How Many Language Families Are There?
Despite many debates, linguists have yet to come up with a definitive number of language families. The Ethnologue database lists over 120 distinct families, some of which contain only a single language, and others that do not appear to be related to any other.
Like genetic family trees, language families can be complex. All of the languages in the Romance language family, for example, have evolved from Latin, which has its own root in Proto-Indo-European.
Afroasiatic is the largest language family in Africa and contains the Semitic languages — Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic — as well as Amharic, the Ethiopian lingua franca. It also includes the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan languages. In the past, scholars used a variety of names for this family. One that was popular is Hamito-Semitic, which was a result of the discovery of shared features in Afro-Asiatic languages with Hebrew, Egyptian, and Amharic.
These common features include personal pronouns, case markers, agglutinative SOV verb structures, and plural formatives. However, linguists have no generally accepted reconstruction of Proto-Afroasiatic and it’s difficult to discern a relationship between some members of this group, such as Hausa and Omotic.
Another problem is that a language’s geography can cause it to split in several ways. Languages separated by large mountains, deserts, or oceans can be hard to communicate with each other, which means they tend to develop different morphological and phonetic characteristics.
The fifth largest language family, Austronesian covers a huge area of the world. It contains languages spoken in Madagascar, the islands of the Pacific Ocean and Maritime Southeast Asia. The most well-known languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch. They are characterized by the retention of Philippine-type voice alternations and by word order that is usually verb-initial.
Comparative studies have been dominated by a search for cognate sets (reflexes of proto-forms) to establish affiliations. These comparisons have yielded a large lexicon and reconstructed proto-MP word categories including pronominal paradigms, verbal paradigms and clausal syntax.
The linguistic structure of Austronesian is complex, but many basic features can be identified. For example, most Austronesian languages have a relatively simple sound inventory of 4-5 vowels and 16-20 consonants. These languages also have an extensive lexicon and many shared semantic features such as the names of numbers and personal pronouns. They also have a very complex system of grammatical inflections.
Aside from a few obvious similarities, the majority of languages in this family appear to have no real genetic relationship. Instead, they are related through a series of early changes in sound and grammatical structure. Those changes are presumed to be innovations that took place in Proto-Indo-European.
The earliest Indo-European language that has been recorded was Hittite, which was spoken by the ancient civilisation that ruled central Anatolia and fought against the Ancient Egyptians. Another example is Thracian, which was used in Greece and southern Italy. Thracian was later replaced by the Thracian dialect that is now Albanian.
Linguists have successfully reconstructed Proto-Indo-European and are therefore able to identify the basic vocabulary of this prehistoric language. It includes words for day, night and seasons; celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars); precipitation (rain, snow), animals (sheep, horse, pig, dog, bear); and kinship terms (father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter). In addition to this, they also have names for tools like axes, yokes, and bows.
Unlike European languages, which can often be traced back to a single root language, the native languages of North and South America aren’t quite so tidy. This has made them difficult to classify and, as a result, many have been lost. The nonprofit Native Languages of the Americas estimates that there are about 30 different language families in the region.
In fact, it’s not unusual for languages within a family to have no clear relationship, even though they share some common grammatical features. This is a result of geographic isolation, the lack of riding animals, and linguistic evolution.
Because of the difficulty in proving relationships, scholars have grouped the languages into different families based on a variety of criteria. The most ambitious attempt, published in 1929 by Edward Sapir in Encyclop