What is a Language Family?

What is a language family?

Most languages across the globe belong to a language family. A language family is a group of languages that stem from a common ancestor language. This common ancestor language is considered the “protolanguage.” According to Ethnologue, there are around 136 language families in the world. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the amount of language families to an exact number.

How is a language family determined?

Language families are determined through word similarities. For example the Romance language branch (Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese), which are part of the Indo-European language family are some of the easier languages to categorize because of the many Latin language documents found throughout history. These languages have a common basis in Latin. This is apparent when you look at the same word ‘water’ across all languages:

Italian: aqua

Spanish: agua

Portuguese: agua

Other languages that share the same protolanguage but do not have similar words are then categorized into branches. There are many branches that are part of the Indo-European language family, such as the Romantic branch, the Germanic branch or the Slavic branch.

When a language doesn’t have a protolanguage, linguists may deem it a language isolate. They will then categorize the language based on its geography.

What are the largest language families?

The top six language families are made up of at least five per cent of the world’s languages (25 different languages). The Niger-Congo language family has the largest percentage of languages with over 21 per cent. The Austronesian language family comes in a close second with 17 per cent of the world’s languages. The Trans-New Guinea language family has 6.7 per cent and the Sinto-Tibetan group has 6.5 per cent of the world’s languages. The Indo-Eurpoean language family has 6.15 per cent of the world’s languages.

To learn more about language families, check out the links below.