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Introduction to the more important language families including
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:
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|
|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.
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
The Language Museum
An excellent site with samples of 2000 languages.
Descriptions and history of language families.