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A language family is a group of
language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the ...

language
s related through descent from a common ''ancestral language'' or ''parental language'', called the
proto-language In the tree model In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include: # to describe and accou ...
of that family. The term "family" reflects the
tree model In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include: # to describe and account for observed change ...
of language origination in
historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change Language change is variation over time in a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including s ...
, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological
family tree A family tree, also called a genealogy Genealogy (from el, γενεαλογία ' "study of family trees") is the study of , family history, and the tracing of their lineages. Genealogists use oral interviews, historical records, genetic a ...

family tree
, or in a subsequent modification, to species in a
phylogenetic tree A phylogenetic tree (also phylogeny or evolutionary tree Felsenstein J. (2004). ''Inferring Phylogenies'' Sinauer Associates: Sunderland, MA.) is a branching diagram or a tree (graph theory), tree showing the evolutionary relationships among va ...

phylogenetic tree
of evolutionary
taxonomy Taxonomy (general) is the practice and science of classification of things or concepts, including the principles that underlie such classification. The term may also refer to a specific classification scheme. Originally used only about biological ...
. Linguists therefore describe the ''daughter languages'' within a language family as being ''genetically related''. According to ''
Ethnologue ''Ethnologue: Languages of the World'' (stylized as Ethnoloɠue) is an annual reference publication in print and online that provides statistics and other information on the living language A language is a structured system of communicat ...
'' there are 7,139 living human languages distributed in 142 different language families. A living language is defined as one that is the first language of at least one person. There are also many dead languages, or languages which have no native speakers living, and
extinct language An extinct language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languag ...
s, which have no native speakers and no descendant languages. Finally, there are some languages that are insufficiently studied to be classified, and probably some which are not even known to exist outside their respective speech communities. Membership of languages in a language family is established by research in
comparative linguistics Comparative linguistics, or comparative-historical linguistics (formerly comparative philology) is a branch of historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change ...
.
Sister language In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change Language change is variation over time in a language A language is a structured system of communication ...
s are said to descend "genetically" from a
common ancestor Common descent is a concept in evolutionary biology Evolutionary biology is the subfield of biology that studies the evolution, evolutionary processes (natural selection, common descent, speciation) that produced the Biodiversity, diversity ...
. Speakers of a language family belong to a common
speech community A speech community is a group of people who share a set of linguistic norms and expectations regarding the . It is a concept mostly associated with and . Exactly how to define ''speech community'' is debated in the literature. Definitions of spe ...
. The divergence of a proto-language into daughter languages typically occurs through geographical separation, with the original speech community gradually evolving into distinct linguistic units. Individuals belonging to other speech communities may also adopt languages from a different language family through the
language shift Language shift, also known as language transfer or language replacement or language assimilation, is the process whereby a speech community Arnold Lakhovsky, ''The Conversation'' (circa 1935) A speech community is a group of people who share a s ...
process. 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 Convergence may refer to: Arts and media Literature *Convergence (book series), ''Convergence'' (book series), edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen *Convergence (comics), "Convergence" (comics), two separate story lines published by DC Comics: **A four-par ...
). 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 The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian su ...

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 Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the theorized common ancestor of the Indo-European language family The Indo-European languages are a language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( ...
. These features are believed to be innovations that took place in
Proto-Germanic Proto-Germanic (abbreviated PGmc; also called Common Germanic) is the reconstructed Reconstruction may refer to: Politics, history, and sociology *Reconstruction (law), the transfer of a company's (or several companies') business to a new ...
, a descendant of Proto-Indo-European that was the source of all Germanic languages.


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
tree diagram
. A family is a
monophyletic In cladistics for a group of organisms, monophyly is the condition of being a clade—that is, a group of taxa composed only of a common ancestor (or more precisely an ancestral population) and all of its lineal descendants. Monophyletic grou ...
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 A clade (), also known as a monophyletic group or natural group, is a group of organisms that are monophyly, monophyletic – that is, composed of a common ancestor and all its lineage (evolution), lineal descendants - on a phylogenetic tree. R ...

clade
''.) Some
taxonomists In biology Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their anatomy, physical structure, Biochemistry, chemical processes, Molecular biology, molecular interactions, Physiology, physiological mecha ...
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 (i.e., the largest) family is often called a ''phylum'' or ''stock''. The closer the branches are to each other, the more closely the languages will be related. This means if a branch off of a
proto-language In the tree model In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include: # to describe and accou ...
is four branches down and there is also a
sister language In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change Language change is variation over time in a language A language is a structured system of communication ...
to that fourth branch, then the two sister languages are more closely related to each other than to that common ancestral proto-language. The term ''
macrofamily In historical linguistics, a macrofamily, also called a superfamily or phylum, is a proposed genetic relationship grouping together language families (also isolates) in a larger scale classification. Campbell, Lyle and Mauricio Mixco, Mixco, Mauric ...
'' 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. 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

Some close-knit language families, and many branches within larger families, take the form of
dialect continua A dialect continuum or dialect chain is a spread of language variety, language varieties spoken across some geographical area such that neighboring varieties differ only slightly, but the differences accumulate over distance so that widely separ ...
in which there are no clear-cut borders that make it possible to unequivocally identify, define, or count 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 In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include p ...
between them, as occurs in
Arabic Arabic (, ' or , ' or ) is a Semitic language The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in the Middle East The Middle East is a list of transcontinental countries, transcontinental region ...

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, especially over time, can give wildly different numbers of languages within a certain family. Classifications of the Japonic family, for example, range from one language (a language isolate with dialects) to nearly twenty—until the classification of Ryukyuan as separate languages within a
Japonic language family Japonic or Japanese–Ryukyuan, sometimes also Japanic, is a language family A language family is a group of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, based on speech and gesture (spoken language), Sig ...
rather than dialects of Japanese, the
Japanese language is an East Asian language spoken by about 128 million people, primarily in Japan Japan ( ja, 日本, or , and formally ) is an island country An island country or an island nation is a country A country is a distinct terr ...

Japanese language
itself was considered a
language isolate Language isolates are languages that cannot be classified into larger language families with any other languages. Korean language, Korean and Basque language, Basque are two of the most commonly cited language isolates, but there are many others. ...
and therefore the only language in its family.


Isolates

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 isolate Language isolates are languages that cannot be classified into larger language families with any other languages. Korean language, Korean and Basque language, Basque are two of the most commonly cited language isolates, but there are many others. ...
s, essentially language families consisting of a single language. There are an estimated 129 language isolates known today. An example is
Basque Basque may refer to: * Basques The Basques ( or ; eu, euskaldunak ; es, vascos ; french: basques ) are a Southern European ethnic group, characterised by the Basque language, a Basque culture, common culture and shared genetic ancestry to th ...
. 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. It is commonly misunderstood that language isolates are classified as such because there is not sufficient data on or documentation of the language. This is false because a language isolate is classified based on the fact that enough is known about the isolate to compare it genetically to other languages but no common ancestry or relationship is found with any other known language. A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as
Albanian Albanian may refer to: *Pertaining to Albania in Southeast Europe; in particular: **Albanians, an ethnic group native to the Balkans **Albanian language **Albanian culture **Demographics of Albania, includes other ethnic groups within the country ...

Albanian
and
Armenian Armenian may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to Armenia, a country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia * Armenians, the national people of Armenia, or people of Armenian descent ** Armenian language, the Indo-European language spoken ...
within Indo-European, is often also called an isolate, but the meaning of the word "isolate" in such cases is usually clarified with a modifier. For instance, Albanian and Armenian may be referred to as an "Indo-European isolate". By contrast, so far as is known, the
Basque language Basque (; , ) is a language spoken by Basques and others of the Basque Country (greater region), Basque Country, a region that straddles the westernmost Pyrenees in adjacent parts of Northern Spain and Southwestern France. Linguistically, Ba ...
is an absolute isolate: it has not been shown to be related to any other modern language despite numerous attempts. Another well-known isolate is
Mapudungun Mapuche () or Mapudungun (from ' 'land' and ' 'speak, speech') is an Araucanian language related to Huilliche The Huilliche , Huiliche or Huilliche-Mapuche are the southern partiality of the Mapuche macroethnic group of Chile Chile ...

Mapudungun
, the Mapuche language from the Araucanían language family in Chile. A language may be said to be an isolate currently but not historically if related but now extinct relatives are attested. The
Aquitanian language The Aquitanian language was the language of the ancient Aquitani, spoken on both sides of the western Pyrenees in ancient Novempopulania, Aquitaine (approximately between the Pyrenees and the Garonne, in the region later known as Gascony) and in th ...
, 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.)


Proto-languages

A proto-language can be thought of as a mother language (not to be confused with a
mother tongue A first language, native tongue, native language, or mother/father/parent tongue (also known as arterial language or L1) is a language or dialect that a person has been exposed to from birth or within the critical period hypothesis, critical pe ...
, which is one that a specific person has been exposed to from birth), being the root which all languages in the family stem from. 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 In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most langu ...
, a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist
August Schleicher August Schleicher (; 19 February 1821 – 6 December 1868) was a German linguist Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), ...

August Schleicher
. This can demonstrate the validity of many of the proposed families in the
list of language families The following is a list of language families. It also includes language isolates, unclassified languages and other types. Major language families By number of languages ''Ethnologue ''Ethnologue: Languages of the World'' (stylized as Ethnol ...
. For example, the reconstructible common ancestor of the Indo-European language family is called ''
Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the theorized common ancestor of the Indo-European language family The Indo-European languages are a language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( ...
''. Proto-Indo-European is not attested by written records and so is conjectured to have been spoken before the invention of writing.


Other classifications of languages


Sprachbund

A
sprachbund A sprachbund (, lit. "language federation"), also known as a linguistic area, area of linguistic convergence, diffusion area or language crossroads, is a group of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, inc ...
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. 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 The Italic languages form a branch of the Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian sub ...

Italic languages
(
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of the Roman Republic, it became ...

Latin
,
Oscan Oscan is an extinct Indo-European language The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian subcontinent and th ...
,
Umbrian Umbrian is an extinct Extinction is the termination of a kind of organism In biology, an organism (from Ancient Greek, Greek: ὀργανισμός, ''organismos'') is any individual contiguous system that embodies the Life#Biology, p ...
, etc.) might well be "
areal feature In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languag ...
s". However, very similar-looking alterations in the systems of long vowels in the
West Germanic languages The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three branches of the Germanic Germanic may refer to: * Germanic peoples, an ethno-linguistic group identified by their use of the Germanic languages ** List of ancient Germanic peoples ...
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 Baltic may refer to: Geography Northern Europe * Baltic Sea, a sea in Europe * Baltic region, an ambiguous term referring to the general area surrounding the Baltic Sea * Baltic states (also Baltics, Baltic nations, Baltic countries or Baltic rep ...

Baltic
and 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.


Contact languages

The concept of language families is based on the historical observation that languages develop
dialect The term dialect (from Latin , , from the Ancient Greek word , 'discourse', from , 'through' and , 'I speak') can refer to either of two distinctly different types of Linguistics, linguistic phenomena: * One usage refers to a variety (linguis ...
s, 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 Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) or lateral gene transfer (LGT) is the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than by the ("vertical") transmission of DNA from parent to offspring ( reproduction). ...
: Quite distantly related languages may affect each other through
language contact Language contact occurs when speakers of two or more languages A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A la ...
, which in extreme cases may lead to languages with no single ancestor, whether they be creoles or
mixed language A mixed language is a language that arises among a bilingual group combining aspects of two or more languages but not clearly deriving primarily from any single language. It differs from a creole or pidgin language A pidgin , or pidgin language ...
s. In addition, a number of
sign language Sign languages (also known as signed languages) are languages that use the visual-manual modality to convey meaning. Sign languages are expressed through manual articulations in combination with non-manual elements. Sign languages are full-fled ...

sign language
s 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. Language contact can lead to the development of new languages from the mixture of two or more languages for the purposes of interactions between two groups who speak different languages. Languages that arise in order for two groups to communicate with each other to engage in commercial trade or that appeared as a result of colonialism are called
pidgin A pidgin , or pidgin language, is a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common: typically, its vocabulary and grammar are limited and often drawn from several lan ...
. Pidgins are an example of linguistic and cultural expansion caused by language contact. However, language contact can also lead to cultural divisions. In some cases, two different language speaking groups can feel territorial towards their language and do not want any changes to be made to it. This causes language boundaries and groups in contact are not willing to make any compromises to accommodate the other language.


See also

*
Constructed language A constructed language (sometimes called a conlang) is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be in relation with") is "an apparent answer to ...
*
Endangered language An endangered language or moribund language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the ...
*
Extinct language An extinct language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languag ...
*
Language death In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the met ...
*
List of revived languages A revived language is one that, having experienced near or complete language extinction as either a spoken or written language, has been intentionally revived and has regained some of its former status. The most frequent reason for extinction is ...
*
Global language systemThe global language system is the "ingenious pattern of connections between language groups". Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan developed this theory in 2001 in his book ''Words of the World: The Global Language System'' and according to him, "the ...
*
ISO 639-5 ISO 639-5:2008 "Codes for the representation of names of languages—Part 5: Alpha-3 code for Language family, language families and groups" is a highly incomplete international standard published by the International Organization for Standardizatio ...
* Linguist List *
List of language families The following is a list of language families. It also includes language isolates, unclassified languages and other types. Major language families By number of languages ''Ethnologue ''Ethnologue: Languages of the World'' (stylized as Ethnol ...
*
List of languages by number of native speakers This article ranks human languages by their number of native speakers. However, all such rankings should be used with caution, because it is not possible to devise a coherent set of linguistic criteria for distinguishing languages in a dialec ...

List of languages by number of native speakers
*
Origin of language The origin of language (spoken and signed, as well as language-related technological systems such as writing), its relationship with human evolution, and its consequences have been subjects of study for centuries. Scholars wishing to study the ...
*
Proto-language In the tree model In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include: # to describe and accou ...
* Proto-Human language *
Tree model In historical linguistics Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include: # to describe and account for observed change ...
*
Unclassified language An unclassified language is a language whose genetic affiliation to other languages has not been established. Languages can be unclassified for a variety of reasons, mostly due to a lack of reliable data but sometimes due to the confounding inf ...
*
Father Tongue hypothesisThe Father Tongue hypothesis proposes that humans tend to speak their father's language. It is based on the discovery, in 1997, of a closer correlation between language and Y-chromosomal variation than between language and mitochondrial DNA Ele ...
* Farming/language dispersal hypothesis


References


Further reading

* * Boas, Franz. (1922). ''Handbook of American Indian languages'' (Vol. 2). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington, D.C.: 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: J.J. Augustin. * Campbell, Lyle. (1997). ''American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America''. New York: Oxford University Press. . * 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. . * 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). . * Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). ''Ethnologue: Languages of the world'' (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. . (Online version
Ethnologue: Languages of the World
. * 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. (hbk); . * Ross, Malcolm. (2005).
Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages
. In:
Andrew Pawley Andrew Kenneth Pawley (born 1941), FRSNZ, FAHA, is Emeritus Professor at the School of Culture, History & Language of the College of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University The Australian National University (ANU) is a ...
, 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)
Most similar languages
{{DEFAULTSORT:Language Family Historical linguistics