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Language Family

Language Family

Have you ever noticed similarities between languages? For example, the German word for apple, apfel, is similar to the English term for the word. These two languages are similar because they belong to the same language family. Learning about the definition of language families and some examples can enhance one’s understanding of how languages are related.

Language Family: Definition

Just like siblings and cousins can trace their relationship back to one couple, languages almost always belong to a language family, a group of languages related through an ancestral language. The ancestral language that multiple languages connect back to is called a proto-language.

A language family is a group of languages that relate to a common ancestor.

Identifying language families is useful for linguists because it can provide insight into the historical evolution of languages. They are also useful for translation because understanding linguistic connections can help identify similar meanings and forms of communication across languages and cultures. Examining so-called genetic classifications of languages and identifying similar rules and patterns is an element of a field called comparative linguistics.

Language family, globe, studysmarterFig. 1 - Languages in a language family share a common ancestor.

When linguists cannot identify a language’s relations to other languages, they call the language a language isolate.

Language Family: Meaning

When linguists study language families, they examine the relations between languages, and they also look at how languages branch off into other languages. For instance, language spreads through various types of diffusion, including the following:

  • Relocation Diffusion: When languages spread because of people relocating to other places. For example, North America is full of Indo-European languages as a result of immigration and colonization.

  • Hierarchical Diffusion: When a language spreads down a hierarchy from the most important places to the least important ones. For instance, many colonial powers taught their native language to people in colonies of the most importance.

As languages have spread throughout the years, they have changed into new ones, thereby adding new branches to existing language trees. There are multiple theories that explain how these processes work. For instance, the theory of language divergence posits that as people move away from one another (diverge), they use different dialects of the same language that become increasingly isolated until they become new languages. Sometimes, though, linguists observe that languages are created through the coming together (convergence) of previously isolated languages.

When people in a region have different native languages, but there is a common language that they speak, that common language is called a lingua franca. For example, Swahili is the lingua France of East Africa.

Sometimes, languages have similarities that can mislead people into thinking that they belong to the same language family. For example, sometimes languages borrow a word or root word from a language outside of its language, like the word tycoon in English for a powerful person, which is similar to the Japanese word for great lord, taikun. However, these two languages belong to different language families. Understanding the six main language families and what genetically links languages is useful for understanding the histories and relationships of a language.

Language Family: Example

There are six major language families.

Afro-Asiatic

The Afro-Asiatic language family includes languages spoken in the Arabian Peninsula, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. It includes smaller branches of the family, such as:

  • Cushitic (Ex: Somali, Beja)

  • Omotic (Ex: Dokka, Majo, Galila)

  • Semitic (Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, etc.)

Austronesian

The Austronesian language family includes most languages spoken on Pacific Islands. It includes smaller language families such as the following:

  • Central-Eastern/Oceanic (Ex: Fijian, Tongan, Maori)

  • Western (Ex: Indonesian, Malay, and Cebuano)

Language family, tree, studysmarterFig. 2 - Language families have multiple branches.

Indo-European

Languages spoken in North America, South America, Europe, Western Asia, and Southern Asia belong to the Indo-European language family, which is the largest in the world. This was the first language family that linguists studied back in the 19th century. There are multiple smaller language families within the Indo-European one, including the following:

  • Slavic (Ex: Ukrainian, Russian, Slovak, Czech, Croatian)

  • Baltic (Ex: Latvian, Lithuanian)

  • Romance (French, Spanish, Italian, Latin)

  • Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Danish)

Niger-Congo

The Niger-Congo language family includes languages spoken throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost six hundred million people speak languages in this language family. The language family includes smaller families like the following:

  • Atlantic (Ex: Wolof, Themne)

  • Benue-Congo (Ex: Swahili, Igbo, Zulu)

Sino-Tibetan

The Sino-Tibetan language family is the second-largest language family in the world. It also expands across a wide geographical area and includes North, South, and East Asia. This language family includes the following:

  • Chinese (Ex: Mandarin, Fan, Pu Xian)

  • Himalayish (Ex: Newari, Bodish, Lepcha)

Trans-New Guinea

The Trans-New Guinea language family includes the languages in New Guinea and the islands that surround it. There are approximately 400 languages in this one language family! Smaller branches include

  • Angan (Akoye, Kawacha)

  • Bosavi (Kasua, Kaluli)

  • West (Wano, Bunak, Wolani)

The Largest Language Family

Consisting of roughly 1.7 billion people, the largest language family in the world is the Indo-European language family.

The main branches of the Indo-European language family are the following: 1

Language family, family, studysmarterFig. 3 - The largest language family is the Indo-European language family.

  • Armenian

  • Baltic

  • Slavic

  • Indo-Iranian

  • Celtic

  • Italic

  • Hellenic

  • Albanian

  • Germanic

English, a language that has become one of the dominant global languages, falls within this large language family.

The closest language to English is called Frisian, a language spoken in parts of the Netherlands.

The English Language Family

The English language family belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family and the Anglo-Frisian sub-branch below that. It connects back to an ancestor called Ugermanisch, which means Common Germanic, which was spoken around 1000 C.E. This common ancestor split into Eastern Germanic, Western Germanic, and Northern Germanic.

Language Family - Key takeaways

  • A language family is a group of languages that relate to a common ancestor.
  • Languages spread through processes of diffusion, like relocation diffusion and hierarchical diffusion.
  • There are six main language families: Afro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Indo-European, Niger-Congo, Sino-Tibetan, and Trans-New Guinea.
  • English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.
  • The Indo-European is the largest language family in the world, with over 1.7 billion native speakers.

1 William O’Grady, Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 2009.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language Family

Language family refers to a group of languages that relate back to a common ancestor. 

Language families are important because they show how languages are related and evolve. 

You can identify a language family by connecting them to their common ancestors. 

There are six main language families. 

The Indo-European language family is the largest language family. 

Final Language Family Quiz

Question

What is a language family? 

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Answer

A language family is a group of languages that relate to a common ancestor. 

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Question

What is the name for an ancestral language that connects the branches of a language family?

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Answer

proto-language  

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Question

When linguists cannot identify a language’s relation to other languages, what do they call it?

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Answer

A language isolate 

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Question

Expatriates moving to an island and sharing their language with the natives is an example of what process?

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Answer

Relocation diffusion


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Question

True or False? If a language loans a word to another language, the two languages are by default in the same language family. 

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Answer

False

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Question

True or False? Hebrew is in the Indo-European language family. 

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Answer

False

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Question

What is the world’s largest language family?

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Answer

Indo-European 

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Question

How many people are native speakers of languages in the Indo-European language family?

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Answer

Approx. 1.7 billion 

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Question

How many main language families are there?

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Answer

6

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Question

What field of linguistics studies language families?

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Answer

Comparative linguistics 

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Question

Which of the following languages it the most similar to English?

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Answer

German

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Question

When languages develop into new dialects and then new languages, they support the theory of… 

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Answer

Language divergence 

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Question

What is a lingua franca?

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Answer

The common language that is spoken in a region where people have different native languages

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Question

True or False? Colonization is an example of hierarchal diffusion. 

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Answer

True

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Question

English belongs to the _ branch.

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Answer

Germanic

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