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Wordcorr overview

Module by: Joseph Grimes. E-mail the author

Summary: Wordcorr gathers data for comparative linguistics into a collection. Then Wordcorr assists the linguist in analyzing the collection.

Comparative linguistics looks at vocabulary items from two or more speech varieties that might have a common origin and attempts to explain how their differences developed.

For example, the word for “cat” is pronounced gato in Spanish, gatu in Portuguese, gat in Catalán of eastern Spain, and gat in Occitan of southern France. (The forms given here represent the pronunciation, not the traditional spelling.) It's easy to see that the four forms might have a common origin.

It's also easy to guess that the ancestral word behind this entry may well have contained the sounds g-a-t. But to decide whether the original had a vowel at the end and Catalán (let's just call it C) and Occitan (O) lost it, or whether there was no vowel at the end and S and P developed one, we need much more data. And if S and P did inherit an earlier vowel in common, was it o or u? Or something else?

Table 1
Word list entry and itsCorrespondence sets
'cat' S P C O
S gato g g g g
P gatu a a a a
C gat t t t t
O gat o u / /

Clearly it takes a lot more than a single set of words for “cat” to give evidence for the history of those speech varieties; but it is a start. When we get to comparing much beyond four varieties, it's easy to get lost, especially if you're making the comparison the traditional way using file slips. That's where the computer program called Wordcorr comes into the picture.

In a nutshell, Wordcorr lets you put together a collection of data from as many speech varieties (like Spanish and Portuguese) as you are investigating. You can start with just one entry like "cat," and build up to two or three hundred vocabulary items and many more. Once the data are in, Wordcorr walks you through the many decisions you have to make about what the data actually show. As you work, it organizes and reorganizes the results of those judgments. That's how you put the whole picture together. With Wordcorr, it takes much less time than if you tried to do everything by hand.

--Here's a self test to assure you that you're on the right track. We don't keep any record of your answer, because you know perfectly well what to do with the results. Try it:

Problem 1

A typical Wordcorr collection is likely to contain ...
more speech varieties than entries
more entries than speech varieties
about the same
We mentioned four or more of one, 200 to over 300 for the other.

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