Many times languages are treated like they are completely different among them and packed in separate boxes. Spanish is considered different than Italian, as well it is different than English and so on, but anyone who has learned a little about a few languages, though, knows that’s not true. The languages of the world don’t exist separately from each other: they have complex connections among them and sometimes they even have a shared history. In that case, we say that they belong to the same “Language Family”.
Even if the concept of language families may sound new to you, you probably know a little about them. You probably heard about the Romance languages, which are a European family including Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, among others. Maybe you also know that German and English are part of the same language family, the Germanic family. These are just few examples, so let’s see what Language Families are and which ones they are.
What are the Language Families?
Like any other family, we have to imagine a language family as a tree: there is one main language (called also root language) that represents the trunk which all the members of the language family grew out of. The concept of branches is also useful because the birth of new languages normally comes from splitting off from each other. Moreover, within any large language family, there might be smaller language families.
The simplest definition of a language family is “any group of languages that share a common root language.” Despite this seems like a simple definition, it gets complicated quickly. Let’s do an example: the Romance languages come from Vulgar Latin, and Vulgar Latin in turn is part of the Indo-European language family, that means it belongs also to the Proto-Indo-European group, which is the ancestor of hundreds of languages mainly spoken in Europe and Asia. Do you see how complex is the concept of language family?
How do we identify the Language Families?
The process of determining the lineage of a language family again mimics that of real families: the further back you go, the harder it is to understand who’s related to who. When two languages are very similar — for example, any of the Scandinavian languages — it’s not difficult to figure out that they are related. But what if there are just a few things in common?
In an ideal world, there is a written record that can clearly show how languages are related but this happens very rarely. So when a paper trail for a language family doesn’t exist, we have to rely on historical reconstructions. To do this, linguists compare old forms of languages to see how similar the grammar and vocabulary are, and then they come up with a theoretical Proto- language. By examining different Indo-European languages, linguists can determine which words likely come from the same root word. Obviously one word doesn’t make a language family, so historical reconstruction needs to look at much more vocabulary before being able to make the classification of a language.
To make language families even more confusing there is the fact that languages keep intermingling. For example, many languages in the world have elements of English – because of the long legacy of English colonialism – but it doesn’t mean those languages share a root with English; it’s more of an intermarriage. This may bring to some disagreements on whether two languages are part of the same language family or merely influenced each other because of long-term proximity. As you see, the topic is more complex than it looks like.
Which are the existing Language Families?
The best way to learn about language families is looking at the individual families that already exist. Each of them has their own engaging history, and each of them challenges our idea of what “language” and “family” is in their own way.
Nowadays there are many language families around the world – with their respective language subgroups – and it could be hard to present all them here.
Let’s discover the 5 biggest and most known Language Families:
- Indo-European Language Family — One of the largest language families in the world, comprising hundreds of languages including those in the Germanic, Romance, Baltic and Slavic language families.
- Romance Language Family — Perhaps the most famous language family there is, the Romance languages are widely spoken in Europe (and the name has nothing to do with our modern notions of love and romance).
- Germanic Language Family — The family of English and German, the Germanic languages also include the Nordic and Scandinavian languages, as well as a few others spoken in Europe.
- Slavic Language Family — Spoken throughout Russia and in parts of Eastern and Northern Europe, the Slavic languages are another part of the larger Indo-European language family.
- Baltic Language Family — The Baltic languages are relatively few, with the only surviving members of the family being Latvian and Lithuanian.