Language Family Definition and Examples

Red Bike Next to Welcome Signs in different languages
labrlo / Getty Images

A language family is a set of languages deriving from a common ancestor or "parent."

Languages with a significant number of common features in phonology, morphology, and syntax are said to belong to the same language family. Subdivisions of a language family are called "branches."

English, along with most of the other major languages of Europe, belongs to the Indo-European language family.

The Number of Language Families Worldwide

Keith Brown and Sarah Ogilvie: It is estimated that there are more than 250 established language families in the world, and over 6,800 distinct languages, many of which are threatened or endangered.

The Size of a Language Family

Zdeněk Salzmann: The number of languages that make up a language family varies greatly. The largest African family, Niger-Congo, is estimated to consist of about 1,000 languages and several times as many dialects. Yet there are many languages that do not appear to be related to any other. These single-member language families are referred to as language isolates. The Americas have been more linguistically diversified than other continents; the number of Native American language families in North America has been judged to be more than 70, including more than 30 isolates.

Catalog of Language Families

C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes: The website catalogs the world's 6,909 known living languages. It lists the major language families and their members and tells where they are spoken. The number of speakers of these languages varies from the hundreds of millions whose native tongue is English or Standard Chinese to the relatively small populations who speak some of the rapidly disappearing American Indian languages.

Levels of Classification

René Dirven and Marjolyn Verspoor: In addition to the notion of language family, language classification now uses a more complex taxonomy. At the top we have the category of a phylum, i.e. a language group which is unrelated to any other group. The next lower level of classification is that of a (language) stock, a group of languages belonging to different language families which are distantly related to each other. Language family remains a central notion, emphasizing the internal links between the members of such a family.

The Indo-European Language Family

James Clackson: Indo-European (IE) is the best-studied language family in the world. For much of the past 200 years more scholars have worked on the comparative philology of IE than on all the other areas of linguistics put together. We know more about the history and relationships of the IE languages than about any other group of languages. For some branches of IE--Greek, Sanskrit, and Indic, Latin and Romance, Germanic, Celtic--we are fortunate to have records extending over two or more millennia, and excellent scholarly resources such as grammars, dictionaries and text editions that surpass those available for nearly all non-IE languages. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and the historical developments of the IE languages have consequently provided the framework for much research on other language families and on historical linguistics in general.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Language Family Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Language Family Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Language Family Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).