Language family

Language family

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A language family is a group of language
Language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

s related through descent from a common ancestor, called the proto-language
Proto-language
A proto-language in the tree model of historical linguistics is the common ancestor of the languages that form a language family. Occasionally, the German term Ursprache is used instead.Often the proto-language is not known directly...

 of that family. The term 'family' comes from the tree model
Tree model
A language tree, or family tree with languages substituted for real family members, has the form of a node-link diagram of a logical tree structure. Additional linguistics terminology derives from it. Such a diagram contains branch points, or nodes, from which the daughter languages descend by...

 of language origination in historical linguistics
Historical linguistics
Historical linguistics is the study of language change. It has five main concerns:* to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages...

, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree
Family tree
A family tree, or pedigree chart, is a chart representing family relationships in a conventional tree structure. The more detailed family trees used in medicine, genealogy, and social work are known as genograms.-Family tree representations:...

 or in a subsequent modification to species in a phylogenetic tree
Phylogenetic tree
A phylogenetic tree or evolutionary tree is a branching diagram or "tree" showing the inferred evolutionary relationships among various biological species or other entities based upon similarities and differences in their physical and/or genetic characteristics...

 of evolutionary taxonomy
Taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

. All the apparently biological terms are used only in the metaphoric sense: No actual biology relationship is implied by the metaphor.

As of early 2009, SIL Ethnologue catalogued 6,909 living human languages. A "living language" is simply one that is in wide use as a primary form of communication by a specific group of living people. The exact number of known living languages will vary from 5,000 to 10,000, depending generally on the precision of one's definition of "language", and in particular on how one classifies dialect
Dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...

s. There are also many dead
Language death
In linguistics, language death is a process that affects speech communities where the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language variety is decreased, eventually resulting in no native and/or fluent speakers of the variety...

 and extinct
Extinct language
An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers., or that is no longer in current use. Extinct languages are sometimes contrasted with dead languages, which are still known and used in special contexts in written form, but not as ordinary spoken languages for everyday communication...

 languages.

Membership of languages in the same language family is established by comparative linguistics
Comparative linguistics
Comparative linguistics is a branch of historical linguistics that is concerned with comparing languages to establish their historical relatedness....

. Daughter language
Daughter language
In historical linguistics, a daughter language is a language descended from another language through a process of genetic descent.-Examples:*English is a daughter language of Proto-Germanic, which is a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European....

s are said to have a genetic or genealogical relationship; the former term is more current in modern times, but the latter is equally as traditional. The evidence of linguistic relationship
Genetic relationship (linguistics)
In linguistics, genetic relationship is the usual term for the relationship which exists between languages that are members of the same language family. The term genealogical relationship is sometimes used to avoid confusion with the unrelated use of the term in biological genetics...

 is observable shared characteristics that are not attributed to borrowing
Language contact
Language contact occurs when two or more languages or varieties interact. The study of language contact is called contact linguistics.Multilingualism has likely been common throughout much of human history, and today most people in the world are multilingual...

.
Genealogically related languages present shared retentions, that is, features of the proto-language (or reflexes of such features) that cannot be explained by chance or borrowing
Loanword
A loanword is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,...

 (convergence
Language convergence
Language convergence is a type of contact-induced change whereby languages with many bilingual speakers mutually borrow morphological and syntactic features, making their typology more similar....

). Membership in a branch or group within a language family is established by shared innovations; that is, common features of those languages that are not attested in the common ancestor of the entire family. For example, what makes Germanic languages
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...

 "Germanic" is that they share vocabulary and grammatical features that are not believed to have been present in Proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

. These features are believed to be innovations that took place in Proto-Germanic, a descendant of Proto-Indo-European that was the source of all Germanic languages.

Structure of a family


A family is a monogenetic unit; that is, all its members derive from a common ancestor, and all attested descendants of that ancestor are included in the family. However, unlike the case of biological nomenclature, every level of language relationship is commonly called a family. For example, the Germanic
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...

, Slavic
Slavic languages
The Slavic languages , a group of closely related languages of the Slavic peoples and a subgroup of Indo-European languages, have speakers in most of Eastern Europe, in much of the Balkans, in parts of Central Europe, and in the northern part of Asia.-Branches:Scholars traditionally divide Slavic...

, Romance
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

, and Indo-Iranian
Indo-Iranian languages
The Indo-Iranian language group constitutes the easternmost extant branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It consists of three language groups: the Indo-Aryan, Iranian and Nuristani...

 language families are branches of a larger Indo-European
Indo-European languages
The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects, including most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and South Asia and also historically predominant in Anatolia...

 language family.

Subdivision


Language families can be divided into smaller phylogenetic units, conventionally referred to as branches of the family because the history of a language family is often represented as a tree diagram
Phylogenetic tree
A phylogenetic tree or evolutionary tree is a branching diagram or "tree" showing the inferred evolutionary relationships among various biological species or other entities based upon similarities and differences in their physical and/or genetic characteristics...

. However, the term family is not restricted to any one level of this "tree". The Germanic family, for example, is a branch of the Indo-European family
Indo-European languages
The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects, including most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and South Asia and also historically predominant in Anatolia...

. (In this way, the term family is analogous to the biological term clade
Clade
A clade is a group consisting of a species and all its descendants. In the terms of biological systematics, a clade is a single "branch" on the "tree of life". The idea that such a "natural group" of organisms should be grouped together and given a taxonomic name is central to biological...

.) Some taxonomists
Taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

 restrict the term family to a certain level, but there is little consensus in how to do so. Those who affix such labels also subdivide branches into groups, and groups into complexes. A top-level (largest) family is often called a phylum or stock. The term superfamily is sometimes applied to proposed groupings of language families whose status as phylogenetic units is generally considered to be unsubstantiated by accepted historical linguistic methods.

Dialect continua


Some closely knit language families, and many branches within larger families, take the form of dialect continua
Dialect continuum
A dialect continuum, or dialect area, was defined by Leonard Bloomfield as a range of dialects spoken across some geographical area that differ only slightly between neighboring areas, but as one travels in any direction, these differences accumulate such that speakers from opposite ends of the...

, in which there are no clear-cut borders that make it possible to unequivocally identify, define, or count individual languages within the family. However, when the differences between the speech of different regions at the extremes of the continuum are so great that there is no mutual intelligibility
Mutual intelligibility
In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is recognized as a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related languages can readily understand each other without intentional study or extraordinary effort...

 between them, the continuum cannot meaningfully be seen as a single language. A speech variety may also be considered either a language or a dialect depending on social or political considerations, as in the case of Hindi
Hindi
Standard Hindi, or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi, also known as Manak Hindi , High Hindi, Nagari Hindi, and Literary Hindi, is a standardized and sanskritized register of the Hindustani language derived from the Khariboli dialect of Delhi...

 and Urdu
Urdu
Urdu is a register of the Hindustani language that is identified with Muslims in South Asia. It belongs to the Indo-European family. Urdu is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan. It is also widely spoken in some regions of India, where it is one of the 22 scheduled languages and an...

 within Hindustani
Hindustani language
Hindi-Urdu is an Indo-Aryan language and the lingua franca of North India and Pakistan. It is also known as Hindustani , and historically, as Hindavi or Rekhta...

. Thus different sources give sometimes wildly different accounts of the number of languages within a family. Classifications of the Japonic family
Japonic languages
Japonic languages is a term which identifies and characterises the Japanese which is spoken on the main islands of Japan and the Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. This widely accepted linguistics term was coined by Leon Serafim....

, for example, range from one language (a language isolate) to nearly twenty.

Proto-languages



The common ancestor of a language family is seldom known directly, since most languages have a relatively short recorded history. However, it is possible to recover many features of a proto-language by applying the comparative method
Comparative method
In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor, as opposed to the method of internal reconstruction, which analyzes the internal...

—a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist August Schleicher
August Schleicher
August Schleicher was a German linguist. His great work was A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages, in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language...

. This can demonstrate the validity of many of the proposed families in the list of language families. For example, the reconstructible common ancestor of the Indo-European language family is called Proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

. Proto-Indo-European is not attested by written records, since it was spoken before the invention of writing.

Sometimes, however, a proto-language can be identified with a historically known language. For instance, dialects of Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

 are the proto-language of Norwegian
Norwegian language
Norwegian is a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Norway, where it is the official language. Together with Swedish and Danish, Norwegian forms a continuum of more or less mutually intelligible local and regional variants .These Scandinavian languages together with the Faroese language...

, Swedish
Swedish language
Swedish is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along its coast and on the Åland islands. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish...

, Danish
Danish language
Danish is a North Germanic language spoken by around six million people, principally in the country of Denmark. It is also spoken by 50,000 Germans of Danish ethnicity in the northern parts of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, where it holds the status of minority language...

, Faroese
Faroese language
Faroese , is an Insular Nordic language spoken by 48,000 people in the Faroe Islands and about 25,000 Faroese people in Denmark and elsewhere...

 and Icelandic
Icelandic language
Icelandic is a North Germanic language, the main language of Iceland. Its closest relative is Faroese.Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic or Nordic branch of the Germanic languages. Historically, it was the westernmost of the Indo-European languages prior to the...

. Likewise, the Appendix Probi
Appendix Probi
The Appendix Probi is a palimpsest appended to the Instituta Artium, a work written in the third or fourth century AD by the grammarian Valerius Probus. The text only survives in a manuscript of the seventh or eighth century...

 depicts Proto-Romance, a language almost unattested due to the prestige of Classical Latin
Classical Latin
Classical Latin in simplest terms is the socio-linguistic register of the Latin language regarded by the enfranchised and empowered populations of the late Roman republic and the Roman empire as good Latin. Most writers during this time made use of it...

, a highly stylised literary register not representative of the speech of ordinary people.

Isolate



Most of the world's languages are known to belong to language families. Those that have no known relatives (or for which family relationships are only tentatively proposed) are called language isolate
Language isolate
A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language. They are in effect language families consisting of a single...

s, which can be thought of as minimal language families. An example is Basque
Basque language
Basque is the ancestral language of the Basque people, who inhabit the Basque Country, a region spanning an area in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. It is spoken by 25.7% of Basques in all territories...

. In general, it is assumed that most language isolates have relatives, but at a time depth too great for linguistic comparison to recover.

Languages that cannot be reliably classified into any family are known as language isolates. A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as Armenian
Armenian language
The Armenian language is an Indo-European language spoken by the Armenian people. It is the official language of the Republic of Armenia as well as in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The language is also widely spoken by Armenian communities in the Armenian diaspora...

 within Indo-European, is often also called an isolate, but the meaning of isolate in such cases is usually clarified. For instance, Armenian may be referred to as an Indo-European isolate. By contrast, so far as is known, the Basque language
Basque language
Basque is the ancestral language of the Basque people, who inhabit the Basque Country, a region spanning an area in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. It is spoken by 25.7% of Basques in all territories...

 is an absolute isolate: It has not been shown to be related to any other language despite numerous attempts, though it has been influenced by neighboring Romance languages. A language may be said to be an isolate currently but not historically, if related but now extinct relatives are attested. The Aquitanian language
Aquitanian language
The Aquitanian language was spoken in ancient Aquitaine before the Roman conquest and, probably much later, until the Early Middle Ages....

, spoken in Roman times, may have been an ancestor of Basque but it could also have been a sister language to its ancestor. In the latter case, it would make Basque and Aquitanian form a small family together (ancestors are generally not considered to be distinct languages for this purpose).

Sprachbund



Shared innovations acquired by borrowing or other means, are not considered genetic and have no bearing with the language family concept. It has been asserted, for example, that many of the more striking features shared by Italic languages
Italic languages
The Italic subfamily is a member of the Indo-European language family. It includes the Romance languages derived from Latin , and a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, and Latin.In the past various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed...

 (Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, Oscan
Oscan language
Oscan is a term used to describe both an extinct language of southern Italy and the language group to which it belonged.The Oscan language was spoken by a number of tribes, including the Samnites, the Aurunci, the Sidicini, and the Ausones. The latter three tribes were often grouped under the name...

, Umbrian
Umbrian language
Umbrian is an extinct Italic language formerly spoken by the Umbri in the ancient Italian region of Umbria. Within the Italic languages it is closely related to the Oscan group and is therefore associated with it in the group of Osco-Umbrian languages...

, etc.) might well be "areal features
Areal feature (linguistics)
In linguistics, an areal feature is any feature shared by languages within the same geographical area as a consequence of linguistic diffusion....

". However, very similar-looking alterations in the systems of long vowels in the West Germanic languages greatly postdate any possible notion of a proto-language innovation (and cannot readily be regarded as "areal", either, since English and continental West Germanic were not a linguistic area). In a similar vein, there are many similar unique innovations in Germanic, Baltic
Baltic languages
The Baltic languages are a group of related languages belonging to the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family and spoken mainly in areas extending east and southeast of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe...

 and Slavic
Slavic languages
The Slavic languages , a group of closely related languages of the Slavic peoples and a subgroup of Indo-European languages, have speakers in most of Eastern Europe, in much of the Balkans, in parts of Central Europe, and in the northern part of Asia.-Branches:Scholars traditionally divide Slavic...

 that are far more likely to be areal features than traceable to a common proto-language. But legitimate uncertainty about whether shared innovations are areal features, coincidence, or inheritance from a common ancestor, leads to disagreement over the proper subdivisions of any large language family.

A sprachbund
Sprachbund
A Sprachbund – also known as a linguistic area, convergence area, diffusion area or language crossroads – is a group of languages that have become similar in some way because of geographical proximity and language contact. They may be genetically unrelated, or only distantly related...

 is a geographic area having several languages that feature common linguistic structures. The similarities between those languages are caused by language contact, not by chance or common origin, and are not recognized as criteria that define a language family.

Contact languages



The concept of language families is based on the historical observation that languages develop dialect
Dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...

s, which over time may diverge into distinct languages. However, linguistic ancestry is less clear-cut than familiar biological ancestry, in which species do not crossbreed. It is more like the evolution of microbes, with extensive lateral gene transfer: Quite distantly related languages may affect each other through language contact
Language contact
Language contact occurs when two or more languages or varieties interact. The study of language contact is called contact linguistics.Multilingualism has likely been common throughout much of human history, and today most people in the world are multilingual...

, which in extreme cases may lead to languages with no single ancestor, whether they be creoles
Creole language
A creole language, or simply a creole, is a stable natural language developed from the mixing of parent languages; creoles differ from pidgins in that they have been nativized by children as their primary language, making them have features of natural languages that are normally missing from...

 or mixed language
Mixed language
A mixed language is a language that arises through the fusion of two source languages, normally in situations of thorough bilingualism, so that it is not possible to classify the resulting language as belonging to either of the language families that were its source...

s. In addition, a number of sign language
Sign language
A sign language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker's...

s have developed in isolation and appear to have no relatives at all. Nonetheless, such cases are relatively rare and most well-attested languages can be unambiguously classified.

Distribution


See also


  • Auxiliary language
  • Constructed language
    Constructed language
    A planned or constructed language—known colloquially as a conlang—is a language whose phonology, grammar, and/or vocabulary has been consciously devised by an individual or group, instead of having evolved naturally...

  • Endangered language
    Endangered language
    An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use. If it loses all its native speakers, it becomes a dead language. If eventually no one speaks the language at all it becomes an "extinct language"....

  • Extinct language
    Extinct language
    An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers., or that is no longer in current use. Extinct languages are sometimes contrasted with dead languages, which are still known and used in special contexts in written form, but not as ordinary spoken languages for everyday communication...

  • Global language system
    Global language system
    According to Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan, a sociological classification of languages based on large scale social role for their speakers:* Hypercentral languages: connect supercentral languages; de Swaan erects English to be the sole hypercentral language;* Supercentral languages: very widely...

  • ISO 639-5
    ISO 639-5
    ISO 639-5:2008 "Codes for the representation of names of languages—Part 5: Alpha-3 code for language families and groups" is an international standard published by the International Organization for Standardization . It was developed by ISO Technical Committee 37, Subcommittee 2, and first...

  • Linguist List
    Linguist List
    The LINGUIST List is a major online resource for the academic field of linguistics. It was founded by Anthony Aristar in early 1990 at the University of Western Australia, and is used as a reference by the National Science Foundation in the United States...

  • List of language families
  • List of languages by number of native speakers
  • Proto-language
  • Tree model
    Tree model
    A language tree, or family tree with languages substituted for real family members, has the form of a node-link diagram of a logical tree structure. Additional linguistics terminology derives from it. Such a diagram contains branch points, or nodes, from which the daughter languages descend by...



Further reading


  • Boas, Franz. (1922). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 2). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
  • Boas, Franz. (1933). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 3). Native American legal materials collection, title 1227. Glückstadt: J.J. Augustin.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1999). Native languages and language families of North America (rev. and enlarged ed. with additions and corrections). [Map]. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (Smithsonian Institution). (Updated version of the map in Goddard 1996). ISBN 0-8032-9271-6.
  • Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com).
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1966). The Languages of Africa (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Ross, Malcom. (2005). Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages. In: Andrew Pawley
    Andrew Pawley
    Andrew Kenneth Pawley , MA, PhD , FRSNZ, FAHA, is Emeritus Professor at the School of Culture, History & Language of the College of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University...

    , Robert Attenborough, Robin Hide and Jack Golson, eds, Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples (PDF)
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. (1987). A guide to the world's languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978–present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1–20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1–3, 16, 18–20 not yet published).
  • Voegelin, C. F.; & Voegelin, F. M. (1977). Classification and index of the world's languages. New York: Elsevier.


External links