Language Family: 6 Major Language Families in the World
When you learn more than two languages or get to know other languages besides your native language, you might realize that some languages are similar or related to each other. Such as German and Dutch or Indonesian and Malay have some things in common: grammatical features or vocabulary.
Why is it like that? It is because, such as humans, some languages also have a family. It is called the language family.
According to LinguisticSociety.org, a language family is a group of languages that can be shown to be genetically related to one another. Similar to how a person’s family comprises people who share common ancestors, language families also come from shared lineages. The language that generated the creation of other languages in the language family is known as protolanguage.
As stated in Ethnologue, six language families predominate among the 142 different language families as the world’s major language families. Let’s read more to find out about the six major language families in the world!
The Indo-European is a language family of related languages spoken in the Americas, Europe, and Western and Southern Asia. Indo-European languages are considered to have descended from Proto-Indo-European, a hypothetical language that is no longer spoken. Around 3400 BCE is assumed to be the possible end of Proto-Indo-European linguistic unity.
The earliest speakers of this language are thought to have originated in Ukraine and neighboring regions of the Caucasus and Southern Russia before spreading to the rest of Europe and eventually down into India.
The Indo-European language family has numerous branches:
- Italic Romance (French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Romanian, Catalan, etc.)
- Hellenic (Greek)
- Celtic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Gaelic)
- Germanic (German, Bavarian, Swiss, English, Saxon, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, etc.)
- Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Slovak, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc.)
- Indo-Iranian (Persian, Pashto, Kurdish, Kashmiri, Maldivian, etc.)
- Indo-Aryan (Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, etc.)
- Baltic (Lithuanian, Latvian)
- Anatolian (Hittite, Lycian, etc. — currently extinct)
- Tocharian (located in western China — completely extinct)
Afro-Asiatic, also known as Afrasian (formerly Hamito-Semitic, Semito-Hamitic, or Erythraean languages), is a language family spoken in northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and some islands and surrounding areas in Western Asia. Today, 250 million people speak approximately 250 Afro-Asian languages.
Proto-Afro-Asiatic is believed to be the ancestral dialect from which all modern and extinct Afro-Asian languages are derived. This protolanguage has a long history, and experts place it around 15,000–10,000 BCE in the Mesolithic Period.
The Afro-Asiatic language family has six branches:
- Amazigh/Berber (Tashelhit, Kabyle, Tamazight, Tamahaq, etc.)
- Chadic (Hausa, Ngas, Kamwe, Mwaghavul, Bura-Pabir, etc.)
- Cushitic (Somali, Oromo, Beja, Agaw, Afar, etc.)
- Omotic (Hammer-Banna, Mao, Dokka, Basketo, Bambassi, Maji, Galila, etc.)
- Semitic (Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Maltese, etc.)
In terms of geographical distribution through most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of speakers, and the number of languages, the Niger-Congo language family is one of the largest globally and the largest in Africa. The Niger-Congo language family includes almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most commonly spoken languages. About 600 million people (85 percent of the continent’s population) speak the language of this language family.
The Niger-Congo language family divided into numerous branches:
- Benue-Congo (Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, Shona, Zulu, Luba-Kasai, Tswana, etc.)
- Atlantic (Fula, Wolof, Serer-Sine, Themne, etc.)
- Mande (Pular, Bambara, Mende, Mandinka, Tura-Dan-Mano, etc.)
- Gur (Mòoré, Senari, Dagbani, Baatonum, etc.)
- Kwa (Akan, Éwé, etc.)
- Ijoid (Izon, etc.)
- Kru (Bété, Dida, etc.)
- Adamawa-Ubangi (Zande, Gbaya, etc.)
- Creoles (Kituba, Sango, etc.)
From Madagascar to Easter Island, from Taiwan and Hawai’i to New Zealand, the Austronesian language family extends halfway worldwide. Except for indigenous Papuan and Australian languages, the family encompasses the majority of languages spoken on Pacific islands. Austronesian is one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse language families, with 1268 languages.
Malayo-Polynesian and Formosan are the two branches of the Austronesian language family. By far the larger of the two branches is the Malayo-Polynesian: the Western sub-branch and the Central-Eastern sub-branch.
Below is a list of Austronesian branches and languages:
- Formosan (Amis, Saisiyat, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Kavalan, Ruqai, etc.)
- Western sub-branch (Indonesian, Sundanese, Javanese, Malay, Tagalog, Madurese, Ilocano, Cebuano, Malagasy, Hiligaynon, Minangkabau, etc.)
- Central-Eastern/Oceanic sub-branch (Samoan, Fijian, Tahitian, Tongan, Chamorro, Maori, Kiribati, Marshallese, Rarotongan, Rapa Nui, Hawai’ian, etc.)
One of the world’s largest language families is Sino-Tibetan. In terms of speakers, it is second only to the Indo-European language family. There are 403 strongly differentiated languages in the family, with a large geographical range (South Asia, East Asia, North Asia, South-East Asia), great linguistic difficulty, and a long history.
The ancestral Proto-Sino-Tibetan language is assumed to have originated somewhere on the Himalayan plateau, which is home to the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, and Irrawaddy rivers in the East and Southeast Asia. Around 4,000 BC, this ancestral language split into Proto-Chinese and Proto-Tibeto-Burman.
The Sino-Tibetan language family divides into several branches:
- Chinese (Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Min Nan, Jinyu, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Min Bei, Ming Dong, Pu Xian)
- Tibeto-Burman (Burmese, Tibetan, Meitei, Hani, Jingpo, Pangkhua, Phula, Megam. Kurtokha, etc.)
- Himalayish (Lepcha, Magar, Newari, Bodish, Kanauri, etc.)
- Jingpho-Konyak-Bodo (Jingpho, Luish, Konyak, Bodo, Garo, Pwo, Mru, etc.)
The Trans-New Guinea family of languages is a diverse group of Papuan languages spoken in New Guinea and surrounding islands, probably the world’s third-largest by the number of languages. Trans-New Guinea is considered to be descended from Proto-Trans New Guinea. Around 3 million people speak the languages of this language family.
There are approximately 400 languages spoken in Trans-New Guinea. It encompasses the central cordillera, which ranges northwest to southeast through New Guinea, as well as parts of the southern and northern lowlands. It can also be present on the islands of Timor, Alor, and Pantar.
The Trans-New Guinea language family has myriad branches:
- Angan (Angaataha, Akoye, Kawacha, Yagwoia, etc.)
- Asmat-Kamoro (Asmat Casuarina Coast, Citak, Kamoro, Sempan, Kamberau, etc.)
- Bosavi (Bedamuni, Kaluli, Kasua, Onobasulu, Turumsa, etc.)
- Chimbu-Wahgi (Sinasina, Chuave, Imbongu, Narak, Wahgi, etc.)
- Engan (Kewapi, Samberigi, Huli, Ipili, etc.)
- Finisterre-Huon (Numanggang, Uri, Nekgini, Tayatuk, Gwahatike, etc.)
- South Bird’s Head (Yahadian, Arandai, Puragi, etc.)
- Madang (Bagupi, Panim, Gavak, Magiyi, etc.)
- West (Dani, Wano, Bunak, Makalero, Karas, Wolani, etc.)
- And many more.
Interested to Learn More About Other Languages?
After reading about those largest language families in the world, you may start wondering about the similarities between the languages within some language families.