A language family is a group of languages related through descent from
a common ancestral language or parental language, 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. Linguists therefore describe the
daughter languages within a language family as being genetically
Ethnologue the 7,099 living human languages are
distributed in 141 different language families. 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. Speakers
of a language family belong to a common speech community. 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
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
2 Other classifications of languages
2.2 Contact languages
3 See also
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
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 (i.e., the largest) family is often called a phylum or
stock. The closer the branches are to each other, the closer the
languages will be related. This means if a branch off of a
proto-language is 4 branches down and there is also a sister language
to that fourth branch, than each of the two sister languages are more
closely related to each other than to that common ancestral
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
Some closely knit language families, and many branches within larger
families, take the form of dialect continua in which there are no
clear-cut 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, 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 language family rather than
dialects of Japanese, the
Japanese language itself was considered a
language isolate and therefore the only language in its family.
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 the word "isolate" in such cases is usually clarified
with a modifier. 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. Another well-known
isolate is 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, 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
A proto-language can be thought of as a mother language (not to be
confused with a mother tongue, 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, 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
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.
Although many languages are related through a proto-language, this
does not mean that speakers of each language will necessarily
understand each other. There are cases in which speakers of one
language are able to understand and successfully communicate with
their sister languages. But there are also cases where this is very
one-sided, meaning that only one communicator is able to understand a
language while the other cannot. An example of this would be how many
Spanish speakers can understand Italian; however, Italians are unable
to comprehend what Spanish speakers are saying. Both of these
languages share a proto-language, but only bits are understood.
Other classifications of languages
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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.
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
Background colors used on for various language families and
Na-Dené (and Dené–Yeniseian)
Global language system
List of language families
List of languages by number of native speakers
Father Tongue hypothesis
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Linguistic maps (from Muturzikin)
The Multitree Project
Lenguas del mundo (World Languages)
Comparative Swadesh list tables of various language families (from
Most similar languages
List of primary language families
East Geelvink Bay
Northeast New Guinea?
Hawai'i Sign Language
Plains Sign Talk
Plains Sign Talk
(extant in 2000)
Maku-Auari of Roraima
List of sign languages
Families with more than 30 languages are in bold. Families in italics