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Language families

15 Sep The Different Language Families of the World

Language is one of the most fascinating aspects of human culture and communication. It allows us to express our thoughts, feelings, and ideas in various ways. But how many languages are there in the world? And how are the different languages related to each other?

In this blog post, we will explore the concept of language families, which are groups of languages that share a common ancestor and some linguistic features. We will also provide a brief description of each major language family and the languages that belong to them.

What are language families?

A language family is a collection of languages that have descended from a common ancestral language, known as proto-language. A proto-language is a hypothetical reconstruction of the original form of a language, based on historical and comparative evidence. For example, most languages spoken in Europe and India today are derived from Proto-Indo-European, which was spoken around 6,000 years ago.

Languages that belong to the same family are called daughter languages, and they may have different degrees of similarity depending on how long ago they deviated from their common ancestor. For example, Spanish and Portuguese are very closely related, while English and Persian are more distantly related, but they all belong to the Indo-European family.

Linguists use various methods to classify languages into families, such as comparing vocabulary, grammar, sound patterns, and writing systems. However, not all languages can be easily classified into families, because some may have been influenced by multiple sources or have very few speakers or documentation. These languages are called isolates or unclassified languages.

How many language families are there?

According to Ethnologue, a comprehensive reference of living languages, there are 142 language families in the world today, comprising 7,168 living languages. However, this number may vary depending on the criteria and sources used by different linguists. Some language families may be further divided into subfamilies or branches, while some may be grouped together into larger units or stocks.

The following tables shows the 10 largest language families by number of languages and speakers, based on Ethnologue data.

Table 1. Top 10 language families according to the number of languages. 

Rank Language Family Number of Languages
1 Niger-Congo 1,554
2 Austronesian 1,256
3 Trans-New Guinea 481
4 Sino-Tibetan 458
5 Indo-European 455
6 Australian 384
7 Afro-Asiatic 382
8 Nilo-Saharan 210
9 Otomanguean 179
10 Austroasiatic 167

The Niger-Congo language family is considered the largest language family in terms of its number of distinct languages, followed by the Austronesian language family.

Table 2. Top 10 language families according to the number of speakers. 

Rank Language Family Number of Speakers
1 Indo-European 3.2 billion
2 Sino-Tibetan 1.3 billion
3 Niger-Congo 519 million
4 Afro-Asiatic 499 million
5 Austronesian 386 million
6 Austroasiatic 116 million
7 Nilo-Saharan 53 million
8 Trans-New Guinea 3.5 million
9 Otomanguean 1.9 million
10 Australian 378,000

In terms of the number of speakers, the Indo-European language family ranks first at over 3 billion speakers, where languages like English, Hindi, Spanish, French, and Portuguese have descended from, followed by the Sino-Tibetan language family with over 1 billion speakers.

The Top 10 Largest Language Families

1. Niger-Congo

The Niger-Congo language family is the largest language family in Africa and is one of the largest in the world. It includes about 1,554 languages with at least 600 million speakers across sub-Saharan Africa, spanning from Senegal in the West to Kenya in the East, and down to South Africa in the South.

The origin of the Niger-Congo language family is not certain, but some scholars suggest that it may have emerged from the area around where the Niger and Benue rivers meet in West Africa. From there, the languages may have spread to other regions through migration, trade, conquest, and cultural diffusion.

What are the Sub-families Under the Niger-Congo language family?

With the vast number of languages under the Niger-Congo language family, this family has a few primary branches where other languages are classified under. However, these classifications are still a topic of debate among linguists.

  1. Mande
    • This is found mainly in West Africa.
    • Notable languages under this branch: Bambara, Mandinka, and Maninka
  1. Ijoid
    • This branch is spoken in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria
    • Notable language under this branch: Ijo (or Izon)
  1. Dogon
    • This is spoken primarily in Mali.
  1. Kru
    • This language may be found in the southeastern corner of Liberia and the west of Côte d’Ivoire.
    • Notable languages under this branch: Bété and Dida
  1. Kordofanian
    • This branch is sometimes considered outside the Niger-Congo language family, and is spoken in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.
    • Language under this branch: Heiban
  1. Adamawa-Ubangi
    • This can be found in Central Africa.
    • Notable language: Sango (the lingua franca of the Central African Republic)
  1. Kolami-Parji
    • This branch is spoken in parts of Central India
  1. Atlantic-Congo
    • This branch is further subdivided into other branches such as Atlantic and Volta-Congo.
    • Notable languages under this branch: Bantu languages such as Swahili, Zulu, and Luhya, Igo, Yoruba and Wolof

Today, some of the Niger-Congo languages are facing various challenges brought about by urbanization, globalization and policies related to education, to name a few. According to UNESCO, there are about 300 Niger-Congo languages that are considered endangered or vulnerable.

2. Austronesian

The Austronesian language family is considered the one of the world’s largest and most widespread language families. It consists of over 1,200 languages and spoken by more than 380 million people, spread across Southeast Asia and Taiwan in the West, to the Philippines, down to Indonesia and Madagascar, and out into the Pacific to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island.

This language family is believed to have originated in Taiwan, and from there, the Austronesian-speaking people have spread through migration across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

What are the Sub-families Under the Austronesian language family?

  1. Formosan
    • This branch of the Austronesian language family is indigenous to Taiwan and the languages under this branch are some of the most ancient in the Austronesian family.
    • Notable languages: Atayalic, Paiwanic, Tsouic
  1. Malayo-Polynesian
    • This is the largest branch in the Austronesian language family where the majority of the Austronesian languages are grouped under and this branch is further subdivided into several sub-branches. This language group are spoken in Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji, and other islands in the Pacific.
    • Notable languages: Tagalog, Malay, Malagasy, Sudanese, Javanese, Tahitian, Maori, Hawaiian

3. Trans-New Guinea

The Trans-New Guinea language family is considered one of the largest language families in the world in terms of the number of distinct languages. It includes an estimated 481 languages and spoken by at least 3 million people. These languages are found in the Papua New Guinea, some parts of Indonesia Papua and other parts of Eastern Indonesia, and the Eastern Solomon Islands.

Evidence suggest that the Trans-New Guinea language was spoken around 6000 years ago and the spread of these languages are localized within New Guinea.

What are the Sub-families Under the Trans-New Guinea language family?

Because of its localized spread within New Guinea, the Trans-New Guinea language family is not well-known, and its internal classification is controversial. Today, the classification of these languages into branches is a topic of on-going research and the exact division is still being refined. However, some proposed major sub-families under the Trans-New Guinea language family are:

  1. Berau Gulf
    • This branch consists of small group of languages spoken in the Bomberai Peninsula of West Papua, Indonesia.
    • Notable languages include Baham, Karas, and Moraid.
  1. Sumeri
    • This branch consists of a single language spoken by about 300 people in the Merauke Regency of Papua, Indonesia.
  1. Irian Highlands
    • A large and diverse group of languages spoken in the central highlands of Papua and West Papua, Indonesia.
    • Notable languages include Dani, Ekari, Mek, and Yali.
  1. Asmat–Mombum
    • A group of languages spoken in the south coast of Papua, Indonesia, mostly by the Asmat people.
    • Notable languages include Asmat, Citak, Mombum, and Sempan.
  1. Kayagar–Kolopom
    • A group of languages spoken in the islands off the north coast of Papua, Indonesia.
    • Notable languages include Kayagar, Ma’ya, Moi, and Sause.
  1. Central West New Guinea
    • A group of languages spoken in the central and western parts of West Papua, Indonesia.
    • Notable languages include Arandai, Dusner, Iha, and Kuri.
  1. Oksapmin
    • A single language spoken by about 8000 people in the Sandaun Province of Papua New Guinea.
  1. Bosavi
    • A group of languages spoken in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
    • Notable languages include Aimele, Fasu, Kaluli, and Onobasulu.
  1. Duna–Pogaya
    • A group of languages spoken in the Southern Highlands Province and Hela Province of Papua New Guinea.
    • Notable languages include Duna, Huli, Pogaya, and Samberigi.
  1. Anim
    • A single language spoken by about 4000 people in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea.
  1. Morobe – Eastern Highlands
    • A large and diverse group of languages spoken in the Morobe Province and Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
    • Notable languages include Angal Heneng, Gahuku, Kâte, and Yagaria.
  1. Southeast Papuan
    • A group of languages spoken in the Milne Bay Province and Central Province of Papua New Guinea.
    • Notable languages include Dobu, Mailu, Motu, and Suau.

These sub-families are not definitive or comprehensive, and more research is needed to establish the genetic relationships among the Trans-New Guinea languages.

4. Sino-Tibetan

The Sino-Tibetan language family is one of the largest in the world with 458 languages spoken by over 1.3 billion people. These languages are mainly spoken in Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia and its spread covers China, Taiwan, Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the origin of the family is not certain, some scholars suggest that it may have originated in the Yellow River basin in northern China or in the Himalayan region.

What are the Sub-families Under the Sino-Tibetan language family?

The Sino-Tibetan language family is divided into two branches:

  1. Chinese
    • This branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family is spoken mainly in China.
    • Notable languages include the Chinese language varieties such as Classical Chinese, Mandarin, Hakka, and Wu, Yue, Cantonese.
  1. Tibeto-Bruman
    • This branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family encompasses languages from East, South, to Southeast Asia including some parts of China, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, Bhutan, and Pakistan.
    • Notable languages include Tibetan, Burmese, Garo, Mizo, Dzongkha.

The Sino-Tibetan languages are facing challenges of endangerment and extinction due to various factors such as migration, urbanization, and education to name a few. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger , there are 109 endangered Sino-Tibetan languages , of which 26 are critically endangered , 41 are severely endangered , 28 are definitely endangered , 13 are vulnerable , and one is extinct .

5. Indo-European

The Indo-European language family has over 450 languages and has over 3 billion speakers making it the most widely spoken language family. These languages are found primarily in Europe, the Indian subcontinent, some parts of Western Asia. Because of migration, globalization, and colonization, these languages have now spread worldwide.

The origins of the can be traced back to 4500-2500 BCE to the nomadic people, whose homeland are still the subject of debate among linguists, but some theories suggest that these people might have come form the Pontic-Caspian steppe to Anatolia.

What are the Sub-families Under the Indo-European language family?

  1. Albanian
    • This family is believed to have split off from other Indo-European languages in the early 2nd millennium BCE.
    • Notable languages include Albanian.
  1. Armenian
    • This branch has formed a unique fusion between the Indo-European and local languages of the Armenian Highlands.
    • Notable languages include Armenian.
  1. Balto-Slavic
    • This family comprises the Baltic and Slavic branches.
    • Notable languages include Baltic languages such as Lithuanian and Latvian, and Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Slovak, Slovenian, Macedonian.
  1. Celtic
    • This family of languages is historically spoken across Europe, but are now mostly restricted to the British Isles and Brittany in France.
    • Notable languages include Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx.
  1. Germanic
    • This family of languages originated in Scandinavia but has spread through parts of Europe during the Viking expansion and migration.
    • Notable languages include West Germanic languages such as English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, and North Germanic languages such as Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese.
  1. Greek
    • This family is considered an ancient branch with a rich historical and literary tradition.
    • Notable languages include Modern Greek
  1. Indo-Iranian
    • This family is the largest branch of the Indo-European language family that is further split into Indic and Iranian groups.
    • Notable languages include Indic or Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Bengli, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Urdu, and Iranian languages such as Persian or Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, Ossetian and Balochi.
  1. Italic
    • This family has originated from the Italian Peninsula, with Latin as the most influential language that gave rise to the Romance languages.
    • Notable languages include Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, and Galician.

While the influence of the Indo-European language family is undeniable, some other smaller languages in this family are now endangered. Examples of endangered Indo-European languages include Livonian (a Baltic language) and many Celtic languages like Cornish.

6. Australian

Unlike other language families, the indigenous Australian languages do not belong to one language family, and instead, these come from several families and isolates. These languages are connected with the origins of the Australian Aboriginal people.

Before Europeans came to Australia, indigenous Australian languages have already been spoken in the continent for thousands of years, with about 384 distinct languages and is spoken by approximately 370,000 people.

What are the Sub-families Under the Australian language family?

  1. Bunaban
    • This is a small family of languages from the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
    • Notable language include Bunuba.
  1. Daly
    • This is a group of languages in Daly River region of the Northern Territory.
    • Notable languages include Murrinh-patha, Ngan’gityemerri.
  1. Djamindjungan
    • This is a small language family in Northern Australia.
    • Notable languages include Djamindjung, Ngalkbun.
  1. Djeragan
    • This family of languages is formerly spoken in the vicinity of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.
    • Most of the language in this family are either extinct or endangered.
  1. Giimbiyu
    • This is a group of languages that are now considered extinct and was once spoken in Northern Australia.
    • Notable language include Umbuygamu.
  1. Gunwingguan
    • This family of languages is also known as Bininj Gun-Wok, from Northern Australia.
    • Notable languages include Kunwinjku, Manyallaluk Mayali.
  1. Laragiyan
    • This is a small family of languages spoken in the Northern Territory.
    • Notable language include Laragia.
  1. Limilngan-Wulna
    • This is a family of languages from the coastal region of the Northern Territory.
    • Notable languages include Limilngan, and Wulna.
  1. Nyulnyulan
    • This is a small family of languages from the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
    • Notable languages include Bardi, and Nyigina.
  1. Pama-Nyungan
    • This language family is considered that largest of the Australian language families covering about 90% of the Australian continent.
    • Notable languages include Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, Dyirbal.
  1. Tangic
    • This is a family of languages from Tasmania, which are now considered extinct.
  1. Tiwian
    • This language family is spoken on the Tiwi Islands off the coast of the Northern Territory.
    • Notable languages include Tiwi.
  1. Umbugarla-Ngumbur
    • This family of languages are from Northern Australia.
    • Notable languages include Umbugarla which is now extinct, and Ngumbur which has very few speakers.
  1. West Barkly
    • This family of languages is spoken in the Barkly Tableland of the Northern Territory.
    • Notable languges include Jingulu, and Bilinarra.
  1. Worrorran
    • This family of languages are from the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
    • Notable languages include Worrorra, and Wunambal.
  1. Yanyi
    • This language family is also known as Yangic, from Queensland.
    • Notable languages include Yangkam.
  1. Yiwaidjan
    • This family of languages are from the Cape York Peninsula region of Queensland.
    • Notable languages include Yidiny, and Warrgamay.

Most Australian indigenous languages are endangered or extinct, with many being spoken by only a handful of elders. This dire situation is due to historical factors, including colonization, forced removals, and policies that prohibited the speaking of indigenous languages.

7. Afro-Asiatic

The Afro-Asiatic language family has about 382 languages and is spoken by approximately 490 million people. These languages are spoken largely in Africa, from Egypt in the northeast to Mali and Niger in the west, and down to Tanzania in the southeast, with some of the languages also spoken in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and Iraq.

While the origin of this language family is still largely debated by linguists, the Afro-Asiatic language family is considered one of the oldest language families, with its roots dating back to 10,000 years.

What are the Sub-families Under the Afro-Asiatic language family?

  1. Berber
    • This branch is spread across North Africa including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and parts of Mali and Niger.
    • Notable languages include Tamasheq, Tarifit, Kabyle, and Tashelhit.
  1. Chadic
    • This branch of languages can be found primarily in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.
    • Notable language include Hausa.
  1. Cushitic
    • This branch of the Afro-Asiatic is primarily found in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Kenya.
    • Notable languages include Somali, Oromo, Afar, and Beja.
  1. Egyptian
    • This branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family is historically centered in Egypt.
    • Notable language include Ancient Egyptian, from which Coptic, the liturgical language of the Egyptian Christian Church is descended.
  1. Omotic
    • This branch of languages is primarily found in the southern parts of Ethiopia.
    • Notable languages include Gamo, Maale, and Wolaytta.
  1. Semitic
    • This branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family is found primarily in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and some parts of the Middle East.
    • Notable languages include Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Aramaic.

With the spread of Islam, Arabic, a Semitic language, has expanded beyond its original territory, and together with Hebrew, these languages had a significant impact in religion, culture, and science. While languages like these two languages and Amharic have millions of speakers, many Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly within the Omotic and some Berber varieties are at risk of endangerment and decline due to cultural changes, urbanization and the dominance of other languages in the media and in education.

8. Nilo-Saharan

The Nilo-Saharan language family consists of approximately 210 languages and has at least 50 million speakers. These languages are primarily found in Central and East Africa, spanning from Chad in the West to Tanzania in the East, and from Sudan and South Sudan in the North to Uganda and Kenya in the South.

What are the Sub-families Under the Nilo-Saharan language family?

  1. Kuliak
    • This branch is found primarily in northeastern Uganda.
    • Notable languages include Ik, Soo, and Nyang’i.
  1. Saharan
    • This branch is found across the Sahara in countries like Chad, Nigeria, and Libya.
    • Notable languages include Kanuri, Teda, and Daza.
  1. Satellite-Core
    • This is more of a structural classification and isn’t a traditional or universally accepted branch. However, the languages often grouped under this category are distributed throughout Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, and surrounding areas.
    • Notable languages include Mattokki and Kakwa.
  1. Songhai
    • This branch is predominantly spoken along the Niger River, specifically in Niger and Mali.
    • Notable languages include Zarma and Songhay proper.

Many Nilo-Saharan languages face challenges. While some languages like Nuer, Dinka, and Kanuri have substantial speaker communities, many others are spoken by smaller groups and face pressures from dominant languages in their regions. Urbanization, inter-group marriages, and shifts in cultural practices are leading younger generations to favor national or more widely spoken languages over their indigenous tongues. A number of these languages, especially those with very few speakers or those spoken by nomadic communities, are at risk of becoming extinct.

9. Otomanguean

The Otomanguean language family has about 179 languages and is spoken by approximately 1.9 million people. Predominantly found in Mexico, these languages are indigenous to Mexico and is spoken across a variety of regions, from Veracruz and Puebla in the East to Guerrero and Oaxaca in the South.

What are the Sub-families Under the Otomanguean language family?

The Otomanguean language family is subdivided into two branches:

  1. Eastern Otomanguean
    • This branch of the Otomanguean language family is subdivided into different language groups such as Zapotecan, Mixtecan, Popolocan, Amuzgoan, and Mixe-Zoquean.
    • Notable languages include the Zapotec and Chatino languages, Mixtec, Mazatec, Popoluca, and the Amuzgo language.
  1. Western Otomanguean
    • This branch of the Otomanguean language family includes languages such as Otomi, Mazahua, and Pame among others.

Today, many Oto-Manguean languages are at risk. While some, like certain dialects of Otomí or Zapotec, maintain a healthy number of speakers, many others are critically endangered. A number of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, and some, especially smaller languages or those spoken by older populations without transmission to younger generations, are at high risk of extinction. Currently, efforts are ongoing to document, teach, and revitalize many of these languages, but they face challenges from dominant languages like Spanish and from broader socio-economic factors.

10. Austroasiatic

The Austroasiatic language family consists of about 167 languages and is spoken by at least 100 million people. These languages are believed to be among the earliest languages in Southeast Asia, specifically in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and India.

What are the Sub-families Under the Austroasiatic language family?

The Austroasiatic language family has two branches:

  1. Munda
    • These languages are found in Eastern India.
    • Notable languages include Santali, and Mundari.
  1. Mon-Khmer
    • These languages are spread throughout Southeast Asia.
    • Notable languages include Khmer, Vietnamese, Khasi.

While Vietnamese and Khmer have millions of speakers, many Austroasiatic languages are currently at risk. A substantial number of them have only a few thousand speakers, and some even less. Languages like Mon, once more widespread, have seen a decrease in fluent speakers and face challenges from dominant languages in their regions.

Conclusion

The study of language families and the classification of languages is an ongoing and complex field of linguistics. Language families and classifications are not final and are provisional and subject to revision as new evidence and methods emerge. As we delve deeper into our linguistic roots, we discover the intricate connections and historical narratives that bind human communities together. Modern technology, like comparative computational linguistics and advances in genetic research, is expanding our understanding and often reshaping traditional beliefs about language evolution and migration. This dynamic field reminds us that languages, like the cultures they represent, are living entities that evolve, adapt, and intertwine over time. As researchers and enthusiasts, it’s our job to value, protect, and promote the rich variety of our language, knowing that every detail and subtlety gives us a unique look into the soul of humanity.

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