Linguistic or language family
A linguistic family is a set of languages that derive from a common ancestor or “father.” Languages that share a significant number of features in phonology, morphology and syntax belong to the same linguistic family. The subdivisions of a linguistic family are called “branches.”
English, along with most of the main languages of Europe, belongs to the Indo-European family.
The number of language families in the world
“It is estimated that there are more than 250 linguistic families established in the world and more than 6800 different languages, many of which are threatened or in danger of disappearing” (Keith Brown and Sarah Ogilvie, Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World , Elsevier Science, 2008).
The size of a linguistic family
“The number of languages that make up a linguistic family varies greatly. The largest African family, the Niger-Congolese, is made up of approximately 1000 languages and a similar number of dialects. Even so, there are many languages that do not seem to be related to any other. These families made up of only one language are known as isolated languages. The American continent is one of the most linguistically diverse; the number of Native American linguistic families amounts to more than 70, including more than 30 of these languages ”(Zdeněk Salzmann, Language, Culture, and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology , Westview Press, 2007).
Language Family Catalog
“The website has the cataloging of the 6909 known living languages, as well as a list of the main linguistic families, their members and the places where they are spoken. The number of speakers of these languages varies between the hundreds of millions whose mother tongue is English or Standard Chinese and the relatively small populations that speak some of the rapidly disappearing Native American languages ”(CM Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language , 3rd ed., Wadsworth, 2012).
“In addition to the notion of linguistic family, the classification of languages now employs a more complex taxonomy. First, we have the phylum category , which refers to a group of languages that are not related to any other linguistic set. In a second level is the stock , a group of languages that belong to different linguistic families but are related in some way to each other. Linguistic families, however, continue to be the central notion, emphasizing the internal connections that exist between members of each family ”(René Dirven and Marjolyn Verspoor, Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics , John Benjamins, 2004).
Glotochronological estimates have shown that most well-established linguistic families have diversified in the last 50 centuries. It is understood that a family is well established when there is consensus that these languages form a group, the original protolanguage has been reasonably reconstructed. While worse established families, or even controversial, and macro families seem to have bigger diversification times. That reflects two facts:
- The families of languages with less temporal depth show a greater kinship which makes it easier to apply the Comparative Method and, therefore, reconstruct the protolanguage.
- The poorly established families could represent both families of great temporal depth in which the passage of time would have made kinship less recognizable, as groups of languages that are not really encumbered, but show phenomena of linguistic contact and typical diffusion of linguistic area .
The geographical distribution of families is the reflection of the historical evolution of their speakers. Thus most of the large families of languages seem to have expanded thanks to agricultural or technological “revolutions” of some other kind. The Neolithic Revolution caused the expansion of Afro-Asian languages in Africa and the Middle East, Sino-Tibetan languages in the Far East and, according to Renfrew’s theory, the expansion of Indo-European languages in Western Eurasia .
The improvement of navigation techniques allowed the speakers of Austronesian Languages to expand from the Island of Taiwan throughout Oceania, even reaching Madagascar in front of the African continent. The European imperialism brought to America Indo – European languages and many areas of Africa, Oceania and to a lesser extent Asia. Apparently the use of iron and other technologies would have allowed the Niger-Congo Languages to prevail in Africa by displacing the speakers of other now small families such as the Nile-Saharan Languages or the Joisanan Languages .
At present, the two major linguistic families, by number of speakers, Indo-European languages and Sino-Tibetan languages together, add up to a number of speakers equivalent to 75% of humanity. While among the indigenous languages of America , for example, many language families barely exceed the few thousand speakers.