Does it make any sense or rather is it scientific to take random languages that have no prior evidence of kinship and apply the historical comparative method?

  • 4
    (An amateur here) I don't think you can do this for purely technical reasons - the historical comparative method implies certain knowledge on the languages related to languages X and Y in their historical perspective. If you "throw it" you'll just have to restore it first.. And this alone might take the whole lifespan. But most importantly - what would be the practical sense of such an exercise, anyway?
    – tum_
    Jul 27, 2019 at 7:24
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    It's instructive, if nothing else. Everybody ought to do this once just to see how frustrating and inconsequential such a task is. You never wind up with a set of regular sound changes and roots; just a random assemblage of a few random resemblances, like a perp walk.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27, 2019 at 16:11
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    @jlawler And on the flip side, an instructor providing two languages that are distantly or obscurely related can be a great way to introduce students to the method! (But the odds of finding a pair like that by random chance are minimal.)
    – Draconis
    Jul 27, 2019 at 23:22

1 Answer 1


Scientific? Absolutely! At least, if you're going by one common definition of "scientific", meaning "making falsifiable hypotheses, doing experiments to gather data, rinse and repeat".

The comparative method is so useful specifically because it fits into this cycle. The way it's conventionally used, it assumes that language change is for the most part uniform and regular. So if we hypothesize a relationship between Latin initial /p/ and German initial /f/, the comparative method suggests that there should be quite a lot of similar-looking, similar-meaning words in Latin and German, where the Latin word starts with /p/ and the German word starts with /f/. If we look at the data, that's exactly what we find (and exactly what Jakob Grimm found).

Is it useful to do this? Well, that depends on your use case. If nothing else, rediscovering something like Grimm's Law can be a great way to introduce students to the comparative method and teach them how to apply it in practice. And especially outside the Indo-European family, there are a whole lot of languages whose categorization is far from certain.

And, after all, there is the chance (however remote) that you'll discover some new connection that's been overlooked in the past. But the odds are slim; remember that the null hypothesis is always that two random languages have no relationship to each other, and it takes quite a lot of evidence to reject that. Learn from the mistakes of Nostratic and Proto-World analyses, and be ready for a whole lot of failures before finding an actual connection.

  • 1
    Please stop beating the Nostrtists. There are some published results in respected papers. V. Blazek is AFAIK still a respected figure, Kortland is defensive as well (at least not offensive; what's the word?). Ruhlen et al's short list is undeniably convincing. The mistake is jumping to conclusions about genetic relations from little more than an assumed constant rate of change! That would not even be enough to reconstruct Proto-Germanic; Which, given Substrate hypothesis, is still a little problematic anyhow.
    – vectory
    Jul 28, 2019 at 8:12

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