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.


All Languages Have Grammar!

Listen to the text:

Sometimes students say that their native language does not have grammar the way English does.

However, all languages have grammar! Grammar consists of the ordering of words, and the changes we make in words, in order to communicate meaning in a language. Different languages do these things in different ways. The grammar of your own language seems natural and automatic, and you don’t think about it very much. When you learn a new language, especially as an adult, you have to notice and think about all the new grammar rules.

Here are some of the many ways in which different languages have different grammar:

  1. Some languages have affixes on words that communicate meaning. (A prefix is an affix that attaches to the beginning of a word. A suffix attaches to the ending of a word. An infix is something added or changed in the middle of a word.)

English has many prefixes and suffixes that have either grammatical functions, or change the meaning of a word. For example, think about talk/talked, book/books, happy/unhappy, happy/happiness.

 We don’t have many infixes in English; they are found only in some irregular verbs (sing/sang). However, infixes are very common in Arabic and Hebrew.

 Chinese does not have affixes; instead, meaning is communicated by adding words.

  1. Some languages have articles for nouns (a/an, the), and some do not. English, Spanish and Arabic have articles. Russian and Chinese do not.

  2. In some languages, nouns have gender. This means that the article, the verb, or sometimes other grammar may change depending on whether the noun is considered to be “masculine” or “feminine.”

For example, Spanish nouns have gender that affects the article; “the table” is la mesa and “the book” is el libro. This is because “table” is feminine and “book” is masculine.

In Arabic, gender affects the verb form as well as the article. In German, there are three genders, feminine, masculine and neuter.

In English and Chinese, nouns do not have gender.

  1. Some languages have verb tenses, and some do not. This means that the verb changes form depending on when the action is taking place.

English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Japanese all have verb tenses, but Chinese does not. In Chinese, you just use other words to say when the action takes place, if that information is important.

The English verb tense system is very complicated, and creates many difficulties for people who are trying to learn the language; this is especially frustrating for people whose native language doesn’t bother with tenses at all!

  1. Word order varies in different languages. A language may use “SVO” order (subject-verb-object), or “SOV” order (subject-object-verb), or even put the verb first.

    Also, word order is more important in some languages than in others. It is very important in Chinese; you may not be able to change the word order in a Chinese sentence without changing the meaning. This often true in English, also. But word order can very flexible in Russian. It is more flexible in Spanish than in English.

Different languages are complicated in different ways. When you are learning a new language, the grammar seems most difficult when you have to learn about something that does not exist in your own language. For example, a Chinese speaker learning English has a lot of trouble with verb tenses because Chinese doesn’t have them. An English speaker learning Arabic also has trouble with verbs, because verb forms are more complicated in Arabic than in English.

1. Verb Tense Review

1. Tense Review







Negative Question

Simple Present Tense

He works in Oakland.

He doesn’t work in Hayward.

Where does he work?

Why doesn’t he work in Hayward?

Present Tense with Main Verb To Be

My office is in EV6.

My office is not in the Tower Building.

Where is your office?

Why isn’t your office in the Tower Building?

Present Continuous Tense (=Present Progressive Tense)

We are reviewing verbs.

We are not playing cards.

What are you doing?

Why aren’t you listening to me?

Simple Past Tense

We went out to eat last night.

We didn’t cook dinner last night.

Where did you eat last night?

Why didn’t you call me?

Past Tense with Main Verb To Be

She was absent yesterday.

She wasn’t here yesterday.

Why was she absent?

Why wasn’t she here?

Past Continuous Tense (= Past Progressive Tense)

I was taking a shower when the phone rang.

I wasn’t working when the phone rang.

What were you doing when the phone rang?

Why weren’t you waiting by the phone?

 Future Tense with Will

I will be at work tomorrow morning.

I won’t be home tomorrow morning.

Where will you be tomorrow morning?

Why won’t he be here?

Going to Future

I’m going to take a vacation in September.

I’m not going to take a vacation this summer.

When are you going to take a vacation?

Why aren’t you going to take a vacation this summer?

 Present Continuous Tense as future

I’m taking a vacation in September.

I’m not taking a vacation this summer.

When are you taking a vacation?

Why aren’t you taking a vacation this summer?

Future Continuous Tense ( =Future Progressive Tense)

I’ll be sleeping at four a.m. tomorrow.

I won’t be studying at four a.m. tomorrow.

What will you be doing at four a.m. tomorrow?

Why won’t you be coming tomorrow?

Present Perfect Tense

I have known them for four years.

I haven’t known them for long.

(OR I have never met them.)

Have you ever met them?

Why haven’t you finished yet?

Present Perfect Continuous Tense

I’ve been studying English for seven years.

I haven’t been paying attention.

How long have you been studying English?

Why haven’t you been paying attention?

Past Perfect Tense

My parents had known each other for ten years before they got married.

His parents had not met each other (OR had never met each other) .before they got married.

How long had your parents known each other before they got married?

Why hadn’t you parents met before they got married?

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

I had been studying English for three years when I came to the U.S.

He yelled at me because I had not been listening to him.

How long had you been studying English when you came to the U.S.?

Did he know that you hadn’t been listening to him?

 Future Perfect Tense

By noon, I will have been here for six hours.

By noon, he won’t have been here for long.

How long will you have been here?

Why won’t he have been here for long?

Future Perfect Continuous Tense.

In June, I will have been teaching here for twelve years.

My friend won’t have been teaching here nearly as long.

How long will you have been teaching here in June?

Why won’t your friend have been teaching here?

Type 2 Conditional

If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car.

If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit my job.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

Why wouldn’t you quit your job if you won the lottery?

Type 3 Conditional

If we had known you wanted to come, we would have invited you.

If she had known about his drinking problem, she wouldn’t have married him.

What would she have done if she had known?

Why wouldn’t he have called me if had had gotten my message?

Present/Future Modals

I can swim.

He can’t swim.

Can you swim?

Can’t he swim?

Past Modals

He might have forgotten the meeting.

He might not have known about the meeting.

Might he have forgotten the meeting?

Mightn’t he have just decided not to come?

Used to

I used to walk to school when I was in elementary school.

My parents didn’t use to drive me to school.

Did your parents use to drive you to school?

Didn’t your parents use to worry about you?

Have to

I have to work this afternoon.

She doesn’t have to work this afternoon.

Do you have to work this afternoon?

Who doesn’t have to work this afternoon?

Had to

I had to work last Saturday.

She didn’t have to work last Saturday.

Did you have to work last Saturday?

Who didn’t have to work last Saturday?

British and American English

The British and Americans All Speak English

by Anne Agard

Listen to the text:

Sometimes it may seem that the British and the Americans are not speaking the same language. It is possible for an American tourist in London, or a British visitor to America, to become confused in a conversation when words and expressions are used differently. Also, communication can break down when two English speakers pronounce the words in different ways. But in spite of these difficulties, British and American English are one language.

First of all, it is important to understand that the biggest difference between British and American English is the pronunciation of the spoken language. An English speaker has only to say a word or two before listeners know, from his pronunciation, whether he is British or American. But it is often possible for an American to read a few pages of a book before noticing, from a few differences in spelling, grammar and word use, that the author of the book is British.

Second, although there are differences in vocabulary, expressions and word use, most English words are used by British and American speakers alike. Therefore, when communication between British and American speakers breaks down, it can quickly be repaired. One speaker says that she is confused and asks for an explanation, which the other speaker gives–all using vocabulary that both speakers understand.

British and American English are not different languages, but different dialects; that means that they are different forms of the same language. In fact, the standard dialects of British and American English, the forms of the language used on radio and television, differ from each other far less than standard American dialect differs from other dialects spoken in the U.S., or standard British differs from other dialects spoken in the United Kingdom. A speaker of standard American English in California, for example, can probably understand a BBC news broadcast more easily than he can understand some southern U.S. dialects.

A final point to think about is that media and the Internet are now causing British and American English to grow closer together, not farther apart. From the 1700’s on, the two dialects grew apart over time; but over the coming two centuries, they will grow closer together again. Perhaps two hundred years from now, we will no longer talk about “British English” or “American English”–it will all be just “English.”

Video Clips: Listen to the History of English

Before about 500 C.E. (1500 years ago), the languages spoken in what is now England were related to modern Welsh, which is still spoken in parts of Wales, the west part of Britain. The video above is from a modern Welsh TV broadcast. You can hear that the language is completely different from English.

About 1500 years ago, England was conquered by peoples who spoke languages related to modern German. This kind of language is called “Old English.” Above, a student recites a famous Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poem: this language is also very unlike modern English.

After 1066, this Germanic language began to mix with Norman French, and became what we call “Middle English.” Middle English is very difficult for a modern English speaker to understand, but we can make out some words and phrases. Below is a Middle English text by the great 14th-century poet Geoffry Chaucer:

By the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, the language was what we call “modern English.” This was the period of Shakespeare, and the most famous English translation of the Bible, called the “King James Version.” For a modern English speaker, the English language of this period has some strange vocabulary and expressions, but can be understood much of the time. If you are used to Shakespeare or the King James Bible, it is much easier. Below is a sonnet, a kind of poem, by William Shakespeare:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

This video clip that shows you how the poem sounded 400 years ago. The written language was closer to our English than the speech.

The last video clip, below, gives some examples of the differences between modern American and modern British English:

A Short History of the English Language

by Anne Agard

To understand this reading better, also look at the Timeline for the History of English.

Note about European dates:

B.C.E. (Before the Christian Erea) and B.C. (Before Christ) mean the same thing.

C.E. (Christian Era) means the same thing as A.D. ( = Anno Domini, Latin meaning “in the year of the Lord)

The meanings of the terms B.C. and A.D. imply a belief in Christianity, and for that reason many people prefer terms B.C.E and C.E instead.

This is the year 2015 C.E.

500 B.C.E. was 2,565 years ago.

We are now in the 21st century C. E. The 20th century was the 1900’s and the 19th century was the 1800’s. Rome conquered Britain in 55 B.C.E, during the first century B.C.E.

People have lived in Britain for tens of thousands of years, but little is known about their languages prior to about 2500 ago. At that time, the Celtic peoples spread over Europe, and inhabited what is now France, Spain, Germany and England.

This map shows the greatest extent of Celtic settlement.

Celtic languages were spoken in most of Britain for about a thousand years. During the second half of that time, from 55 B.C.E. to the early 5th century C.E., Britain was part of the Roman Empire. During this period, the British Celtic ruling classes became largely Romanized, and spoke Latin and well as their native Celtic language.

This map shows the Roman Empire at its height, in the second century C.E.

After the Roman Empire collapsed about 1600 years ago, Britain was invaded by tribes from the European continent who spoke Germanic languages (that is, languages similar to modern German). The Celtic peoples retreated to the northern and western parts of Britain (Scotland, Ireland and Wales), and the Germanic language known as Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, became the dominant language.

This map shows the part of England controlled by the Anglo-Saxons in 800 C.E.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, Anglo-Saxons fought with and defeated Viking invaders from Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings spoke closely related languages, and during the 10th century, the two peoples lived together fairly peacefully in many areas, and their languages mixed together.

This map shows the Viking migrations of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries.

Here is an example of what English was like in the 10th century. It is a story about how, hundreds of years before, a pope saw English slaves for sale in Rome, and decided to send Christian missionaries to England:

“Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”

Here is a translation of the text into modern English:

“Again he asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels’ companions in heaven.”

You can see that for a speaker of modern English, Anglo-Saxon is a foreign language.

In 1066, England was invaded by the Normans. The Normans were Vikings who, a few generations before, had settled in France and become French-speakers. French is a language descended from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. After 1066, French became the language of the upper classes in England, and Anglo-Saxon was the language of the conquered people, who became poor laborers and servants. This situation continued for only a few hundred years, however. Most upper-class people spoke both languages because all their servants and workers were Anglo-Saxons, and in many cases a conquering Norman lord took and married an Anglo-Saxon lady from the family who had previously owned the land. The two languages began to mix together, and by the 14th century, most people spoke what is now called “Middle English.” It basically comes from Old English, with a lot of French vocabulary mixed into it. This is a passage from Chaucer, the great 14th-century poet and story-teller

“A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.”

Here it is in modern English:

“A knight there was, and that a worthy man,

That from the time that he first began

To ride out, he loved chivalry,

Truth and honor, freedom and courtesy.”

A native speaker of English can understand some of a Middle English text, but not all of it.

The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the greatest period of English literature. This was the time when Shakespeare wrote, and when the famous King James translation of the Bible was done.

Here is how the 17th century translation of the Bible begins:

“In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Here is a famous passage from Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.”

You can see that in these passages, English is close to what we speak today. Most native English speakers can understand most of the English from this period, especially if they get help with a few unfamiliar words or phrases.

Since the 17th century, English has continued to change and grow; the biggest change has been the addition of many new Latin and Greek words for new technological and scientific concepts and inventions. Also, British and American English became different, but not as different as many English language learners imagine them to be.

During the late 20th and 21st centuries, English increasingly became an international language of business and technology. New variations of English used by non-native speakers in these fields, for example “Singapore English” and “Indian English” have taken on their own grammatical forms.