Language family

Last updated

Contemporary distribution (2005 map) of the world's major language families (in some cases geographic groups of families).
For greater detail, see Distribution of languages on Earth. Primary Human Language Families Map.png
Contemporary distribution (2005 map) of the world's major language families (in some cases geographic groups of families).
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]

Language Capacity to communicate using signs, such as words or gestures

Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so; and a language is any specific example of such a system.

Proto-language

A proto-language, in the tree model of historical linguistics, is a language, usually hypothetical or reconstructed, and usually unattested, from which a number of attested known languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family.

Tree model theory in linguistics

In historical linguistics, the tree model is a model of the evolution of languages analogous to the concept of a family tree, particularly a phylogenetic tree in the biological evolution of species. As with species, each language is assumed to have evolved from a single parent or "mother" language, with languages that share a common ancestor belonging to the same language family.

Contents

According to Ethnologue the 7,111 living human languages are distributed in 141 different language families. [2] A "living language" is simply one that is used as the primary form of communication of a group of people. There are also many dead and extinct languages, as well as some that are still insufficiently studied to be classified, or are even unknown outside their respective speech communities.

<i>Ethnologue</i> database of worlds languages published on web and in print

Ethnologue: Languages of the World is an annual reference publication in print and online that provides statistics and other information on the living languages of the world. It was first issued in 1951, and is now published annually by SIL International, a U.S.-based, worldwide, Christian non-profit organization. SIL's main purpose is to study, develop and document languages to promote literacy and for religious purposes.

Language death Process in which a language eventually loses its last native speaker

In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. By extension, language extinction is when the language is no longer known, including by second-language speakers. Other similar terms include linguicide, the death of a language from natural or political causes, and rarely glottophagy, the absorption or replacement of a minor language by a major language.

Extinct language language that no longer has any speakers, or that is no longer in current use

An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living descendants. In contrast, a dead language is "one that is no longer the native language of any community", even if it is still in use, like Latin. Languages that currently have living native speakers are sometimes called modern languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.

Membership of languages in a language family is established by comparative linguistics. Sister languages are said to have a "genetic" or "genealogical" relationship. The latter term is older. [3] 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. [4]

Comparative linguistics is a branch of historical linguistics that is concerned with comparing languages to establish their historical relatedness.

In historical linguistics, sister languages are cognate languages; that is, languages that descend from a common ancestral language, the so-called proto-language. Every language in a language family that descends from the same language as the others is a sister to them.

Speech community group of people who share expectations regarding linguistic usage

A speech community is a group of people who share a set of linguistic norms and expectations regarding the use of language. It is a concept mostly associated with sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics.

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. 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.

A loanword is a word adopted from one language and incorporated into another language without translation. This is in contrast to cognates, which are words in two or more languages that are similar because they share an etymological origin, and calques, which involve translation.

Language convergence is a type of linguistic change in which languages come to structurally resemble one another as a result of prolonged language contact and mutual interference. In contrast to other contact-induced language changes like creolization or the formation of mixed languages, convergence refers to a mutual process that results in changes in all the languages involved. Linguists use the term to describe changes in the linguistic patterns of the languages in contact rather than alterations of isolated lexical items.

Germanic languages sub-branch of the Indo-European (IE) language

The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken natively by a population of about 515 million people mainly in Europe, North America, Oceania, and Southern Africa.

Structure of a family

Language families can be divided into smaller phylogenetic units, conventionally referred to as branches of the family because the history of a language family is often represented as a tree diagram. A family is a monophyletic unit; all its members derive from a common ancestor, and all attested descendants of that ancestor are included in the family. (Thus, the term family is analogous to the biological term clade .)

Phylogenetic tree Diagrammatic hypothesis about the evolutionary relationships of a group of organisms

A phylogenetic tree or evolutionary tree is a branching diagram or "tree" showing the evolutionary relationships among various biological species or other entities—their phylogeny —based upon similarities and differences in their physical or genetic characteristics. All life on Earth is part of a single phylogenetic tree, indicating common ancestry.

Monophyly Property of a group of including all taxa descendant from a common ancestral species

In cladistics, a monophyletic group, or clade, is a group of organisms that consists of all the descendants of a common ancestor. Monophyletic groups are typically characterised by shared derived characteristics (synapomorphies), which distinguish organisms in the clade from other organisms. The arrangement of the members of a monophyletic group is called a monophyly.

In linguistics, attested languages are languages that have been documented and for which the evidence (attestation) has survived to the present day. Evidence may be recordings, transcriptions, literature or inscriptions. In contrast, unattested languages may be names of purported languages for which no direct evidence exists, languages for which all evidence has been lost or hypothetical proto-languages proposed in linguistic reconstruction.

Some taxonomists restrict the term family to a certain level, but there is little consensus in how to do so. Those who affix such labels also subdivide branches into groups, and groups into complexes. A top-level (i.e., the largest) family is often called a phylum or stock. The closer the branches are to each other, the closer the languages will be related. This means if a branch off of a proto-language is 4 branches down and there is also a sister language to that fourth branch, then the two sister languages are more closely related to each other than to that common ancestral proto-language.

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. The word is also used as a count noun: a taxonomy, or taxonomic scheme, is a particular classification. The word finds its roots in the Greek language τάξις, taxis and νόμος, nomos. Originally, taxonomy referred only to the classification of organisms or a particular classification of organisms. In a wider, more general sense, it may refer to a classification of things or concepts, as well as to the principles underlying such a classification. Taxonomy is different from meronomy which is dealing with the classification of parts of a whole.

The term macrofamily or superfamily is sometimes applied to proposed groupings of language families whose status as phylogenetic units is generally considered to be unsubstantiated by accepted historical linguistic methods. For example, the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Italic, and Indo-Iranian language families are branches of a larger Indo-European language family. There is a remarkably similar pattern shown by the linguistic tree and the genetic tree of human ancestry [5] that was verified statistically. [6] Languages interpreted in terms of the putative phylogenetic tree of human languages are transmitted to a great extent vertically (by ancestry) as opposed to horizontally (by spatial diffusion). [7]

Dialect continua

Some closely knit language families, and many branches within larger families, take the form of dialect continua in which there are no clear-cut borders that make it possible to unequivocally identify, define, or count individual languages within the family. However, when the differences between the speech of different regions at the extremes of the continuum are so great that there is no mutual intelligibility between them, as occurs in Arabic, the continuum cannot meaningfully be seen as a single language.

A speech variety may also be considered either a language or a dialect depending on social or political considerations. Thus, different sources, especially over time, can give wildly different numbers of languages within a certain family. Classifications of the Japonic family, for example, range from one language (a language isolate with dialects) to nearly twenty—until the classification of Ryukyuan as separate languages within a Japonic language family rather than dialects of Japanese, the Japanese language itself was considered a language isolate and therefore the only language in its family.

Isolates

Most of the world's languages are known to be related to others. Those that have no known relatives (or for which family relationships are only tentatively proposed) are called language isolates, essentially language families consisting of a single language. An example is Basque. In general, it is assumed that language isolates have relatives or had relatives at some point in their history but at a time depth too great for linguistic comparison to recover them.

A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as Albanian and Armenian within Indo-European, is often also called an isolate, but the meaning of the word "isolate" in such cases is usually clarified with a modifier. For instance, Albanian and Armenian may be referred to as an "Indo-European isolate". By contrast, so far as is known, the Basque language is an absolute isolate: it has not been shown to be related to any other language despite numerous attempts. Another well-known isolate is Mapudungun, the Mapuche language from the Araucanían language family in Chile. A language may be said to be an isolate currently but not historically if related but now extinct relatives are attested. The Aquitanian language, spoken in Roman times, may have been an ancestor of Basque, but it could also have been a sister language to the ancestor of Basque. In the latter case, Basque and Aquitanian would form a small family together. (Ancestors are not considered to be distinct members of a family.)

Proto-languages

A proto-language can be thought of as a mother language (not to be confused with a mother tongue, which is one that a specific person has been exposed to from birth [8] ), being the root which all languages in the family stem from. The common ancestor of a language family is seldom known directly since most languages have a relatively short recorded history. However, it is possible to recover many features of a proto-language by applying the comparative method, a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist August Schleicher. This can demonstrate the validity of many of the proposed families in the list of language families. For example, the reconstructible common ancestor of the Indo-European language family is called Proto-Indo-European . Proto-Indo-European is not attested by written records and so is conjectured to have been spoken before the invention of writing.

Other classifications of languages

Sprachbund

Shared innovations, acquired by borrowing or other means, are not considered genetic and have no bearing with the language family concept. It has been asserted, for example, that many of the more striking features shared by Italic languages (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, etc.) might well be "areal features". However, very similar-looking alterations in the systems of long vowels in the West Germanic languages greatly postdate any possible notion of a proto-language innovation (and cannot readily be regarded as "areal", either, since English and continental West Germanic were not a linguistic area). In a similar vein, there are many similar unique innovations in Germanic, Baltic and Slavic that are far more likely to be areal features than traceable to a common proto-language. But legitimate uncertainty about whether shared innovations are areal features, coincidence, or inheritance from a common ancestor, leads to disagreement over the proper subdivisions of any large language family.

A sprachbund is a geographic area having several languages that feature common linguistic structures. The similarities between those languages are caused by language contact, not by chance or common origin, and are not recognized as criteria that define a language family. An example of a sprachbund would be the Indian subcontinent.

Contact languages

The concept of language families is based on the historical observation that languages develop dialects, which over time may diverge into distinct languages. However, linguistic ancestry is less clear-cut than familiar biological ancestry, in which species do not crossbreed. [9] It is more like the evolution of microbes, with extensive lateral gene transfer: Quite distantly related languages may affect each other through language contact, which in extreme cases may lead to languages with no single ancestor, whether they be creoles or mixed languages. In addition, a number of sign languages have developed in isolation and appear to have no relatives at all. Nonetheless, such cases are relatively rare and most well-attested languages can be unambiguously classified as belonging to one language family or another, even if this family's relation to other families is not known.

See also

Background colors used on Wikipedia for various language families and groups
Afro-Asiatic Nilo-Saharan? Niger–Congo Khoisan (areal)
Indo-European Caucasian (areal) Uralic Dravidian Altaic (areal) Paleosiberian (areal)
Sino-Tibetan Hmong–Mien Kra–Dai Austroasiatic Austronesian Papuan (areal) Australian (areal)
Eskimo–Aleut Na-Dené (and Dené–Yeniseian) American (areal)
Creole/Pidgin/Mixed language isolate sign language constructed language unclassified

Related Research Articles

Comparative method in linguistics, technique for studying the development of languages

In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor, in order to extrapolate back to infer the properties of that ancestor. The comparative method may be contrasted with the method of internal reconstruction, in which the internal development of a single language is inferred by the analysis of features within that language. Ordinarily both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages, to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language, to discover the development of phonological, morphological, and other linguistic systems, and to confirm or refute hypothesised relationships between languages.

Indo-European languages family of several hundred related languages and dialects

The Indo-European languages are a language family of several hundred related languages and dialects.

Ural–Altaic languages 19th century linguistic hypothesis that Uralic language family and the "Altaic" language family form a single macrofamily

Ural–Altaic, Uralo-Altaic or Uraltaic is a linguistic convergence zone and former language-family proposal uniting the Uralic and the Altaic languages. It is generally now agreed that even the Altaic languages most likely do not share a common descent: the similarities among Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are better explained by diffusion and borrowing. Cecelia Eaton Luschnig, an expert of Ancient Greek language, has written that "this term and the kinship it implies is now considered obsolete" as a family proposal. However, the term continues to be used for the central Eurasian typological, grammatical and lexical convergence zone. Indeed, "Ural-Altaic" may be preferable to "Altaic" in this sense. For example, J. Janhunen states that "speaking of 'Altaic' instead of 'Ural-Altaic' is a misconception, for there are no areal or typological features that are specific to 'Altaic' without Uralic."

Historical linguistics, also called diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include:

  1. to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages
  2. to reconstruct the pre-history of languages and to determine their relatedness, grouping them into language families
  3. to develop general theories about how and why language changes
  4. to describe the history of speech communities
  5. to study the history of words, i.e. etymology

A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language. Language isolates are in effect language families consisting of a single language. Commonly cited examples include Ainu, Basque, Korean, Sumerian, Elamite, and Vedda, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with other languages.

Balto-Slavic languages language family

The Balto-Slavic languages are a branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It traditionally comprises the Baltic and Slavic languages. Baltic and Slavic languages share several linguistic traits not found in any other Indo-European branch, which points to a period of common development. It is now a general consensus among linguists to classify Baltic and Slavic languages into a single branch, even though some details of the nature of their relationship remain in dispute in some circles, usually due to political controversies. Some linguists however, have suggested that Balto-Slavic should be split into three equidistant groups: Eastern Baltic, Western Baltic and Slavic.

The Germanic substrate hypothesis attempts to explain the distinctive nature of the Germanic languages within the context of the Indo-European languages. It claims that those elements of the Common Germanic vocabulary and syntactical forms which do not seem to have cognates in other Indo-European languages, suggest that Proto-Germanic may have been either a creole or a contact language that subsumed a non-Indo-European substrate language or a hybrid of two quite different Indo-European languages, from the centum and satem types, respectively.

Eurasiatic languages proposed language macrofamily; typically includes Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Eskimo–Aleut, Indo-European, and Uralic language families

Eurasiatic is a proposed language macrofamily that would include many language families historically spoken in northern, western, and southern Eurasia.

In linguistics, areal features are elements shared by languages or dialects in a geographic area, particularly when the languages are not descended from a common ancestor language.

Graeco-Aryan

Graeco-Aryan, or Graeco-Armeno-Aryan, is a hypothetical clade within the Indo-European family that would be the ancestor of Greek, Armenian, and the Indo-Iranian languages.

In historical linguistics, Italo-Celtic is a grouping of the Italic and Celtic branches of the Indo-European language family on the basis of features shared by these two branches and no others. There is controversy about the causes of these similarities. They are usually considered to be innovations, likely to have developed after the breakup of the Proto-Indo-European language. It is also possible that some of these are not innovations, but shared conservative features, i.e. original Indo-European language features which have disappeared in all other language groups. What is commonly accepted is that the shared features may usefully be thought of as Italo-Celtic forms.

In linguistics, genetic relationship is the usual term for the relationship which exists between languages that are members of the same language family. The term genealogical relationship is sometimes used to avoid confusion with the unrelated use of the term in biological genetics. Languages that possess genetic ties with one another belong to the same linguistic grouping, known as a language family. These ties are established through use of the comparative method of linguistic analysis.

In historical linguistics, a linkage is a group of related languages that is formed when a proto-language breaks up into a network of dialects that gradually differentiates into separate languages.

Linguistic reconstruction is the practice of establishing the features of an unattested ancestor language of one or more given languages. There are two kinds of reconstruction:

Wave model

In historical linguistics, the wave model or wave theory is a model of language change in which a new language feature (innovation) or a new combination of language features spreads from its region of origin, affecting a gradually expanding cluster of dialects. The theory was intended as a substitute for the tree model, which did not seem to be able to explain the existence of some features, especially in the Germanic languages, by descent from a proto-language. At its most ambitious, it is a wholesale replacement for the tree model of languages. During the 20th century, the wave model has had little acceptance as a model for language change overall, except for certain cases, such as the study of dialect continua and areal phenomena; it has recently gained more popularity among historical linguists, due to the shortcomings of the Tree model.

Southwestern Tai languages Largely mutually intelligible language family

The Southwestern Tai, Southwestern Thai or Thais languages are an established branch of the Tai languages of Southeast Asia. They include Siamese, Lanna, Lao, Isan, Shan and others.

References

  1. Rowe, Bruce M.; Levine, Diane P. (2015). A Concise Introduction to Linguistics. Routledge. pp. 340–341. ISBN   1317349288 . Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  2. "Summary by language family". Ethnologue.
  3. Müller, Max (1862). Lectures on the science of language: delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in April, May and June, 1861 (3rd ed.). London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts. p. 216. The genealogical classification of the Aryan languages was founded, as we saw, on a close comparison of the grammatical characteristics of each;....
  4. Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2011). Historical Linguistics and the Comparative Study of African Languages. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 336. ISBN   9027287228 . Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  5. Henn, B. M.; Cavalli-Sforza, L. L.; Feldman, M. W. (17 October 2012). "The great human expansion". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (44): 17758–17764. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10917758H. doi:10.1073/pnas.1212380109. JSTOR   41829755. PMC   3497766 . PMID   23077256.
  6. Cavalli-Sforza, L. L.; Minch, E.; Mountain, J. L. (15 June 1992). "Coevolution of genes and languages revisited". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 89 (12): 5620–5624. Bibcode:1992PNAS...89.5620C. doi:10.1073/pnas.89.12.5620. JSTOR   2359705. PMC   49344 . PMID   1608971.
  7. Gell-Mann, M.; Ruhlen, M. (10 October 2011). "The origin and evolution of word order" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (42): 17290–17295. Bibcode:2011PNAS..10817290G. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108. JSTOR   41352497.
  8. Bloomfield, Leonard. Language ISBN   81-208-1196-8
  9. List, Johann-Mattis; Nelson-Sathi, Shijulal; Geisler, Hans; Martin, William (2014). "Networks of lexical borrowing and lateral gene transfer in language and genome evolution". BioEssays. 36 (2): 141–150. doi:10.1002/bies.201300096. ISSN   0265-9247. PMC   3910147 . PMID   24375688.

Further reading