Linguistics and English Language

Early Career Research Panel (Philological Society)

Philological Society ECR panel: 'Historical work with unwritten languages'

In this panel, we address the question: is the study of change in languages with little or no historical record fundamentally different from similar work on languages with a lengthy written tradition? To this day, there remains a close association between historical linguistics and Indo-European, in part due to the wealth of written sources which scholars can use in historical research on the family. For some, this goes as far as an assumption—often implicit—that historical work based primarily on spoken data is less reliable, accurate, or viable than that based on written sources. These attitudes persist, despite the venerable and successful tradition of historical work on languages without a written record—some of which in fact predates Sir William Jones's famous 'common source' discourse in 1786, heralded as the beginning of Indo-European studies.

In response to this, three ECR researchers share their experiences of using primary spoken data collected in the field to investigate language change, bringing their research perspectives to bear on methodological, conceptual, and experiential issues in historical work with unwritten languages. This will be followed by a plenary discussion, using the following questions as a springboard:

  • To what extent are the principles and methodologies used in historical work on languages with and without a lengthy written record the same? How do they differ?
  • What particular challenges arise when investigating change in languages without a historical record? What are the advantages?
  • Are historical records always helpful when investigating language change?
  • What are the best practices when integrating data from historical records with spoken data?


  • Ryan Gehrmann, Payap University. 'Tonogenesis in Mainland Southeast Asia: Reconciling the historical evidence and the comparative evidence'
  • Tatiana Reid, University of Edinburgh. 'Untangling the origins of floating suprasegmental component in Nuer'
  • Laura Arnold, University of Edinburgh. 'From areal linguistics to historical sociolinguistics: Identifying contact events in northwest New Guinea'



  • Ricardo Napoleão de Souza, University of Edinburgh.

Further information

Registration (free)

This panel is one of seven meetings held by the Philological Society each academic year. For more information:

The Philological Society


Laura Arnold

Dec 02 2022 -

Early Career Research Panel (Philological Society)

2022-12-02: Historical work with unwritten languages