What is a Language Family?

How many languages are there?

It’s a common question, especially among language learners. It’s often quoted nowadays that there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, so it’s easy to wonder just how many languages all these people use to communicate, and how many of them we could learn, if we really wanted to.

While the actual number can differ greatly according to one’s definition of language, an organization known as SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics) has worked for over eighty years to catalogue the living languages of the world. The data has been collected and organized within a single database, known as Ethnologue.

According to the current edition of Ethnologue (the 20th, published February 2017), there are currently 7,099 languages in existence in the world today.

With such an abundance of languages in existence, you may be curious about how they all fit together.

You may even have questions like:

  • What’s a language family?
  • What does it mean when two or more languages are related?
  • What does it mean when we group languages into categories like “Romance” Languages, “Germanic” Languages, “Slavic” Languages, etc?

In this article, we will take a deeper look into the interrelatedness of human language, and discover how academic linguists have come to organize and understand how 7,000+ languages fit together, not only today, but in the larger historical context to which we all belong.

Let’s examine the fundamental structure of language classification, the language family.

What is a Language Family?

You are a single, unique person. This cannot be disputed.

However, as unique as you are, you are still fundamentally tied with the rest of the human race by a series of key relationships.

For example, no matter who you are, you have a father. You also have a mother. These people created you, and you share a large number of traits with them both.

You may also have sisters and brothers. You share traits with them too, but your traits don’t come from your siblings; they come from your parents.

Grouped together, your parents (mother and father) and their children (you and your siblings, if any) form a social unit called a family. Your family is descended from families before it, in an uninterrupted line of genealogical inheritance. Any children you have or will have will be descended from you in the same way.

According to the field of historical linguistics, just as human beings can be grouped together into genealogical families, so can human languages.

Of course, languages don’t reproduce as humans do, but they do evolve and change. Over time, languages develop new traits and characteristics, while keeping some traits of their ancestral languages. This evolutionary process allows for what is known as genetic classification or genealogical classification of human languages.

The Evolution of a Language Family

Let’s look at how a language family develops, from the point of view of Latin.

Latin was the language spoken and spread by the Roman civilization for the bulk of its existence.

Latin, like its neighboring Greek, Germanic, and Celtic languages, (among others) was descended from a proto-language known as Proto-Indo-European.

Latin reached prominence at the height of the Roman Empire, in the third century CE, the Latin-speaking society covered a vast territory—from modern-day Spain, France, and Italy in the west, to modern-day Romania in the east and beyond.

Once the Empire fell around 476 CE, the once-unified territory broke apart, and the different regions became isolated with one another. With less contact, the Latin spoken in each area began to develop it’s own unique characteristics.

Over time, the parental language of Latin evolved into distinct daughter languages in each isolated area. The Latin of Spain became Spanish, the Latin of France became French, the Latin of Italy became Italian—so on, and so forth. The “offspring” of Latin are known as sister languages.

How Are Language Families Organized?

The relationship between Latin and it’s parent and daughter languages typifies the general organization of language families:

A proto-language or ancestral language (a single language that is believed to exist, but is unattested), gave rise to several daughter languages, which in turn became parent languages of further daughter languages.

To make these connections easier to understand at a glance, linguists most often organize them in a visual aid known as a tree diagram, an evolutionary tree, or simply a language family tree.

If you’ve ever drawn a family tree of your grandparents, cousins, mom, dad, yourself and your siblings, then you understand the basic organizational scheme: proto-language (last common ancestor) at the top, connected to its daughter languages, which are in turn connected to their daughter languages, (etc.) descending further and further down the chart until you reach the most recent descendants of that proto-language.

Generally speaking, a language family tree can be broken up into smaller subdivisions. Each subdivision of the language tree is known as a language branch. Back to our Latin example, while Latin is a part of the Indo-European language family tree, it and all of its daughter languages form their own branch of that tree, known as the Romance branch, or simply the Romance languages. A tree-diagram of this branch is visible below:

Created by Wikipedia user Arnaullv~enwiki. No changes made. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

The Romance Branch of the Indo-European Language Family

Other well-known branches of the Indo-European Language family include:

  • Germanic Languages
  • Celtic Languages
  • Hellenic (Greek) Languages
  • Indo-Iranian Languages
  • Baltic Languages
  • Slavic Languages
  • among others

How Many Language Families Are There?

It is difficult to definitively determine how many language families are in existence today, or have been in existence since the dawn of language.

This is due mostly to the fact that the history of human language predates recorded history, so the existence of proto-languages can only be inferred, and not concretely proven. Additionally, deciding which language families exist (and which languages belong to which families) is still a matter of heated debate among historical linguists.

Though there is no definitive number of language families, Ethnologue lists a total of 145 language families, not including unclassified languages, constructed languages, mixed languages, sign languages, isolates, pidgins, and creoles.

Which Are the Major Language Families?

Despite the fact that there are over one hundred attested language families in existence, the rise of globalization has lead to certain families dominating others in terms of numbers of speakers.

The following is a table of the top ten major language families of the world, sorted by number of speakers. (All statistics from Ethnologue, 20th edition).

  1. Indo-European Languages (3,077,112,005 speakers)
  2. Sino-Tibetan Languages (1,355,708,295 speakers)
  3. Niger-Congo Languages (458,899,441 speakers)
  4. Afro-Asiatic Languages (444,845,814 speakers)
  5. Austronesian Languages (324,883,805 speakers)
  6. Dravidian Languages (228,108,690 speakers)
  7. Turkic Languages (172,371,468 speakers)
  8. Japonic Languages (129,204,210 speakers)
  9. Austroasiatic Languages (104,993,793 speakers)
  10. Tai-Kadai Languages (80,886,958 speakers)

The Importance of Understanding Language Families

To understand the structure language family is to understand the history of human language on both the micro and macro levels.

While language classification is a complex science that encompasses much more than the information provided in this article, we know that the language family is the perfect starting point for beginning to understand the interrelatedness of human languages.

With this knowledge, you can gain a quick grasp of the relationships between languages. If, for example, you are asked to describe the relationships between Italian, Romanian, and Greek, you can easily determine that they share certain base characteristics, as they are all Indo-European languages. Just as easily, you can determine that Italian and Romanian are more closely related to each other than they are to Greek, as the former two languages are part of the Romance branch, while Greek is part of the Hellenic branch.

Use this knowledge to not only understand the history of language, but to understand how mastery of one language in a certain family or branch can help you master other languages in that same group. The more closely related two languages are, the easier—and faster—it will be to acquire both in succession.