Language families

A language family as a group of related languages that developed from a common historic ancestor. Familiarity with the language, which can not be reliably classified into any family. General characteristics of the major language families of the world.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
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Язык английский
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Most languages belong to language families. A language family is a group of related languages that developed from a common historic ancestor, referred to as protolanguage (proto- means `early' in Greek). The ancestral language is usually not known directly, but it is possible to discover many of its features by applying the comparative method that can demonstrate the family status of many languages. Sometimes a protolanguage can be identified with a historically known language. Thus, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin are known to have given rise to the modern Romance languages, so the Proto-Romance language is more or less identical to Latin. Similarly, Old Norse was the ancestor of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. Sanskrit was the protolanguage of many of the languages of the Indian subcontinent, such as Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu. Further back in time, all these ancestral languages descended, in turn, from one common ancestor. We call this ancestor Proto-Indo-European(PIE). Language families can be subdivided into smaller units called branches. For instance, the Indo-European family has several branches, among them, Germanic, Romance, and Slavic.

The study of the origins of languages and their classification into families is traditionally known as philology. For various reasons it is not possible to be precise about the number of languages in the world, but most philologists agree that there are between 6,000 - 7,000 living languages. These languages are divided into about 100 language families; the exact number is dependent on the classification paradigm. The major language families can be further divided into groups of languages that are also called families. So, English belongs to the Germanic family, which in turn is part of the Indo-European family.

Clearly, in terms of second language acquisition, it will generally be easier to learn a new language from the same language family as the mother tongue than to learn one from a different language family. A German student is naturally going to have an easier time learning English than a Chinese student

1.Relationships among languages

Sometimes it is relatively easy to establish relationships among languages. Let us look at the Romance languages. We know that Italian is a descendant of Latin, a language that was spoken in Italy two thousand years ago, and one which left a great number of written documents. The Roman conquest helped spread Latin throughout Europe where it eventually developed into regional dialects. When the Roman Empire broke up, these regional dialects evolved into the modern Romance languages that we know today: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and others. These languages form the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family. By looking at the word for `water' in three Romance languages, one can easily see the similarities among them.

Table 1







All languages change with time. A comparison of Chaucer's English, Shakespere's English and Modern English shows how a language can change over several hundred years. Modern English spoken in Britain, North America and Australia uses different words and grammar. One of the best examples in Western history occurred after the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th Century AD. Latin was the language of that empire. All the Latin speakers in different parts of Europe (Italian Peninsula, Gaul, Iberian Peninsula, Carpathia) became isolated from each other. Their languages evolved along independent paths to give us the modern languages of Italian, French, Spanish, Portugueseand Romanian.

The Sanskrit spoken in North India changed into the modern languages of of the region: Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and others.

Ancient Persian has evolved into Farsi, Kurdish and Pashto.

In time, with enough migrations, a single language can evolve into an entire family of languages. Each language family described below is a group of related languages with a common ancestor. Languages in the same branch are sister languages that diverged within the last 1000 to 2000 years (Latin, for example, gave rise to the Latin Branch languages in the Indo-European Family). Languages in different branches of the same family can be referred to as cousin languages. For most families these languages would have diverged more than 2000 years ago. The exact times scales vary for each family. Languages in the same family, share many common grammatical features and many of the key words, especially older words, show their common origin. The table below shows this effect with the word formonth in several Indo-European languages:

Table 2



































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 it 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 due to the prestige of Classical Latin, a highly stylised literary register not representative of the speech of ordinary people.


Most of the world's languages are known to belong to language families. Those that have no known relatives (or for which family relationships are only tentatively proposed) are calledlanguage isolates, which can be thought of as minimal language families. 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.

Languages that cannot be reliably classified into any family are known as language isolates. 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, though it has been influenced by neighboring Romance languages. 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 its ancestor. In the latter case, it would make Basque and Aquitanian form a small family together (ancestors are generally not considered to be distinct languages for this purpose).

Table 3. Major language families of the world

Language family




5.95 %

Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen



Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Cook Islands, East Timor, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Indonesia, Kiribati, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mayotte, Micronesia, Myanmar, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Taiwan, Thailand, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States, Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Wallis and Futuna



Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican State, Venezuela



Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cфte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mayotte, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe



Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Viet Nam

Trans-New Guinea


East Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

language family historic


The study of languages and their relationships gives us information about how people have migrated during historical times. It also helps with the dating of developments like plant domestication and the use of tools. Each language gives an insight into a unique way of thinking. People who are living in isolated parts of the world and are not technologically advanced do not necessarily have a more primitive language than people living in modern cities. All languages have simple and complex parts. There is no correlation between the life of a people speaking a language and the complexity or otherwise of their language.

The difference between a language and a dialect can be political rather than linguistic. For example, linguistically, Croatian and Serbian are closely related dialects of the same language. However, they are written in different scripts and are spoken by people of different religions living in Catholic Christian Croatia and Orthodox Christian Serbia respectively. They are considered different languages for political reasons.

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