Internal reconstruction
Internal reconstruction is a method of recovering information about a language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

's past from the characteristics of the language at a later date. Whereas the comparative method
Comparative method
In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor, as opposed to the method of internal reconstruction, which analyzes the internal...

 compares variations between languages – such as in sets of cognate
In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus . Cognates within the same language are called doublets. Strictly speaking, loanwords from another language are usually not meant by the term, e.g...

s – under the assumption that they descend from a single proto-language
A proto-language in the tree model of historical linguistics is the common ancestor of the languages that form a language family. Occasionally, the German term Ursprache is used instead.Often the proto-language is not known directly...

, internal reconstruction compares variant forms within a single language under the assumption that they descend from a single, regular form. For example, these could take the form of allomorph
In linguistics, an allomorph is a variant form of a morpheme. The concept occurs when a unit of meaning can vary in sound without changing meaning. The term allomorph explains the comprehension of phonological variations for specific morphemes....

s of the same morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...


The basic premise of internal reconstruction is that a meaning-bearing element that alternates between two or more similar forms in different environments was probably a single form in the past, into which alternation was introduced by the usual mechanisms of sound change
Sound change
Sound change includes any processes of language change that affect pronunciation or sound system structures...

 and analogy
Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject to another particular subject , and a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process...

.(Deustcher, 2005)

Language forms reconstructed by means of internal reconstruction are denoted with the pre- prefix, similar to the use of proto- to indicate a language reconstructed by means of the comparative method; for example, proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

. So, an earlier form of English would be referred to as pre-English, intermediate between hypothetical Proto-Germanic and the earliest attested Old English.

It is even possible to apply internal reconstruction to proto-languages reconstructed by the comparative method. For example, performing internal reconstruction on proto-Mayan
Proto-Mayan is the hypothetical common ancestor of the 30 living Mayan languages, as well as the Classic Maya languages documented in the Maya Hieroglyphical inscriptions.-Phonology:...

 would yield pre-proto-Mayan. In some cases it is also desirable to use internal reconstruction to uncover an earlier form of various languages, and then submit those pre- languages to the comparative method. Care must be taken, however, because internal reconstruction performed on languages before applying the comparative method can remove significant evidence of the earlier state of the language and thus reduce the accuracy of the reconstructed proto-language
A proto-language in the tree model of historical linguistics is the common ancestor of the languages that form a language family. Occasionally, the German term Ursprache is used instead.Often the proto-language is not known directly...


Role in Historical Linguistics

When undertaking a comparative study of a hitherto un(der)analyzed family of languages it is worthwhile to get an understanding of their systems of alternations, if any, before tackling the greater complexities of analyzing entire linguistic structures. For example, the Type A forms of verbs in Samoan (as in the example, below) are the citation forms, i.e., the forms in dictionaries and word lists, but when making historical comparisons with other Austronesian languages it would be a blunder to use Samoan citation forms with parts missing. (And an analysis of the verb sets would alert the researcher to the certainty that many other words in Samoan have lost a final consonant.) Another way of looking at it is that internal reconstruction gives access to an earlier historical stage, at least in some details, of the languages being compared, and this can be valuable: the more time that passes, the more changes accumulate in the structure of a (living) language, and for this reason we always try to use the earliest known attestations of languages when working with the comparative method.

Internal reconstruction, when not a sort of preliminary to the application of the comparative method, is most useful in cases where the analytic power of the comparative method is unavailable.

Internal reconstruction can also draw limited inferences from peculiarities of distribution. Even before comparative investigations had sorted out the true history of Indo-Iranian phonology, some scholars had wondered if the extraordinary frequency of the phoneme /a/ in Sanskrit (20% of all phonemes together, an astonishing total) might point to some historical fusion of two or more vowels. (In fact, it represents the final outcome of five different Proto-Indo-European syllabics two of which—the syllabic states of /m/ and /n/—can be discerned by the application of internal reconstruction.) But in such cases, internal analysis is better at raising questions than at answering them. The extraordinary frequency of /a/ in Sanskrit hints at some sort of historical event, but does not lead, and cannot, to any specific theory.

Neutralizing Environments

One issue in internal reconstruction is neutralizing environments, which can be an obstacle to historically correct analysis. Consider the following forms from Spanish, spelled phonemically rather than orthographically:
{| class="wikitable"

! infinitive
! 3rd person sg
| bolbér
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