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Language family

language family tree, language family map
A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor, called the proto-language of that family The term 'family' reflects the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree, or in a subsequent modification, to species in a phylogenetic tree of evolutionary taxonomy No actual biological relationship between speakers is implied by the metaphor

Estimates of the number of living languages vary from 5,000 to 8,000, depending on the precision of one's definition of "language", and in particular on how one classifies dialects The 2013 edition of Ethnologue catalogs just over 7,000 living human languages A "living language" is simply one that is used as the primary form of communication of a group of people There are also many dead and extinct languages, as well as some that are still insufficiently studied to be classified, or are even unknown outside their respective speech communities

Membership of languages in a language family is established by comparative linguistics Sister languages are said to have a "genetic" or "genealogical" relationship The latter term is older, but has been revived in recent years to better distinguish the relationships between languages from the genetic relationships between people The evidence of linguistic relationship is found in observable shared characteristics that are not attributed to contact or borrowing Genealogically related languages present shared retentions, that is, features of the proto-language or reflexes of such features that cannot be explained by chance or borrowing convergence Membership in a branch or group within a language family is established by shared innovations, that is, common features of those languages that are not found in the common ancestor of the entire family For example, Germanic languages are "Germanic" in that they share vocabulary and grammatical features that are not believed to have been present in the Proto-Indo-European language These features are believed to be innovations that took place in Proto-Germanic, a descendant of Proto-Indo-European that was the source of all Germanic languages


  • 1 Structure of a family
    • 11 Dialect continua
    • 12 Isolates
    • 13 Proto-languages
  • 2 Other classifications of languages
    • 21 Sprachbund
    • 22 Contact languages
  • 3 See also
  • 4 Notes
  • 5 Further reading
  • 6 External links

Structure of a family

Language families can be divided into smaller phylogenetic units, conventionally referred to as branches of the family because the history of a language family is often represented as a tree diagram A family is a monophyletic unit; all its members derive from a common ancestor, and all attested descendants of that ancestor are included in the family Thus, the term family is analogous to the biological term clade Some taxonomists restrict the term family to a certain level, but there is little consensus in how to do so Those who affix such labels also subdivide branches into groups, and groups into complexes A top-level largest family is often called a phylum or stock

The term macrofamily or superfamily is sometimes applied to proposed groupings of language families whose status as phylogenetic units is generally considered to be unsubstantiated by accepted historical linguistic methods

For example, the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Romance, and Indo-Iranian language families are branches of a larger Indo-European language family There is a remarkably similar pattern shown by the linguistic tree and the genetic tree of human ancestry that was verified statistically Languages interpreted in terms of the putative phylogenetic tree of human languages are transmitted to a great extent vertically by ancestry as opposed to horizontally by spatial diffusion

Dialect continua

Main article: Dialect continuum

Some closely knit language families, and many branches within larger families, take the form of dialect continua in which there are no clearcut borders that make it possible for unequivocally identifying, defining, or counting individual languages within the family However, when the differences between the speech of different regions at the extremes of the continuum are so great that there is no mutual intelligibility between them, as occurs for Arabic, the continuum cannot meaningfully be seen as a single language A speech variety may also be considered either a language or a dialect depending on social or political considerations Thus, different sources give sometimes wildly different accounts of the number of languages within a family Classifications of the Japonic family, for example, range from one language a language isolate to nearly twenty


Main article: Language isolate

Most of the world's languages are known to be related to others Those that have no known relatives or for which family relationships are only tentatively proposed are called language isolates, essentially language families consisting of a single language An example is Basque In general, it is assumed that language isolates have relatives or had relatives at some point in their history but at a time depth too great for linguistic comparison to recover them

A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as Armenian within Indo-European, is often also called an isolate, but the meaning of isolate in such cases is usually clarified For instance, Armenian may be referred to as an "Indo-European isolate" By contrast, so far as is known, the Basque language is an absolute isolate: it has not been shown to be related to any other language despite numerous attempts A language may be said to be an isolate currently but not historically if related but now extinct relatives are attested The Aquitanian language, spoken in Roman times, may have been an ancestor of Basque, but it could also have been a sister language to the ancestor of Basque In the latter case, Basque and Aquitanian would form a small family together Ancestors are not considered to be distinct members of a family


Main article: Proto-language

The common ancestor of a language family is seldom known directly since most languages have a relatively short recorded history However, it is possible to recover many features of a proto-language by applying the comparative method, a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist August Schleicher This can demonstrate the validity of many of the proposed families in the list of language families For example, the reconstructible common ancestor of the Indo-European language family is called Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European is not attested by written records and so is conjectured to have been spoken before the invention of writing

Sometimes, however, a proto-language can be identified with a historically known language For instance, dialects of Old Norse are the proto-language of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic Likewise, the Appendix Probi depicts Proto-Romance, a language almost unattested because of the prestige of Classical Latin, a highly stylised literary register not representative of the speech of ordinary people

Other classifications of languages


Main article: Sprachbund

Shared innovations, acquired by borrowing or other means, are not considered genetic and have no bearing with the language family concept It has been asserted, for example, that many of the more striking features shared by Italic languages Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, etc might well be "areal features" However, very similar-looking alterations in the systems of long vowels in the West Germanic languages greatly postdate any possible notion of a proto-language innovation and cannot readily be regarded as "areal", either, since English and continental West Germanic were not a linguistic area In a similar vein, there are many similar unique innovations in Germanic, Baltic and Slavic that are far more likely to be areal features than traceable to a common proto-language But legitimate uncertainty about whether shared innovations are areal features, coincidence, or inheritance from a common ancestor, leads to disagreement over the proper subdivisions of any large language family

A sprachbund is a geographic area having several languages that feature common linguistic structures The similarities between those languages are caused by language contact, not by chance or common origin, and are not recognized as criteria that define a language family An example of a sprachbund would be the Indian subcontinent

Contact languages

Main articles: Mixed language and Creole language

The concept of language families is based on the historical observation that languages develop dialects, which over time may diverge into distinct languages However, linguistic ancestry is less clear-cut than familiar biological ancestry, in which species do not crossbreed It is more like the evolution of microbes, with extensive lateral gene transfer: Quite distantly related languages may affect each other through language contact, which in extreme cases may lead to languages with no single ancestor, whether they be creoles or mixed languages In addition, a number of sign languages have developed in isolation and appear to have no relatives at all Nonetheless, such cases are relatively rare and most well-attested languages can be unambiguously classified as belonging to one language family or another, even if this family's relation to other families is not known

See also

Background colors used on Wikipedia for various language families and groups
  • Constructed language
  • Endangered language
  • Extinct language
  • Global language system
  • ISO 639-5
  • Linguist List
  • List of language families
  • List of languages by number of native speakers
  • Proto-language
  • Tree model
  • Unclassified language


  1. ^ "Ethnologue: Languages of the world" Seventeenth ed Retrieved 5 November 2015 World Population 6,800,596,862 / Living Languages 7,106 / Institutional: 560, Developing: 1,563, Vigorous: 2,549, In Trouble: 1,519, Dying: 915 
  2. ^ Müller, Max 1862 Lectures on the science of language: delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in April, May and June, 1861 3rd ed London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts p 216 The genealogical classification of the Aryan languages was founded, as we saw, on a close comparison of the grammatical characteristics of each; 
  3. ^ Henn, B M; Cavalli-Sforza, L L; Feldman, M W 17 October 2012 "The great human expansion" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 44: 17758–17764 Bibcode:2012PNAS10917758H doi:101073/pnas1212380109 PMC 3497766 PMID 23077256 
  4. ^ Cavalli-Sforza, L L; Minch, E; Mountain, J L Jun 15, 1992 "Coevolution of genes and languages revisited" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 89 12: 5620–4 Bibcode:1992PNAS895620C doi:101073/pnas89125620 PMC 49344 PMID 1608971 
  5. ^ Gell-Mann, M; Ruhlen, M 10 October 2011 "The origin and evolution of word order" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 42: 17290–17295 Bibcode:2011PNAS10817290G doi:101073/pnas1113716108 

Further reading

  • Boas, Franz 1911 Handbook of American Indian languages Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40 Volume 1 Washington: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology ISBN 0-8032-5017-7 
  • Boas, Franz 1922 Handbook of American Indian languages Vol 2 Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40 Washington: Government Print Office Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology
  • Boas, Franz 1933 Handbook of American Indian languages Vol 3 Native American legal materials collection, title 1227 Glückstadt: JJ Augustin
  • Campbell, Lyle 1997 American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-509427-1
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne Eds 1979 The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment Austin: University of Texas Press
  • Goddard, Ives Ed 1996 Languages Handbook of North American Indians W C Sturtevant, General Ed Vol 17 Washington, D C: Smithsonian Institution ISBN 0-16-048774-9
  • Goddard, Ives 1999 Native languages and language families of North America rev and enlarged ed with additions and corrections Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press Smithsonian Institution Updated version of the map in Goddard 1996 ISBN 0-8032-9271-6
  • Gordon, Raymond G, Jr Ed 2005 Ethnologue: Languages of the world 15th ed Dallas, TX: SIL International ISBN 1-55671-159-X Online version: http://wwwethnologuecom
  • Greenberg, Joseph H 1966 The Languages of Africa 2nd ed Bloomington: Indiana University
  • Harrison, K David 2007 When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge New York and London: Oxford University Press
  • Mithun, Marianne 1999 The languages of Native North America Cambridge: Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-23228-7 hbk; ISBN 0-521-29875-X
  • Ross, Malcolm 2005 Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages In: Andrew Pawley, Robert Attenborough, Robin Hide and Jack Golson, eds, Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples PDF
  • Ruhlen, Merritt 1987 A guide to the world's languages Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Sturtevant, William C Ed 1978–present Handbook of North American Indians Vol 1–20 Washington, D C: Smithsonian Institution Vols 1–3, 16, 18–20 not yet published
  • Voegelin, C F; & Voegelin, F M 1977 Classification and index of the world's languages New York: Elsevier

External links

  • Linguistic maps from Muturzikin
  • Ethnologue
  • The Multitree Project
  • Lenguas del mundo World Languages
  • Comparative Swadesh list tables of various language families from Wiktionary

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