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A language family is a group of
language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, and may be conveyed through a variety of met ...
s related through descent from a common ''ancestral language'' or ''parental language'', called the
proto-language In the tree model of historical linguistics, a proto-language is a postulated ancestral language from which a number of attested languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family. Proto-languages are usually unat ...
of that family. The term "family" reflects the
tree model In historical linguistics, the tree model (also Stammbaum, genetic, or cladistic model) is a model of the evolution of languages analogous to the concept of a family tree, particularly a phylogenetic tree in the biological evolution of species. ...
of language origination 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 changes in particular languages # ...
, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological
family tree A family tree, also called a genealogy Genealogy () is the study of families, family history, and the tracing of their Lineage (anthropology), lineages. Genealogists use oral interviews, historical records, genetic analysis, and other rec ...
, 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 ...
of evolutionary
taxonomy Taxonomy is the practice and science of categorization or classification (general theory), classification. A taxonomy (or taxonomical classification) is a scheme of classification, especially a hierarchical classification, in which things are ...
. 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 languages of the world. It is the world's most comprehensi ...
'' there are 7,151 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. The language families with the most speakers are: the Indo-European family, with many widely spoken languages native to Europe (such as English and Spanish) and South Asia (such as
Hindi Hindi (Devanāgarī: or , ), or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi (Devanagari: ), is an Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan language spoken chiefly in the Hindi Belt region encompassing parts of North India, northern, Central India, centr ...
and Bengali); and the Sino-Tibetan family, mainly due to the many speakers of
Mandarin Chinese Mandarin (; ) is a group of Chinese (Sinitic) dialects that are natively spoken across most of northern and southwestern China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia. It is the world's Li ...
in China.
Lyle Campbell Lyle Richard Campbell (born October 22, 1942) is an American scholar and linguist known for his studies of Indigenous languages of the Americas, indigenous American languages, especially those of Central America, and on historical linguistics in ...
(2019) identifies a total of 406 independent language families, including
language isolates Language isolates are languages that cannot be classified into larger language families. Korean language, Korean and Basque language, Basque are two of the most common examples. Other language isolates include Ainu language, Ainu in Asia, Sandawe ...
. There are also many dead languages which have no native speakers living, and
extinct language An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living Genetic relationship (linguistics), descendants. In contrast, a dead language is one that is no longer the native language of any commun ...
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, sister languages are cognate languages; that is, languages that descend from a common ancestral language, their so-called proto-language. Every language in a language family that descends from the same language as the ...
s are said to descend "genetically" from a
common ancestor Common descent is a concept in evolutionary biology applicable when one species is the ancestor of two or more species later in time. All living beings are in fact descendants of a unique ancestor commonly referred to as the last universal comm ...
. 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 usage (language), use of language. It is a concept mostly associated with sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics. Exactly how to ...
. 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 shifts to a different language, usually over an extended period of time. Often, languages that are perceiv ...
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), edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen *Convergence (comics), "Convergence" (comics), two separate story lines published by DC Comics: **A four-part crossover storyline that ...
). 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 languages, Indo-European language family spoken natively by a population of about 515 million people mainly in Europe, North America, Oceania and Southern Africa. The most widely spoken ...
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 reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages. No direct record of Proto-Indo ...
. These features are believed to be innovations that took place in
Proto-Germanic Proto-Germanic (abbreviated PGmc; also called Common Germanic) is the linguistic reconstruction, reconstructed proto-language of the Germanic languages, Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. Proto-Germanic eventually developed from ...
, 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. 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 Population typically refers to the number of ...
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. ...
''.) 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 more closely the languages will be related. This means if a branch of a
proto-language In the tree model of historical linguistics, a proto-language is a postulated ancestral language from which a number of attested languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family. Proto-languages are usually unat ...
is four branches down and there is also a
sister language In historical linguistics, sister languages are cognate languages; that is, languages that descend from a common ancestral language, their so-called proto-language. Every language in a language family that descends from the same language as the ...
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 Language isolate, isolates) in a larger scale classification.Lyle Campbell, Campbell, Lyle a ...
'' 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 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, mutual intelligibility is a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related Variety (linguistics), varieties can readily understand each other without prior familiarity or special effort. It ...
between them, as occurs in
Arabic Arabic (, ' ; , ' or ) is a Semitic languages, Semitic language spoken primarily across the Arab world.Semitic languages: an international handbook / edited by Stefan Weninger; in collaboration with Geoffrey Khan, Michael P. Streck, Janet C ...
, 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 rather than dialects of Japanese, the
Japanese language is spoken natively by about 128 million people, primarily by Japanese people and primarily in Japan, the only country where it is the national language. Japanese belongs to the Japonic languages, Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan languages, Ryukyu ...
itself was considered a
language isolate Language isolates are languages that cannot be classified into larger language families. Korean language, Korean and Basque language, Basque are two of the most common examples. Other language isolates include Ainu language, Ainu in Asia, Sandawe ...
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. Korean language, Korean and Basque language, Basque are two of the most common examples. Other language isolates include Ainu language, Ainu in Asia, Sandawe ...
s, essentially language families consisting of a single language. There are an estimated 129 language isolates known today. 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. 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 and 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, Albanian and 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 modern language despite numerous attempts. Another well-known isolate is
Mapudungun Mapuche (, Mapuche & Spanish: , or Mapudungun; from ' 'land' and ' 'speak, speech') is an Araucanian languages, Araucanian language related to Huilliche language, Huilliche spoken in south-central Chile and west-central Argentina by the Mapuc ...
, 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 ...
, 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, mother tongue or L1 is the first language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Language ...
, 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, 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 genetic relationship (linguistics), common descent from a shared ancesto ...
, a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist
August Schleicher August Schleicher (; 19 February 1821 – 6 December 1868) was a German linguistics, linguist. His great work was ''A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages'' in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-Eur ...
. 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 ''Eth ...
. For example, the reconstructible common ancestor of the Indo-European language family is called ''
Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages. No direct record of Proto-Indo-E ...
''. 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, or diffusion area, is a group of languages that share areal features resulting from geographical proximity and language contact. The lang ...
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 The Indian subcontinent is a list of the physiographic regions of the world, physiographical region in United Nations geoscheme for Asia#Southern Asia, Southern Asia. It is situated on the Indian Plate, projecting southwards into the Indian O ...
. 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 languages, Indo-European language family, whose earliest known members were spoken on the Italian Peninsula in the first millennium BC. The most important of the ancient languages was Lat ...
(
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
, Oscan,
Umbrian Umbrian is an language death, extinct Italic languages, Italic language formerly spoken by the Umbri in the ancient Italy, Italian region of Regio VI Umbria, Umbria. Within the Italic languages it is closely related to the Oscan language, Oscan ...
, etc.) might well be "
areal feature In geolinguistics, areal features are elements shared by languages or dialects in a geographic area, particularly when such features are not descended from a proto-language, or, common ancestor language. That is, an areal feature is contrasted to ...
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 family of language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabu ...
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.


Contact languages

The concept of language families is based on the historical observation that languages develop
dialect The term dialect (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) arou ...
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. Quite distantly related languages may affect each other through
language contact Language contact occurs when speakers of two or more languages or Variety (linguistics), varieties interact and influence each other. The study of language contact is called contact linguistics. When speakers of different languages interact closely ...
, 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 language, creole or pidgin, pidgin language in that ...
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, instead of spoken words. Sign languages are expressed through manual articulation in combination with non-manual markers. Sign l ...
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 of people that do not have a language in common: typically, its vocabulary and grammar are limited and often drawn from s ...
. 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 whose phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, instead of having developed natural language, naturally, are consciously devised for some purpose, which may include being devised for a ...
*
Endangered language An endangered language or moribund language is a language that is at risk of disappearing as its speakers Language death, die out or language shift, shift to speaking other languages. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native spea ...
*
Extinct language An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living Genetic relationship (linguistics), descendants. In contrast, a dead language is one that is no longer the native language of any commun ...
*
Language death In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its terminal speaker, last First language, native speaker. By extension, language extinction is when the language is no longer known, including by Second language, second-language speaker ...
*
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 Language revitalization, revived and has regained some of its former status. The most frequent ...
* Global language system * ISO 639-5 * 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 ''Eth ...
*
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 dialect ...
*
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 th ...
*
Proto-language In the tree model of historical linguistics, a proto-language is a postulated ancestral language from which a number of attested languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family. Proto-languages are usually unat ...
* Proto-Human language *
Tree model In historical linguistics, the tree model (also Stammbaum, genetic, or cladistic model) is a model of the evolution of languages analogous to the concept of a family tree, particularly a phylogenetic tree in the biological evolution of species. ...
*
Unclassified language An unclassified language is a language whose Genetic relationship (linguistics), 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 s ...
* Father Tongue hypothesis * 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). ap 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, 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