language family tree

Before speaking of a language family tree, it might be useful to introduce the concepts of familiarity and kinship in languages. There is a genealogical classification for languages used as a criteria to understand their kinship and, as a result, to include them in a particular linguistic family.

This is true whether you’re talking about any of the major languages, be they Austronesian, Afro-Asiatic, or West Germanic, since the days of sanskrit.

Just as family members, we classify genealogical languages as well. This issue rise numerous discussions from an ethical, philosophical, practical point of view and all concerning the classification of languages and the genealogy that derives from it. 

It’s a regular Minna Sundberg situation.

The classification of languages is based on kinship: daughter languages and mother tongues. 

All these languages from daughters become mothers as well as a true genealogical descent, going back to a parent language.

All modern European languages are the daughters of mother tongues such as the Neo-Latin languages, derived precisely from Latin (, such as Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc; also known as Romance languages), Germanic languages (e.g. English, German), Slavic languages (Slovak, Czech, Russian, etc.), Baltic languages (Lithuanian, Latvian, etc.), and many other ones which share common denominations. 

It has to be said that there are many common points between Germanic, Slavic and Baltic languages. While Neo-Latin languages have nothing to do with them.

For Nordic languages such as Swedish, Finnish, Danish, and Norwegian, the language tree is essentially the same, just on a different branch. If you’re from Finland, for example, odds are high that you can understand at least some words spoken in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. 

Albanian, Turkish, and Korean? Maybe not so much.

Another thing we should take into account about Romance languages is that their mother tongue from which they derive is well known (it is Latin), which is deeply studied both at school and by researchers engaged in the various language classifications. 

The other families do not have a well-defined language as their mother tongue because of the lack of texts that can classify that family. For example, Germanic languages are derived from the common Germanic (proto-Germanic). We do not have knowledge through important texts, such as Latin.

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Differences between language families

The difference between Neo-Latin family and Germanic family (and  also Baltic and Slavic families) is that the family of Romance languages is studied through a known mother tongue, so one can understand what kind of descent there is between them. 

While the other languages are classified by means of distinctive features that unite them and through them we try to trace back to a “common” mother tongue, in recent times they have found very little evidence in order to have a clearer picture.

So, SIno-Tibetan languages are not similar to Uralic or Indo-Iranian in this way.

Looking for the progenitor

It’s important to think in semitic terms here. Even if we’re talking Gaelic or Basque.

Many of these languages have a common ancestor, as we’ve discussed, in the Roman language and language originating from Anatolia, now Turkey.

However, we can continue to investigate in the same way as linguistic scholars have been doing for centuries. If we know there are common characteristics between, for example, common Slavic and common Baltic, then we can also assume that they are the daughters of another mother tongue. 

Obviously, these hypotheses are plausible, just as they are not very concrete. But according to this method we can continue to study and dig into the history of a language in order to be able to place them all on a family tree of common languages, with a mother tongue at the tip of this tree.

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