Family tree theory

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Illustration of the family tree of the Indo-European language

The family tree theory in linguistics was developed by August Schleicher in the mid-19th century. He assumed that languages ​​develop analogously to the evolution of biological species from original languages (proto- language ). According to this, the relationships and relationships between languages behave exactly like the relationships between species in biology, which can be represented in the form of phylogenetic family trees .

Family tree of the Indo-European languages ​​by Schleicher

Based on his evolutionary theoretical considerations, August Schleicher u. a. the pedigree model of the Indo-European language family .

Family tree models are hierarchical models in which daughter languages develop “genetically” from parent languages. The Romance languages ​​are daughter languages ​​of Latin , Latin is a daughter language of Italian, and Italian is a daughter language of Indo-European . Family tree models are used today to represent the relationships between languages ​​and to group them.

The comparative linguistics can discover relationships and reconstruct parents Languages in part. So the Indo-European original language was partly reconstructed. The family tree model, if thought through to the end, leads to a common original language for all languages. This is indicated by certain phenomena of recent genetic research. The existence of a common original language is, however, controversial, since each further developed older level of the language tree contains greater uncertainties.

Aftermath of the family tree theory

The Junggrammatiker that marked linguistics since the 1870s sustainable, rejected the tree model from as well as its corollary, the wave theory of Johannes Schmidt .

Johannes Schmidt argued that the individual Indo-European languages ​​cannot be easily divided into a family tree. He assumed mutual linguistic influences that occurred when language groups came into contact with one another. There are striking similarities between Greek and Italian and between Italian and Celtic . There are similar relationships between Italian and Celtic (on the one hand) and Germanic (on the other hand). Germanic, in turn, has special similarities with Slavic and Baltic . All of these relationships cannot be put into a family tree.

The linguistic geography is not working for decades more with the tree model because this theory does not take into account the constant mixing and self-influencing languages.

Despite the criticism of the family tree theory, some linguists still clung to this theory around the turn of the century (1900).

Family tree-like representations

One must, however, distinguish between family tree representations (in the sense of Schleicher's theory) and hierarchical tree-like structures that have nothing to do with Schleicher's theory. For example, the major German dialects are often divided into Low German and High German , the latter in turn into Middle German and Upper German, without the creators of this “tree” having Schleicher's family tree in mind. These tree structures are not about descent and language division, but about the presence or absence of certain dialect features, such as the presence of traces of the second sound shift .

See also


  • Harald Wiese: A journey through time to the origins of our language. How Indo-European Studies explains our words. 2nd Edition. Logos Verlag, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-8325-1601-7 .


  1. ^ Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza : Genes, Peoples and Languages. The biological foundations of our civilization. Hanser, Munich et al. 1999, ISBN 3-446-19479-7 .
  2. Wolfgang Putschke, The work of Junggrammatiker and their contribution to language Historical Research , pp 331-347 (= Article 23); in: Werner Besch , Oskar Reichmann, Stefan Sonderegger (Eds.), History of Language (= Handbooks for Linguistics and Communication Studies , Volume 2.1), Walter de Gruyter Verlag, Berlin and New York 1984, ISBN 3-11-007396-X
  3. ^ Adolf Bach , History of the German Language , 9th edition, Wiesbaden undated (approx. 1970)
  4. Reiner Hildebrandt, The Contribution of Linguistic Geography to Linguistic History Research, pp. 347–372 (= Article 24); in: Werner Besch, Oskar Reichmann, Stefan Sonderegger (Eds.), History of Language (= Handbooks for Linguistics and Communication Studies , Volume 2.1), Walter de Gruyter Verlag, Berlin and New York 1984, ISBN 3-11-007396-X .
  5. ^ Claus Jürgen Hutterer, The Germanic Languages , Wiesbaden 1987, ISBN 3-922383-52-1
  6. Wolfgang Putschke, Dialektologie , pp. 328–369; in: Heinz Ludwig Arnold and Volker Sinemus (eds.), Fundamentals of Literature and Linguistics, Volume 2: Linguistics. dtv, Munich 1974, ISBN 3-423-04227-3 .