Language Families

Language Families

Introduction to the more important language families including
Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Malayo-Polynesian,
Niger-Congo, Dravidian and others


It appears that the use of language came about independently in a number of places.

All languages change with time. A comparison of Chaucer's English, Shakespere's English and Modern English shows how a language can change over several hundred years. Modern English spoken in Britain, North America and Australia uses different words and grammar.

If two groups of people speaking the same language are separated, in time their languages will change along different paths. First they develop different accents; next some of the vocabulary will change (either due to influences of other languages or by natural processes). When this happens a different dialect is created; the two groups can still understand each other. If the dialects continue to diverge there will come a time when they are mutually unintelligible. At this stage the people are speaking different languages.

One of the best examples in Western history occurred after the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th Century AD. Latin was the language of that empire. All the Latin speakers in different parts of Europe (Italian Peninsula, Gaul, Iberian Peninsula, Carpathia) became isolated from each other. Their languages evolved along independent paths to give us the modern languages of Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.

The Sanskrit spoken in North India changed into the modern languages of of the region: Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and others.

Ancient Persian has evolved into Farsi, Kurdish and Pashto.

In time, with enough migrations, a single language can evolve into an entire family of languages.

Each language family described below is a group of related languages with a common ancestor. Languages in the same branch are sister languages that diverged within the last 1000 to 2000 years (Latin, for example, gave rise to the Latin Branch languages in the Indo-European Family).

Languages in different branches of the same family can be referred to as cousin languages. For most families these languages would have diverged more than 2000 years ago. The exact times scales vary for each family.

Languages in the same family, share many common grammatical features and many of the key words, especially older words, show their common origin. The table below shows this effect with the word for month in several Indo-European languages:

English month
Dutch maand
German Monat
Swedish månad
Welsh mis
French mois
Spanish mes
Portuguese mês
Italian mese
Polish miesiac
Russian myesyats
Lithuanian menuo
Albanian muaj
Greek minas
Farsi mâh
Hindi mahina

This can be compared with the word for month in several languages that belong to other (non Indo-European) language families.

Arabic (Afro-Asiatic Family) shahr
Finnish (Uralic Family) kuukausi
Basque (Independent) hilabethe
Turkish (Altaic Family) ay
Malay (Malao-Polynesian Family) bulan
Zulu (Niger-Congo Family) inyanga
Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan Family) yue
Kannada (Dravidian Family) timgalu
Vietnamese (Austro-Asiatic Family) thang
Cherokee (Iroquoian Family) iyanvda

The difference between a language and a dialect can be political rather than linguistic. For example, linguistically, Croatian and Serbian are closely related dialects of the same language. However, they are written in different scripts and are spoken by people of different religions living in Catholic Christian Croatia and Orthodox Christian Serbia respectively. They are considered different languages for political reasons.

Macedonian is considered by Bulgarians as a dialect of their language while Macedonians themselves consider it a separate language. Since Bulgaria has long claimed Macedonia as part of its territory, the reasons for each view are obvious!

Low German (spoken in Northern Germany) and Dutch (Netherlands) are linguistically dialects but politically separate languages. Low German and Swiss German are mutually unintelligible but are both considered to be German. There are more differences between Italian spoken in different cities in Italy than between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.

The main language of Iraq and Morocco are both called Arabic but they differ greatly. The Mandarin speaking government of China considers China's other languages (like Cantonese and Wu) to be dialects whereas they are often very different.

These political elements will be generally ignored in this essay.

The study of languages and their relationships gives us information about how people have migrated during historical times. It also helps with the dating of developments like plant domestication and the use of tools. Each language gives an insight into a unique way of thinking. People who are living in isolated parts of the world and are not technologically advanced do not necessarily have a more primitive language than people living in modern cities. All languages have simple and complex parts. There is no correlation between the life of a people speaking a language and the complexity or otherwise of their language.

For the sections on specific language families below, an Atlas would be handy.

Ten Language Families in Detail

The most widely studied family of languages and the family with the largest number of speakers. Languages include English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Russian, Greek, Hindi, Bengali; and the classical languages of Latin, Sanskrit, and Persian.

A family found in Europe (Hungarian, Finnish) and Siberia (Mordvin) with complex noun structures.

A family spread from Europe (Turkish) through Centra Asia (Uzbek), Mongolia (Mongolian), to the Far East (Korean, Japanese). These languages have the interesting property of vowel harmony.

An important Asian family of languages that includes the world's most spoken language, Mandarin. These languages are monosyllabic and tonal.

A family consisting of over 1000 languages spread throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well South East Asia. Languages include Malay, Indonesian, Maori and Hawaiian.

This family contains languages of northern Africa and the Middle East. The dominant languages are Arabic and Hebrew.

A family based around the Caucas Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Georgian and Chechen are the main languages. They are known for their large number of consonants.

The languages of southern India (in contrast to the Indo-European languages of northern India). Tamil is the best known of these languages.

This family are a scattered group of languages in Asia. They are found from eastern India to Vietnam. Languages include Vietnamese and Khmer.

This family features the many languages of Africa south of the Sahara. The large number of languages include Swahili, Shona, Xhosa and Zulu.

Other Language Families

There are over 100 language families in the world. This section looks at some of them including Nilo-Saharan, Koisan, Eskimo-Aleut, Iroquoian, Uto-Aztecan, Mayan, and Independent languages which are unrelated to others.

The Present and Future

In 2003, the total number of languages in the world was estimated to be 6,809.

90% of these languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people. Between 200 and 150 languages are spoken by more than a million people. There are 357 languages which have less than 50 speakers. The Cambap language (Central Cameroon) has 30 speakers; the Leco language (Bolivian Andes) has about 20 speakers. Mati Ke (in northern Australia) had four speakers in 2003. A total of 46 languages have just a single speaker.

Unfortunately, with the onset of mass communications (rapid flights, radio, television, telephone, the internet), many of the smaller languages are in real danger of extinction. With their passing, a unique cultural way of looking at the world disappears with them. The linguist, Edward Sapir, wrote:

"No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The words in which different cultures live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached".

Over the last 500 years 4.5% of the world's described languages have disappeared. In North America, 52 of the 176 languages have become extinct since 1600. In Australia, 31 of the 235 languages have gone.

Even so, some countries and regions are still rich in linguistic diversity. Mexico has 52 languages spoken within its borders. The old USSR (Soviet Union) had 100. Nigeria has over 400. The island of Papua New Guinea has over 700, virtually a different one in each valley. India has over 800 languages in several families (Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic).

If these essays encourage the recording or saving of endangered languages, they will have been useful.

© 1997, 2006 KryssTal

Books From and

KryssTal Related Pages

The origin, evolution and development of the world's writing systems.

A table listing the 30 most spoken languages in the World along with their language families, scripts and estimated number of speakers.

Grammatical terms and concepts like noun, verb, subject, object explained.

Countries and territories of the world - previous names, capitals, governments, languages.

External Language Links

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The Language Museum
An excellent site with samples of 2000 languages.

Language Gulper
Descriptions and history of language families.

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