What are ‘Language Families’?

Today there are approximately 7,500 languages spoken in the world. These are categorized into 15 major Language Family groupings, showing how the constituent languages share a common ancestry. These are useful to understand if you’re studying languages.  The term ‘language families’ is often heard but it’s often also misunderstood.

Let’s examine the basics.

That Sounds Just Like…………

True, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what languages were spoken 5,000 years ago! However, many of us have had that experience of hearing a new language for the first time and thinking “that sounds similar to”. It’s a common human experience and one that can yield some interesting results.

For example, it should be unsurprising that Dutch and German can sound similar even though they’re separate languages.  The countries are geographically close and share certain components of their ancient histories. So, it’s not stretching our understanding too much when specialists tell us that they are both examples of a ‘Germanic Language’.

Yet sometimes our ears can be misleading.

A good example of this is listening to Hungarian and Finnish.  The two countries are far apart and their languages sound totally different. It’s therefore a surprise for some to discover that they are, in fact, closely related and actually part of a very rare linguistic grouping in Europe.

Language Families

Scientific analysis over many decades has shown that it’s possible to identify where modern languages came from and their common ancestors that inevitably results in a tree structure, very similar to that used when developing a family tree of your ancestors. All that’s necessary is to identify the parents of your language, then its grandparents and so on. That also provides an interesting linguistic relationship insight, showing which modern languages are related to each other and how.

To take one of the above examples, it’s possible to show that four modern European languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Basque and Estonian) have a different ancestry to all the other languages spoken on the continent.  So, while all other languages such as English, German, French and Spanish (etc.) are part of the language family known as “Indo-European”, the Finns and Hungarians speak a language that has come down an entirely different evolutionary path from the “Uralic” family tree.

A Diverse World

Unfortunately, linguistic historians argue about categorizations and families. The “Niger-Congo” family tree has the greatest number of individual languages within it, at around 1500 distinct tongues. However, the greatest numbers of native speakers within a single language family are those under the “Indo-European”grouping.

The origins of this family have been tentatively identified as being around the Black Sea regions of Asia and Europe approximately 6,000 years ago.  From there, the language spread and evolved into many different tongues throughout Asia and Europe.

In all language families, including the Indo-European group, there were inevitably dead ends.

Today we’re familiar with the concept of dead languages. Some languages died out simply because they weren’t fit for purpose and couldn’t adapt to the changing world around them. That was, perhaps, a linguistic ‘survival of the fittest’. These core language families evolved into sub-groups as time passed.  So, using Europe as an example, today it’s possible to identify English, German and Dutch (plus others) as belonging to the Germanic sub-group of the Indo-European family.

Why this matters

Perhaps this is all starting to look a bit dry and academic but it’s relevant for today’s students.

As far back as the 16th century, European visitors to India were staggered to find similarities between Sanskrit as well as ancient Greek and Latin. They found, as many people today learning languages also find,that it’s helpful to understand where languages have grammatical and similar structural rules – a generic relationship between languages.

It can be a useful learning aid – an important thing in today’s global world.

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Language Families

The 7500 Languages that are spoken around the world are categorized into 15 major Language Family Grouping showing how the constituent languages share a common ancestry. Here, we examine the basics.