Sometimes languages get stuffed in separate boxes and treated like they’re entirely separate things. Spanish is separate from Italian is separate from English and on and on. When you’ve learned a little about a few languages, though, you know that’s not really the case. Not only are languages not a monolith, but also they don’t exist separately from each other. Languages have complex relationships with each other, and sometimes they even have a shared history. In that case, they may be members of the same language families.
Even if you’re not too familiar with the concept of language families, you probably know a little about them. You might know the Romance languages, which are a European family that includes Spanish, French and Portuguese, among others. You might know that German and English are part of the same language family. But there’s lots more to them. Here, we break down what exactly a language family is, and also include links to all the articles in our All in the Language Family series so you can learn more about individual families.
What Are Language Families?
A language family, like any other family, is best thought of as a tree. The idea is that there is one single language — the trunk — that all the members of the language family grew out of. The concept of branches is also useful because usually these new languages form by splitting off from each other. And within any large language family, there might be smaller language families.
Without extending the tree metaphor any further, the simplest definition of a language family is simply “any group of languages that share a common root language.” The Romance languages, for example, all come from Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin itself is part of the Indo-European language family, meaning that it’s traced back to Proto-Indo-European, which is the ancestor of hundreds of languages mainly spoken in Europe and Asia. While this seems like a simple definition, it gets complicated quickly.
How Do We Know Which Languages Belong To Which Languages?
The process of determining the lineage of a language family again mimics that of real families. The further back you go, the harder it is to figure out who’s related to who. If two languages are very similar — take, for example, any of the Scandinavian languages, which are practically mutually intelligible — it’s not too hard to determine that they’re related. But what if there are just a few things in common?
In an ideal world, there is a written record that can clearly show how languages are related. The Romance language family is so often used as an example not only because the languages are widely spoken, but also because there is a clear history showing how they evolved from Vulgar Latin to their modern iterations. As far as language families go, this clarity is uncommon.
When you don’t have a paper trail for a language family, you have to rely on historical reconstructions. This is done by comparing old forms of languages and seeing how similar the grammar and vocabulary are, and then coming up with a theoretical Proto- language. Linguists examine Indo-European languages and see that certain words are very similar across languages. “Father,” for example, is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European “pehter.” There is no actual written evidence of this word, but linguists survey various languages and see Sanskrit pitar, Latin pater, Old Persian pitar and Old Irish athir. From that, linguists can determine that they all likely come from the same root word. One word doesn’t make a language family, though, and so historical reconstruction needs to look at much more vocabulary before being able to decide on the classification of a language.
Language families are also made more confusing because languages keep intermingling. Many, many languages in the world have elements of English, for example, because of the long legacy of English colonialism. That doesn’t mean those languages share a root with English; it’s more of an intermarriage. Sometimes, there will be disagreements on whether two languages are part of the same language family or merely influenced each other because of long-term proximity. Sometimes, the best linguists can do is decide that there’s a chance a group of languages are related.
Learn About Specific Language Families
The best way to learn about language families is looking at the individual families that are out there. Each of them has their own engaging history, and each of them challenges our idea of what “language” and “family” is in their own way. Our All in the Language Family series goes into detail on how these families work.
- The Indo-European Language Family — One of the largest language families in the world, comprising hundreds of languages including those in the Germanic, Romance, Baltic and Slavic language families.
- The Romance Language Family — Perhaps the most famous language family there is, the Romance languages are widely spoken in Europe (and the name has nothing to do with our modern notions of love and romance).
- The Germanic Language Family — The family of English and German, the Germanic languages also include the Nordic and Scandinavian languages, as well as a few others spoken in Europe.
- The Slavic Language Family — Spoken throughout Russia and in parts of Eastern and Northern Europe, the Slavic languages are another part of the larger Indo-European language family.
- The Baltic Language Family — The Baltic languages are relatively few, with the only surviving members of the family being Latvian and Lithuanian.
- The Uralic Language Family — Lesser-known than its nearby families, the Uralic languages include Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, along with 35 other languages that are a bit smaller.
- The Altaic Language Family — This was at one point considered a unified language family, but most linguists agree that the Altaic languages are actually three separate language families: Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic.
- The Celtic Language Family — While most of the Celtic languages including Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx can only be found in parts of the British Isles today, they used to spread across the European continent.
- The Afro-Asiatic Language Family — This family — the fourth largest in the world — includes languages spoken in North and East Africa, as well as the Arabian Peninsula, and it has six distinct branches: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic and Semitic.
- The Semitic Language Family — Arabic has by far the most speakers of any of the Semitic languages, and this family also features the only language to have ever been successfully brought back after being declared “dead”: Hebrew.
- The Amerindian Language Family — A catch-all for the languages spoken in North and South America before the arrival of the Europeans, the Amerindian languages are some of the hardest in the world to study because so much of their history was destroyed by colonialism.
- The Mayan Language Family — A group of 32 languages that are indigenous to North America, the Mayan languages has survived better than any other language family in the Americas.
- The Sino-Tibetan Language Family — This is a huge family with over 400 members, most of which are found in East Asia, but speakers of these languages can be found around the globe.
- The Dravidian Language Family — With about 215 million speakers, the Dravidian languages are spoken in parts of Sri Lanka, Southern India, Pakistan and Nepal, and the largest member of the family is Telugu.