16 June 2020

Language Links: Getting to Know Your Language Family Tree

language tree

When you hear people talk about languages that are similar (maybe the ‘Romance languages’, such as Spanish, French and Italian), it would be reasonable to wonder how they came to be so similar in the first place. One of the most helpful ways to understand how languages are related to each other is therefore to think of them as families, where closely linked ‘family members’ share more in common than distant relations.

Visually, this could take the shape of a ‘family tree’ – where languages are grouped based on common origins. When you look at a language family tree that includes many European languages, you can see why Spanish sits alongside the similar Portuguese, which both then fit neatly next to other similar languages such as French and Italian. They are all part of the same wider ‘Romance’ family!

In this article, we explore the links between languages around the world, with a special focus on the English language’s lineage.

The Many Language Families of the World

Over half the global population speaks just 23 of the 7,100 or so languages in the world today (a number that fluctuates all the time as languages evolve and decline). This means we have hundreds of languages that are endangered (with fewer than 1,000 speakers), meaning that it is realistic to expect many of these endangered languages to disappear in our lifetimes.

When looking at language families around the world, a similar pattern emerges: just 6 of the world’s 142 language families contain two-thirds of the world’s languages (these are the Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan and Trans-New Guinea families). These large families may dominate in terms of the number of global languages, but this does not always correlate to a large geographical region: for example, the Trans-New Guinea family only covers a small area geographically, but it includes 477 languages thanks to the region’s incredible linguistic diversity.

The most familiar family tree from a UK perspective will be the Indo-European family, which includes languages from across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. However, while this looks impressive on a map, it is only the 5th largest family in terms of the number of languages, with 444 languages at a recent count (compared to the 1,500+ languages in the Africa-based Niger-Congo family, which contains the most languages in world). Still, the Indo-European family does have the most global speakers, with 3.26 billion people around the world speaking one of its 444 languages.

The Indo-European Language Family

A few years ago, a beautiful illustration by Minna Sundberg took the linguistic world by storm. It shows the Indo-European language family (and how it relates to the smaller Uralic language family, which we will come to shortly), and it offers a fascinating visual insight into the close and more distant connections between languages.

For example, we have already mentioned that Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French are Romance languages, but the illustration also shows the close connections between some of the languages of Spain (with Spanish nestled alongside Catalan and Galician). It even highlights another major Romance language that is perhaps more often neglected in the Romance language conversation: Romanian, which branches off the Romance bough of the family tree far earlier than the other Romance languages.

From its ‘root’, the Indo-European family separates fairly swiftly into ‘Indo-Iranian’ and ‘European’ languages (the European arm containing Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages). However, it does highlight the connection at the base of the tree that European languages have with Indic languages, from Persian and Panjabi to Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. It may be a surprise to some that this geographically diverse family shows a common linguistic root, but despite the huge variation in the ways that these languages have evolved, they do all link back to one originating Indo-European proto-language (which would surely be unrecognisable today).

Germanic languages

So, where does English fit into all this? While you might comfortably deduce that English is on the ‘European’ arm of the tree, it might not seem as obvious which ‘branch’ you can expect to find English on – unless you already know that it is a Germanic language.

The Germanic languages branch off of the European arm and away from the Romance and Slavic languages (the latter of which include Russian, Polish and Bulgarian), before splitting again into North and West Germanic languages. The North Germanic branch includes languages such as Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, while the West Germanic branch includes sub-branches towards German, English and Dutch (which are therefore more closely related than English is to Spanish or Russian, for example). This is why German and Dutch may be some of the easier languages for English speakers to learn.

As an entertaining aside: in the TV series Mr. Robot, a married couple each speak a different language to each other – the husband, Tyrell, speaks Swedish, while the wife, Joanna, speaks Danish. While there may be a number of creative reasons for this choice, it is striking that these two closely related North Germanic languages could, to a degree, be mutually intelligible!

Uralic languages

It would be easy to assume that all European languages are networked into the Indo-European language family at some point, but there is a small cluster of northern European languages that fall far from the Indo-European tree. These are the languages of the Uralic family, which contain languages such as Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. This small cluster of languages contains only 38 languages, but these are all distinct from the languages of their geographically neighbouring countries, such as Russia, Latvia, Sweden and Romania.

However these languages came about, they have originated from a different root language – a fact that is illustrated perfectly in Minna Sundberg’s illustration. While more modern ‘loan words’ may well have influenced the development of these languages over time, these Uralic languages are distinctly different to the languages of many of their nearest neighbours.

The Magic of Learning a New Language

Learning a language is about more than the words itself – it is about the culture of its speakers, and the way that the language has diversified throughout its history. It is also about the family of languages that surround the language – these languages and cultures help to shape the way we understand that the language has evolved over time, and they also provide entry points into learning other languages that may then seem more accessible. For example, a transition from speaking Dutch to learning German might feel more comfortable than a switch from Spanish to German, and this is all down to the interconnectedness of certain corners of the Indo-European family tree.

If learning a second (or third!) language is on your to-do list or might benefit your business, contact us today. We can help you develop a training programme to suit your schedule, as well as provide insights into the culture and history surrounding the language.

Links Between Languages & The Language Family Tree
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Links Between Languages & The Language Family Tree
The language family tree helps explain why some languages are similar to others and how they came to be.
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SIMON & SIMON International
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