A Look At Language Families

March 23, 2011 | | 1 Comment

There are approximately 6,912 living languages in the world today. Most languages belong to larger language groups or families, which is a group of similar or related languages that developed from a common ancestor, referred to as protolanguage (“proto” means “early” in Greek).

Let’s take a look at a few major language groups, including an Indigenous First Nations language family in North America, the Algonquian branch:


The Algic language family is one of the largest indigenous language families of North America. It includes 44 languages, the majority of which (42 languages) belong to the Algonquian branch.

The ancestral language from which all of the Algonquian languages developed was spoken at least 3,000 years ago, but scholars have not yet agreed on the location origin.

The branch itself was named after the Algonquin language. The branch includes 27 languages spoken in a region that stretches through the central part of the North American continent from the Canadian subarctic in the north to the eastern seaboard, and as far south as North Carolina.

Algonquian languages are usually subdivided into three groups. Plains Algonquian (Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Gros Ventre), the Central Algonquian (Cree, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Memonimee, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Carolina Alqonquian), and the Eastern Algonquian branch (Micmac, Western Abenaki, Malecite-Passamoquoddy, Munsee).

Despite popular belief, many of these languages are still fluently spoken by tribal members throughout North America. However, they are still classified as endangered languages, especially in light of loss of elders and an anglicized youth. The largest group is Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi, composed of 104,000 speakers, while the largest single language is Ojibwa, about 35,000 speakers.

Many tribes in the United States and Canada promote the preservation and continuity of their language through scholarly efforts of oral history collection and re-inscription, classes in tribal cultural centers and museums, and even academic language classes in Native American/American Indian studies programs in Universities throughout the country. Little known fact: many Indigenous peoples in North America “invent” new words in their native languages for their English equivalents (legal terms, slang, etc.)

Algonquian languages were among the first Indian languages encountered by European settlers. As a result, many names of U.S. states and cities are of Algonquian origin. Among them are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Incidentally, the name Chicago comes from an Algonquian word meaning “place of the onion,” or “place of the bad smell.” Besides place names, there are many everyday words of Algonquian origin. Below are just a few of them:

Caribou: From Mikmaq: Qualipu, “snow shoveler”
Moccassin: from an Algonquian language of Virginia (probably Powhatan) makasin, “shoe”
Hickory: From Powhatan pocohiquara, “milky drink made with hickory nuts”.


Afro-Asiatic is the largest language family of northern Africa. With around 300 million speakers, variants within the group are spoken throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. As Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic and Syriac are languages of Islam, Judaism, and two variants of the Christian faith, this language family hits millions of people, in addition to first-language speakers.

The Afro-Asiatic family consists of 375 related languages that developed from a common ancestral language, which existed in the 6th–8th millennium BC. No agreement exists about where the ancestral Proto-Afro-Asiatic speakers lived, although most scholars agree that the ancestral language originated in Northeast Africa.

There are currently six subdivisions of the Afro-Asiatic language group: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic, and Semitic.

Some languages within these subdivisions include:
Egyptian: Coptic. Extinct but used in liturgy.
Semitic: Arabic: Middle East, North and East Africa, Hebrew: Israel, Siit’e: Ethiopia. Amharic: Ethiopia.
Berber: Tachelhit, Tamazight, Kabyle, Tarafit, Tachawit, Tamajag (Morocco, Algeria, Niger).


The Indo-European languages (formerly called Indo-Germanic) are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects. These include most major spoken languages in Europe, the Iranian Plateau, and South Asia. They have historically also been strong in Anatolia and Central Asia. The Indo-European family is a historically significant branch in linguistics, with written material appearing from the Bronze Age, in the form of the Anatolian languages and Mycenaean Greek. It was the longest recorded history, after the Afro-asiatic family.

Indo-European languages are spoken by almost three billion native speakers, the largest of any language family. Twelve of the twenty languages in the word with the largest number of native speakers belong to the Indo-European branch. These are: Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, Marathi, French, Italian, Punjabi, and Urdu. They make up over 1.7 billion speakers.

Some of the major branches of the Indo-European language family include:
1. Anatolian languages, the earliest branch.
2. Hellenic Languages, with early records in Mycenaean Greek from the late 15th century.
3. Indo-Iranian languages, descended from Proto-Indo-Iranian, late 3rd millennium BC.
4. Italic languages, including Latin and its descendants (the Romance languages), attested from the 7th century BC.
5. Celtic languages, descended from Proto-Celtic. Gaulish inscriptions date as early as the 6th century BC.
6. Germanic languages (from Proto-Germanic), earliest testimonies in runic inscriptions from around the 2nd century AD, earliest coherent texts in Gothic, 4th century AD. Old English manuscript tradition from about the 8th century AD.
7. Armenian language, alphabet writings known from the beginning of the 5th century AD.
8. Tocharian languages, extant in two dialects (Turfanian and Kuchean), attested from roughly the 6th to the 9th century AD.
9. Balto-Slavic languages
10. Albanian language, attested from the 14th century AD

Membership of these languages in the Indo-European language family is determined by genetic relationships, meaning that all members are presumed to be descendants of a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European.

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Category: Foreign Language

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