Language family

Contemporary distribution (2005 map) of the world's major language families (in some cases geographic groups of families). This map includes only primary families i.e. branches are excluded.
For greater detail, see Distribution of languages on Earth.

A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestral language or parental language, called the proto-language of that family. The term "family" reflects the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree, or in a subsequent modification, to species in a phylogenetic tree of evolutionary taxonomy. Linguists therefore describe the daughter languages within a language family as being genetically related.[1]

According to Ethnologue there are 7,151 living human languages distributed in 142 different language families.[2][3] A living language is defined as one that is the first language of at least one person. The language families with the most speakers are:[citation needed] the Indo-European family, with many widely spoken languages native to Europe (such as English and Spanish) and South Asia (such as Hindi, Urdu and Bengali); and the Sino-Tibetan family, mainly due to the many speakers of Mandarin Chinese in China.

Lyle Campbell (2019) identifies a total of 406 independent language families, including language isolates.[4]

There are also many dead languages which have no native speakers living, and extinct languages, which have no native speakers and no descendant languages. Finally, there are some languages that are insufficiently studied to be classified, and probably some which are not even known to exist outside their respective speech communities.

Membership of languages in a language family is established by research in comparative linguistics. Sister languages are said to descend "genetically" from a common ancestor. Speakers of a language family belong to a common speech community. The divergence of a proto-language into daughter languages typically occurs through geographical separation, with the original speech community gradually evolving into distinct linguistic units. Individuals belonging to other speech communities may also adopt languages from a different language family through the language shift process.[5]

Genealogically related languages present shared retentions; that is, features of the proto-language (or reflexes of such features) that cannot be explained by chance or borrowing (convergence). Membership in a branch or group within a language family is established by shared innovations; that is, common features of those languages that are not found in the common ancestor of the entire family. For example, Germanic languages are "Germanic" in that they share vocabulary and grammatical features that are not believed to have been present in the Proto-Indo-European language.[citation needed] These features are believed to be innovations that took place in Proto-Germanic, a descendant of Proto-Indo-European that was the source of all Germanic languages.

  1. ^ Rowe, Bruce M.; Levine, Diane P. (2015). A Concise Introduction to Linguistics. Routledge. pp. 340–341. ISBN 978-1317349280. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  2. ^ "How many languages are there in the world?". Ethnologue. 3 May 2016. Retrieved 26 March 2021.
  3. ^ "What are the largest language families?". Ethnologue. 25 May 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  4. ^ Campbell, Lyle (8 January 2019). "How Many Language Families are there in the World?". Anuario del Seminario de Filología Vasca "Julio de Urquijo". UPV/EHU Press. 52 (1/2): 133. doi:10.1387/asju.20195. ISSN 2444-2992. S2CID 166394477.
  5. ^ Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2011). Historical Linguistics and the Comparative Study of African Languages. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 336. ISBN 978-9027287229. Retrieved 26 January 2017.

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