I have asked a few questions before relating to PIE, proto-languages theory and the comparative method. As these are technical areas I am unfamiliar with but thanks to some previous answers I am gaining a better grasp of some the technical parts too. However, I am somewhat more familiar with Philosophy and philosophically analyzing things at a conceptual level. My new question more pertains to the Philosophy of Linguistics and the validity of the comparative method in Historical linguistics. As reconstruction is used to derive proto languages which then are used to write histories of the world, establishing the validity of the comparative method and reconstruction of proto languages becomes crucial.

So based on my own observations and some critiques by others the following critiques have been made:

  1. The comparative method is pre-scientific or non-scientific.

The scientific method is based on empirically testing a theory that is falsifiable. It was a response to and ultimately defeated deductivism where truths were derived from other alleged truths or logical axioms. It emerged as the scientific consensus in early Modern times that we cannot derive particular truths from universal truths, that particular observations only lead to particular statements and they can only be tested against empirical reality. However, the proto languages created using the comparative method, which I have been told here are only hypothesis are not falsifiable because they are not attested and unless we build a time machine we can never find out how true our reconstructions are. However it seems linguists postulate the hypothesis, but then proceed to derive other truths from the hypothesis such as sound laws on how a sound changed in its daughter languages. This seems to be positing an unprovable, and deriving more unprovables from it which seems to be deduction based.

Many linguists have raised this objection, including some of the founding fathers of linguistics like Sauserre that doubted the validity of reconstructions and whether they pointed to any real realities. It seems like he was not the last to make this criticism and the criticisms have been made over and over till present. Brugmann(1849-1919), a eminent linguist that worked on Indo-European linguistics expressed his skepticism whether whether reconstruction could ever reflect a linguistic reality. Recently, Pulgram(1959) has said PIE reconstructions are "just a set of reconstructed formula, that do not represent any reality" Pokorny echoes the same and call are linguistic reconstructions pure abstractations and thinks PIE is nothing more than a system of isoglosses shared by languages in close proximity and not a uniform language. The most damning criticism comes from Kaznas that says ""The first fallacy is that the comparative method is “scientific” and can offer predictions" and "Another fallacy is very subtle: it is the tacit assumption that the reconstructed forms are actual and experts in this imaginary field discuss and argue among themselves as if they are realities"

Overall, to summarize the criticism above, they make a damning case against historical linguistics. Suggesting it is pre scientific or not scientific, It seems to exist only as an abstract or hypothetical field with no necessary real entailment, which puts the existence of having such a field and departments for it into question. This is bound to upset many linguists, but there is no reason to be, because it is a philosophical critique and in Philosophy no field is sacrosanct and immune from criticism. However, can you defend linguistics from this critique.

As this is both a Philosophy and Linguistics question, it could go in either the Philosophy and Linguistics community, but it is better placed in the Linguistics community because it presupposes knowledge of linguistics and specifically historical linguistics. With permission I may cite your answers in a future publication I am writing on the Philosophy of Historical Linguistics.

Edit: In light of the comments below I have removed criticisms 2-5 and just left 1 to make this topic more focused on the method itself. However, in answering the question, please make reference to the subjectivity involved in adducing sound laws using the method and distinguishing natural sound changes from other ones.

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    I think you're asking a lot of different questions here which aren't best addressed together. A question like "Are the results of the comparative method falsifiable?" might be a good fit for a Q&A site, but a disjointed list of criticisms of historical linguistics isn't.
    – TKR
    Sep 7, 2021 at 2:40
  • I'm voting to close this question because it's several distinct questions in one. As TKR said, "does the comparative method make falsifiable hypotheses" is a reasonable enough question, but you've got several very different questions here, related only in that they're criticisms of historical linguistics as a field.
    – Draconis
    Sep 7, 2021 at 3:21
  • I think all questions are valid to offer a philosophical criticism of the entire field, as philosophical arguments are rarely just focusing on one area. However, in light of the comments above I will edit it down to just the first point (1) about the epistemology of the method alone. Sep 7, 2021 at 3:48
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    Since this question is basically doomed to closure, I will just comment that you've presented a philosophically one-sided view of the scientific method, with which I disagree. Hence your claim is unsupported (being based on an unsupported view of science).
    – user6726
    Sep 7, 2021 at 4:52
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    I see. I repeat my question again, So what exactly written by Ferdinand de Saussure have you read and in what language? Also, you keep writing "Sauserre "???
    – Alex B.
    Sep 7, 2021 at 15:06

1 Answer 1


It's not bad to question the epistemological foundations.
Re the comparative method, there's no doubt it's solid and scientific. I think the issue is rather that you don't understand how it works. Proto-words are not "created" (as if ex nihilo), they normally should be inferred, deduced from comparanda in related languages, especially out of formal one-to-one equations between the comparanda. In other words, proto-words are primarily a way to synthesize and express the phonetic relationships between the comparanda. People who don't understand how the comparative method works do not seem to perceive that the validity of the proto-words lies in the comparanda themselves.
It does not make sense to state that proto-words are "unattested", proto-words are consubstantial with their comparanda.
Now there are several issues about proto-words: what is the original phonological system? what was the original semantics? etc. These issues of course influence the way proto-words should be inferred.
What you say in §1 is the difference between fictionalism and realism. Most people who work on Historical linguistics usually side with realism: that is to say they actually believe that proto-words were words at some point of the past. That's why people use the word "reconstruction", a word which is possibly overenthusiastic about realism.
I'm not aware that Saussure or Brugmann were fictionalists. If you claim that, you need to show up with references. I'm sceptical that you'll be able to find them. Up to you.
The difference between language and dialect is highly conventional and is often politicized. In all cases, this issue is to a large extent irrelevant as far as historical linguistics is concerned.
I recommend not reading Kazanas, who is demented and incompetent.
Sound changes are a way to describe how proto-words become the comparanda and at the same time a way to assess if such changes are believable, plausible, unusual, etc.
Now you are right to say that the field has some level of subjectivity, that's why people disagree on a number of points. But at the same time, it must be emphasized that they agree on a number of key points: the comparative method works, PIE makes sense, a minimal system for consonants, vowels, stress, etc can be determined, etc.

  • The trouble in what you just described which I cannot address in a single comment is that it does not seem to use the scientific method at all, but deduction which is a word you used too. No hypothesis seems to be tested, but rather, further truths are being derived from the hypothesis alone, which in order to count as a scientific theory has to be falsifiable. How do you falsify something which has been deduced? Deduction is seductive because it gives the impression of certain and indubitable knowledge to the one deducing, and to others it may seem logical to, but ultimate test is empirical. Sep 7, 2021 at 4:29
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    Maybe, what you consider "scientific" is oversimplistic and too stereotyped. For example, Saussure's algebra of laryngeals was originally received with extreme hostility by most Indo-Europeanists. It took Hittite to show that this algebra was acceptable and to entirely overturn the consensus.
    – user23769
    Sep 7, 2021 at 5:08
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    Not really, the criteria of falsifiability as advance by Popper is universally accepted across sciences and thus good scientific theories must have the highest scope of falsification when tested. Nobody accepts deduction anymore in any accepted science, including i social sciences like Psychology and Sociology. The example of Hittite is often given, but confirmation by one example is exactly what Popper disproved and it suffers from the fault of confirmation bias. Moreover, it can also be a case of abduction, as another explanation for laryngeal is areal influence by Semitic languages. Sep 7, 2021 at 5:35
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    @LinguistEnthusiast The important thing about the Hittite laryngeals isn’t merely that they were present. It’s that Hittite had laryngeals in exactly the same positions as had been predicted by Sassure. If Hittite had had laryngeals, but in completely different positions which could not be explained with Sassure’s theory, well, that would have easily falsified it. But they were consistent, which not only helped confirm the theory, but also showed that it had considerable predictive power, in that it had determined the shapes of some words in Hittite before it had even been deciphered.
    – bradrn
    Sep 7, 2021 at 10:26
  • The way I can see it as an outsider looking in with no bias places in which they found are just place holders for vowel sounds a, e o which were irregularly derived from PIE, that a sound has been posited in PIE or a laryngeal that can become all three sounds in different IE languages. It does not mean PIE really had them. Confirmation bias just using one example. Is this the only positive example ever proffered? Sep 7, 2021 at 13:31

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