Language Families

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Many of the world’s languages belong to a few large language families. The languages of each family are related to each other. Even though they often cannot be understood by each others’ speakers, each of these large language families is believed to have descended from a common ancestor language that was spoken in the distant past. In most cases, the ancestor language was spoken thousands of years ago, but is no longer spoken today.

The Sino-Tibetan Language Family:

Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken throughout much of eastern Asia. The Sino-Tibetan family is divided into two major groups, the Sinitic (or Chinese) and the Tibeto-Burman group, which is composed of the Tibetan and Burman languages.

Japanese and Korean are probably related to each other, but not connected to the Sino-Tibetan family. These languages have borrowed many words from Chinese, and Japanese is written with characters that were borrowed and adapted from Chinese, but this borrowing took place less than 2,000 years ago, which is a very short period in the history of language.

Vietnamese was long assumed to be part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and is still  shown as Sino-Tibetan on some language maps, but has been reclassified by linguists quite recently. It is now considered to be part of the Austro-Asiatic language family, related to several other southeast Asian and Pacific languages and influenced by Chinese only in quite recent historical times.

The Afro-Asiatic Language Family:

This language family includes many languages spoken across the western and northern parts of Africa and the Middle East. The Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic and Tigrinya. The Afro-Asiatic family also includes several west African Languages and the Berber languages of North Africa

With the spread of Islam, the Arabic writing system came to be used by non-Semitic languages like Persian in the same way that the Chinese writing system was adapted by the Japanese. However, Arabic and Persian are not related to each other from a linguist’s point of view; Persian is actually an Indo-European language.

The Indo-European Language Family

Indo-European Languages are spoken throughout most of Europe and much of western and southern Asia. English, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Persian and Hindi are all Indo-European Languages.

The Indo-European language family was the first to be carefully studied. The modern science of linguistics began in the 1700’s, when Europeans studying Sanscrit, the ancient written language of India, discovered similarities with European languages. Because of this discovery, they realized that the languages of Europe and India must have descended from a common parent language, and so the term “Indo-European” was invented.

The only languages spoken in Europe that are not Indo-European are Finnish, Hungarian, and Basque.

Because of European conquest and colonization in modern times, Indo-European languages like English, Spanish and French have come to be spoken all over the world.

There are many other language families around the world, for example the Niger-Congo Family, which includes many African languages and the Altaic Family, which includes Turkish and Mongolian. Many American Indian languages belong to the Algic Family.

There are continuing arguments among linguists about the classification of some languages. For example, the family origins of Japanese and Korean are not yet clearly understood. Some linguists say that these two languages are related to each other, and some say that they are not. A few linguists believe that both Japanese and Korean belong to the Altaic family, making them distantly related to Turkish.

Here is an excellent website where you can learn more about the world’s languages:

Use the search box on the site to find out more about your native language!

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