Language Families

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 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 very short period in the history of language.

Vietnamese was long assumed to be part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and still seems to be shown as Sino-Tibetan on most language maps, but has been reclassified by linguists quite recently. It is now known to have been influenced by Chinese only in quite recent historical times. The history of Vietnamese is not yet clearly understood; it seems to have been a blend of several southeast Asian and Pacific languages.

The Afro-Asiatic Language Family:

This language family includes Arabic, the Amharic and Tigre languages of northeast Africa, and the North African Berber languages.

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 and Hungarian. Turkish is also a non-Indo-European language, and is thought by some linguists to be related to Finnish and Hungarian. Even Japanese and Korean have been alleged to be distantly related to this somewhat mysterious language group, but that theory is very controversial.

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


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