Language family

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The term language family describes a classification of languages based on their common origin. That is, a language family is a genetic unit and is derived from a common ancestor language from (also Proto language , source language , common language , called base language). The first such genetic unit recognized in the history of Western linguistics is the group of Romance languages , all of which are derived from Latin . However, Latin is again a member of a larger family, the Indo-European languages . In the case of these large language families in the true sense of the word, an original language is usually not documented because of the great temporal depth of development. However, properties of the original language can be reconstructed to a certain extent by systematically comparing the individual languages . This has largely succeeded, for example, in the Indo-European languages.

Historical- comparative linguistics deals with the genetic relationships between languages . If languages ​​are not classified according to relationship but according to similarities in the structure of language as such, then this is the area of ​​the language typology . Language families are therefore to be distinguished from “language types”.

Language families of the world

Definition of genetic units and language families

The terms genetic unit and language family are used synonymously by some researchers. Others understand language families as “maximal genetic units”. The Indo - European already mentioned in the introduction is a language family and a genetic unit of languages ​​that can be traced back to a common predecessor language, the Proto - Indo - European . The Romance languages form a genetic unit within Indo-European because they all derive from Latin . Strictly speaking, the Romance languages ​​do not form a language family , as they belong to a more comprehensive unit, the Indo-European language family. Nevertheless, the family of Romance languages is commonly spoken of.

Some researchers consider a genetic unit or language family to be established or "proven" only if regular sound correspondences can be demonstrated between its members (e.g. the well-known sound shifts from Indo-European to Germanic languages ). Other researchers (e.g. Joseph Greenberg ) construct language families primarily through extensive lexical and morphological comparisons, for which as many languages ​​as possible from a region or even a continent are used (see lexical mass comparison ).

There have been and still are attempts to further group the individual established language families into larger units, the so-called macro families (e.g. Nostratic , Eurasian , Dene-Caucasian ). In no case have these attempts been so convincing that they would have been recognized by a majority of researchers.

Internal structure

In the scientific investigation of genetic language units there are two fundamentally different tasks that are sometimes not clearly separated:

  • Exercise 1: Which languages ​​belong to language family XY?
  • Exercise 2: What are the genetic relationships between the languages ​​of family XY, i. H. what is the genetic family tree of the family?

In many cases, the first task can be solved with relative certainty, while the second is hardly ever finally answered, even with known families. Today it is relatively clear which languages ​​belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family , but the internal structure of this large genetic unit is still controversial. Even the best-studied language family - Indo-European - still raises questions in this regard. The mathematical-statistical methods (e.g. glottochronology ) sometimes used to clarify this question are controversial among many researchers.

Typological and geographical classification

The genetic classification (i.e. classification of languages ​​according to their origin) must be clearly distinguished from the typological classification according to structural characteristics (e.g. flexion , agglutination , ergativity , vowel harmony , tonal language, etc.). This can, but does not have to, indicate a common proto-language. A geographical classification of languages ​​can lead to the identification of language groups in which the similarities of the languages ​​involved are conditioned by long-term cultural contact between their speakers, regardless of the genetic origin of their languages. Even outside of such narrower linguistic groups , which consist of generally similar languages, there is the spread of features to several unrelated languages, which are referred to as "area" effects.

See also


Current literature
  • Raymond G. Gordon (Ed.): Ethnologue. Languages ​​of the World. 15th edition. SIL International, Dallas TX 2005, ISBN 1-55671-159-X .
  • Merritt Ruhlen : A Guide to the World's Languages. Volume 1: Classification. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA 1987, ISBN 0-8047-1250-6 (Reprinted ibid. 2000, ISBN 0-8047-1894-6 ).
  • Charles F. Voegelin, Florence M. Voegelin: Classification and Index of the World's Languages. Elsevier, New York NY et al. 1977, ISBN 0-444-00155-7 .
Historical literature

Web links

Wiktionary: Language family  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
  • Gerhard Jäger : How bioinformatics helps to reconstruct the history of language. T übingen 24 November 2011 ( [1] on