of the correspondences and relationships between languages, and of the techniques used to establish whether languages share a common ancestor. Though there are colleges that offer a specific comparative linguistics degree, in many cases a comparative linguistics student would earn a linguistics degree with a focus in comparative linguistics.
Field of Study
Comparative linguistics is a branch of historical linguistics, which studies the changes in languages over time and works to reconstruct earlier stages of languages. Comparative linguistics makes use of the Neogrammarian principle that regular laws govern sound change in languages, and these laws have no exceptions that cannot be accounted for by some other regular linguistic principle. Comparative linguists look for cases in which the correspondences between languages are too numerous and regular to be coincidental.
Students studying comparative linguistics should expect to take many of the same classes as other linguistics students, including linguistic theory, phonetics and phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology, computational linguistics and psycholinguistics. In addition, comparative linguistics students take classes in the history and structure of language, historical and comparative linguistics, historical grammar and historical phonetics and phonology. Comparative linguistics students may also be expected to know one or more foreign languages in the linguistic family they are studying.
Choosing a School
For an undergraduate degree in comparative linguistics or linguistics with a comparative linguistics focus, things to consider include the overall strength of the school’s linguistics program, whether the school offers a specific focus on comparative linguistics, and whether the school is a good fit for you overall, beyond the linguistics department. If you are looking at graduate programs in comparative linguistics, consider the prestige of the department, the work being done by the current faculty, and whether the program will offer you opportunities to do your own research or teach.
Many comparative linguists work in academia as professors and researchers; academic linguistic jobs generally require a master's or doctorate degree. At the university level, comparative linguists might find work teaching in a Linguistics, English, Anthropology, Communication Sciences, Philosophy or Foreign Language Department. Outside of academia, comparative linguists might find work in the computer and information sciences industry, particularly if they also have some background in computational linguistics. The verbal and language skills developed as a comparative linguistics major are ideal for positions in editing, writing, publishing and translation.
Based in Chicago, Adam Jefferys has been writing since 2007. He teaches college writing and literature, and has tutored students in ESL. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and is currently completing a PhD in English Studies.