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Human Language Families: Summary & Examples

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Languages, like people, can be traced to family style lineage through similarities and differences evolved over time. This lesson reviews the major language families and gives examples of each.

Language Families

Fingerprints and languages are similar in that they help to identify you and your heritage. Even though languages around the world differ from each other, they can be linked through similarities and differences in language families.

Languages are like fingerprints that identify our global family.
fingerprint image

Language family categorizations include both living languages, those still being spoken, and extinct languages, those no longer in use.

Language Family vs Language Group

Imagine early man speaking the same language. Now, imagine some of these people leave. Obviously, they will continue to speak the same language, but over time, that language will change/evolve. Many of the sounds will be the same (it is what they know) and the grammatical rules will likely remain constant, but the way the sounds are used and how things are defined may change.

Eventually, over many generations, the languages spoken in the two groups may be almost unrecognizable to each other. This is how language families and groups work.

The language family would encompass all the languages stemming from the original group of people. The language groups would be those altered languages that are closest in similarity to each other (the least altered from the parent language).

In total, there are 141 different language families, but only six of these represent major language families (each incorporating at least 5% of the world's languages). These are:

  • Afro-Asiatic
  • Austronesian
  • Indo-European
  • Niger-Congo
  • Sino-Tibetan
  • Trans-New Guinea

Major Families and Their Groups

It is logical that the largest language families would also be geographically connected due to human exploration and movement.

Afro-Asiatic

There are over 200 million speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages. Languages in this family can be found mostly in northern Africa and some countries in the Middle East. Language groups within this family include Egyptian, Hebrew and Aramaic. Additionally, this family includes the extinct language of Ancient Egyptian.

Austronesian

Encompassing the south Asian and Pacific islands, the Austronesian language family includes over 1,000 different languages. Examples of language groups in this family are the Oceanic language groups such as those spoken in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji, and the Formosan language groups such as those spoken in Taiwan.

Niger-Congo

With over 1,500 living languages, the Niger-Congo language family is the largest family on the African continent. It isn't hard to guess that its geographic focus is in the Niger and Congo River regions of Africa. There are over 200 million speakers of languages associated with this family. The most notable language groups in this family are the Bantu languages of Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia. Examples of these languages are Swahili (the most widely spoken), Shona and Zulu.

Sino-Tibetan

Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by over 1.5 billion people in the world. Geographically concentrated in the South China Sea area, Mandarin Chinese speakers make up over 1 billion of those speaking languages related to this family. Burman and Tibetan are other languages in this family.

Indo-European

Europe is the setting for the majority of the Indo-European language family. Exploring the Indo-European language family more deeply can help us understand the difference between language families and groups.

Two of its language groups are Italic and Germanic. Italic languages, also called the romantic languages, are descended from Latin (an extinct language), like Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Often, understanding one language in a group helps to understand the others, like knowing Spanish helps to decipher Italian. The sounds and language rules are the same. In fact, many of the words are the same in each of these.

However, knowing one language in a family does not necessary help with other distantly related languages in the same family. For example, English is in the Germanic language group and is dissimilar enough from Portuguese that knowing one does not help with learning the other.

Trans-New Guinea

The countries of East Timor, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea account for almost 500 living languages that form the Trans-New Guinea language family.

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