A quick guide to language families

A quick guide to language families

by Leona Quigley

Updated November 7, 2022

Romance languages, Celtic languages, Germanic languages, Austronesian languages; you have probably come across these and many other language family names, but what are language families? Just like you and me, languages too have a family tree. A language family, just like a human family, is made up of descendants of a common ancestor, called a protolanguage, from which other languages have developed. 

Take for example the Romance languages, which include Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. They all descend from Latin (Romance is a shortening of Romanicus, meaning “from Rome”). However, Latin itself is a descendant of an Indo-European ancestor that is today recognized as the root of many of the most widely spoken languages in the world. The Romance languages, Celtic languages, Indo-Iranian languages, Germanic languages, and several others both living and dead, are all branches of the larger family of Indo-European languages that are all descended from Proto-Indo-European. 

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How many language families are there?

Unfortunately, there is no established number of language families in the world. The classification of languages into families causes some controversy amongst linguists. And because of the ongoing academic debate, it is not yet possible to give a full list of language families that make up an overwhelming majority of the world’s spoken languages.

Linguists tend to use the comparative method to derive the proto-language of a language family.

They examine related languages for cognates, which are words that bear a similarity due to their common descent. They can then hypothesize the original forms from which the cognates arose. This method has provided significant insight into the genetic links between different languages, but it is important to remember that similarities can also arise from borrowing, linguistic universals (e.g. all languages have nouns and verbs), or by chance. 

Ethnologue, a language database maintained by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, lists 142 distinct families, some with only a single language. Some languages are not classifiable with any others and are labeled as ‘isolates’ without any known relatives. Basque is one of the most commonly cited examples.

Despite sharing a common ancestral language, the member languages of the family that derive from the proto-language have often evolved so differently that only a linguist might notice the common features that evidence their historical tie. 

Major language families around the world

Indo-European languages

The Indo-European language family has the largest number of speakers, encompassing such widely spoken and distinct languages as English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Russian and Bengali. It has been studied for more than 200 years and very many proto Indo-European words have been reconstructed. Languages belonging to this family group extend throughout most of Europe, parts of the Near East and into Pakistan and India. The age of discovery and empire brought the Indo-European languages to many other corners of the world, where they are still spoken by hundreds of millions today. English is by far the most widely spoken second language in the world, followed by French and Russian.

Sino-Tibetan languages – Asia

Comprising over 400 languages spread over a large area from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, this language family is the second most widely spoken after the Indo-European languages. The majority of these speakers is made up of over 1.3 billion who natively speak a Chinese (Sinitic) language, though other major languages in this family include Burmese, which is spoken in Myanmar, and the Tibetic languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are the most widely spoken of the Sinitic languages. Mandarin is spoken as a first language by almost 1 billion people, which is by far the largest first language in the world. Most of the Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal (words with different tonal inflections convey different meanings) and have an SOV (subject, object, verb) word order.

Niger–Congo languages – Africa

The Niger-Congo languages are the largest language family group in Africa with over 600 million speakers, that’s 85 percent of the African continent’s population! The Niger-Congo languages are largely spoken in western and southern Africa, south of the Sahara. Though there is debate amongst linguists about the extent of its composition, the Niger-Congo languages may encompass over one and a half thousand distinct languages, making it the largest language family in terms of constituent languages. The largest group within the Niger-Congo family is the Bantu languages which are spoken in southern and SE Africa, and include Zulu and Swahili. Most of the Niger-Congo family’s languages, like the Sino-Tibetan languages, are tonal. 

Quechuan languages – South America

Although the majority of languages in South America are Spanish and Portuguese, there are an incredible number of surviving indigenous language groups. The most widely spoken of these pre-Columbian language families are the Quechuan languages. They are known for being the primary languages of the Inca Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries and are today in use primarily in the Andean highlands but also in large areas of the Amazon basin and in northwestern Argentina. Quechuan languages, dubbed runa simi or “people’s language”, are spoken by more than 8 million people throughout the Andes region. As many as 45 varieties of Quechua are still widely spoken in Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia and Argentina today. Quechua is believed to have been spoken in Peru for at least a thousand years before the Inca civilization.

Family drama

Whilst there are entire volumes of books written on the classification of languages into language families, our understanding of different language families, like language itself, is ever-evolving. Linguists continue to study language and develop new understandings of its evolution, bringing to light new and fascinating historical connections between the languages and dialects we speak, the cultures they are linked to and how they develop over time into unique tongues.

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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

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