Language families

Languages are (often) grouped together into families. Language families are made up of languages which are genetically related. This means that they developed from the same language, a “Proto-language”, and may have similar features in terms of their phonological, morphological and syntactic systems.

English is a member of the Indo-European language family. We can say that English is in the Anglo-Frisian sub-branch of the West Germanic branch of Indo-European. This family includes many languages, from Greek in Greece, to Punjabi in Pakistan and India, to Russian in Russia, to Kurdish in a belt from Turkey to Iran and surrounding countries, to Irish in Ireland, as well as most of the other languages spoken in Europe.

There are some interesting relationships that have been discovered between languages. For example, Finnish is related to Hungarian! They are members of the Uralic language family, which has another 35 or so other member languages.

Not all languages are found to be related to other languages. We call these languages “isolates”. This doesn’t mean they sprung up from nowhere, but rather they diversified so long ago that the methods we currently have to determine language relationships aren’t able to track their changes back to a common ancestor shared with any other language.

Below is a list of the 20 largest language families, how many members languages they are proposed to have and where the languages are traditionally spoken.

Language family Approximate languages Where the languages are spoken
Niger-Congo 1,500+ Africa
Austronesian 1200+ Asia, Oceania (the Pacific)
Trans-New Guinea 470+ New Guinea
Sino-Tibetan 450+ Asia
Indo-European 430+ Asia, Europe
Afro-Asiatic 360+ Africa, Asia
Pama-Nyungan 300+ Australia
Nilo-Saharan 190+ Africa
Oto-Manguean 170+ North America
Austroasiatic 160+ Asia
Tai-Kadai 90+ Southern China, Southeast Asia
Dravidian 80+ India [Pakistan and Nepal]
Tupian 60+ South America
Uto-Aztecan 50+ North America
Torricelli 50+ New Guinea
Sepik 50+ New Guinea
Arawakan 50+ South America
Quechuan 40+ South America
Na-Dene 40+ North America
Algic 40+ North America

 


About World Languages have a great page on language families. The Austronesian language family is particularly interesting because of the enormous geographical area member languages are found.


Maps: World GeoDatasets has some wonderful maps showing the distribution of languages around the world.