Other Language Families

Nubian Quiche Nahuatl
Masai Quechua

There are over 100 language families in the world.
This is a brief look at a few of them showing the diversity that exists in language.


Languages of Africa

The Nilo-Saharan Family includes languages of North East Africa like Nubian of Southern Egypt and Sudan, Dinka and Masai from northern Kenya, and Songhai from the Niger River of West Africa. Originally spoken in the mountains of Ethiopia, this language family has remained close to its place of origin for 10,000 years.

In southern Africa there is small group of languages called the Khoisan Family. Two of its languages are San (also called Hottentot, a derogatory name) and Bushmen, spoken in Namibia and South Africa. These contain clicking consonants borrowed by neighbouring languages. This language family once covered most of central and southern Africa until displaced by migrations of Niger-Congo speakers.

Languages of North America and The Arctic

The Eskimo-Aleut Family is spread across Siberia and Alaska (including the Aleutian Islands). The major language is Inuit (the Eskimo language). These languages are ergative. They also have the property of Incorporation where a verb can form a compound with one or more nouns allowing a complex sentence to be expressed as one single compound word.

Inuit has a large number of verbs concerning knowledge, including UTSIMAVAA (know from experience), SANATUUQ (know how to do something), QAUJIMAVAA (know about something), NALUJUNNAIPAA (not ignorant about something), NALUMAIQPAA (no longer unaware about something).

The Algonquian Family of languages are found in North America and include Ojibwa, Cree, Blackfoot, Micmac, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Potawatomi, Mohican and Delaware.

Many of these languages have two gender-like divisions for nouns: animate and inanimate.

Another North American group is the Athapascan Family which includes Navajo and Apache.

Navajo has many words for lines of different shapes, colours and configurations: their world is perceived and described in geometric terms. For example ALHCH'INIDZIGAI means two white lines coming together at a point.

Again in North America there is the Iroquoian Family. Cherokee and Mohawk are examples.

Mohawk marks the subject on the verb by gender so that word order is very free. This is similar to the languages of the Bantu Branch of the Niger-Congo languages in Africa.

The Siouan Family includes languages like Sioux, Saponi and Dakota-Lakota. It is found in the Great Plains of the USA and southern Canada.

Along the Pacific coast of North America is the unusual Mosan Family. The languages include Bella-Coola (a language with several words that lack vowels), Flathead and Okanagan.

These languages have word roots which can be either verbs of nouns. TS'AX can mean a spear or to spear. 'INMA means to suck milk or breast. 'ATH is either night or to become dark. Only the context distinguishes the correct meaning.

Some linguists divide these languages into three families.

Languages of Central America

Covering North and Central America is the Uto-Aztecan Family with languages like Hopi, Papago and Comanche from the USA and the cave-dwelling people of the Copper Canyon in Mexico (Tamahumara).

The most important language in this family is Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The TL consonant is typical of the language. Nahuatl counts in fives and is a language of prefixes and suffixes.

Kwakiutl has two forms of the pronoun it. One for visible objects another for invisible objects.

Central Mexico is home to the Oto-Manguean Family which includes the languages Otomi, Mixtec and Zapotec. Chiquihuitlan Mazatec is a tonal language. The word CA can mean I talk, difficult, his hand or he talks depending on the value of one of four tones.

This family's 150 languages are divided into 7 branches.

The Mayan Family of languages are spoken by the descendants of the Mayas in southern Mexico and Guatemala (Quiche, Mam, Tzotzil, Cakchiquel, Yucatec). There are about 30 languages divided into 8 branches. They date from around 800BC.

A smaller group in Central America is the Macro-Chibchan Family. This includes Miskito (Honduran and Nicaraguan Caribbean coast) and Cuna (Panama).

Languages of South America

The Penutian Family is scattered throughout Central and South America. The best known langauge is Araucanian from Chile.

The Carib Family is found scattered in the rain forests and coasts of northern South America. The languages include Carib (once spoken in the Caribbean islands), Ge, Panoan and Chiquito.

Hixkaryana (spoken by 350 people in the Brazilian rain forest) has the rare word order of Object-Verb-Subject. This word order is unknown outside of South America.

The Andean-Equatorial Family covers large areas of South America. It includes Quechua (the language of the Incas in Peru and Ecuador), Aymara (Bolivia), Guarani (Paraguay), Tupi (Brazil) and Arawak (Carribean Coasts). Garifuna is found on the Caribean coasts of Central America. The family is divided into five branches.

Quechua nouns have no gender or articles. There are no irregular verbs. Many suffixes are used on verbs and nouns to indicate doubt, uncertainty, distance, beginning, warning, etc.

Languages of Papua New Guinea

Many of the 700 or so languages on the island of Papua New Guinea are still being studied and will probably be classified into six or seven major families (Torricelli, West Papuan, Sepik-Ramu) as well as a number of small families and unrelated languages. Most of the Papuan languages are spoken by a few thousand people and are little known. They include Enga, Motu, Maisin and Orokolo.

One common feature shared by several languages is the Dual Pronoun. This has a different form for we two and the normal we. This form also occurs with you and you two.

Kiwai has one of the most complex verb structures known. Suffixes and prefixes can make a verb into a complete sentence. For example, the verb ODI means string a bow. With the following suffixes and prefixes,


means in the remote future, they three will definitely string two bows at a time.

Yimas has four past tenses distinguishing between different degrees of remoteness in the past. In the Berinmo language, there is no distinction between blue and green but two words (NOL and WOR) for different shades of yellow.

Rotokas has the fewest sounds of any language, 11 (compared to the 44 of standard English). These 11 are made up of 5 vowels and 6 consonants: A, E, I, O, U, B, G, K, P, R, T.

Some linguists consider the languages of the Andaman Islands and of Tasmania to be related to various Papuan languages.

Languages of Australia

Australia's 250 or so native languages have been tentatively classified into over 23 families. The north of the continent has the most variety with 22 families like Bunaban, Ngaran and Yiwaidjan. These complex languages have a large number of suffixes and prefixes changing the shade of meaning in subtle ways. Kunwinyku has prefixes for masculine, feminine, plant and other types.

The Pama-Nyungan languages of central and southern Australia are the most studied. They often have multiple pronouns. For example, there are four forms of the pronoun we: YUNMI (we two, you and I), MINTUPALA (we two, he and I), MIPALA (we all including you), MELABAT (we all excluding you). Jiwarli has three words for carrying depending on whether an object is carried in the hand, on the head or on the back.

One interesting feature is the use of different vocabulary for communicating with different kin members. Adnyamathanha has ten sets of pronouns for use with various relatives. Panyjima speaking men use a different respectful vocabulary when talking to men who have initiated them into adulthood. In Dyirbal, there are two forms and virtually every word is different. This language also has four gender-like classes for its nouns. One of these classes includes nouns involving women, fire and dangerous items.

Murrinh-Patha has four numbers: singular, dual, paucal (for 3 to about 15) and plural (more than 15). The pronoun you has 7 forms; verbs have 35 classes. Body parts have different names depending on whether thay are used with or without a verb, for example, nose is THIMU or YI. Tiwi has Polysynthetic Verbs which include the action, its time, its agent and its object. There are many words that distinguish the exact time of day, including ARAWUNGA (early morning before dawn), TOKWAMPARI (early morning when birds sing), WUJAKARI (first light before sunrise).

Most languages have no counting words apart from one, two and many.

These languages have a long oral tradition that goes back 10,000 years. They tell stories of the period when land joined Australia to nearby islands, of extinct animals, and of contact with Europeans (including the massacres of their ancestors).

Language Isolates

Some languages are totally unrelated to other languages. These are called Independent or Language Isolates.

These include Ainu, an unwritten language spoken in isolated areas in northern Japan and now almost extinct.

Porome is spoken by around 1100 people in Papua New Guinea and is also without a writing system.

Burushaski is another unwritten language spoken in a few valleys in northern Pakistani Kashmir. Its verbs take on many prefixes and suffixes although all but three are regular. Its nouns have four gender-like classes: human countable objects (both male and female), non-human countable objects, and uncountable objects. There are four numbers: singular, indefinite, plural and grouped

Yuchi is spoken by a few dozen people in Oklahoma (USA). The meaning of a word can be changed by its tone. Verbs can take different forms depending on the type of object being acted on. Some of its verbs stand alone and take no pronouns. Words of kinship differ depending on the gender of the speaker.

Basque is an ergative language. This means the subject of the verb takes different forms for verbs that take an object (transitive verbs) and verbs that do not (intransitive verbs). It is spoken in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. The language counts in 20s, a property borrowed by French numbers above 60. Basque has three forms of the pronoun it for things or persons close to the speaker, at an intermediate distance, for things far away. The Spanish word for left (izquierda) is a Basque word. The language is called Euskara by its speakers.

Etruscan, a pre-Latin language from Italy, was probably a language isolate.

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