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Language families

The progress of linguistics, archaeology and genetics, makes it possible to provide a plausible explanation for the existence of such a huge number of different languages.

Their systematic study and comparison  in terms of type and structure, have brought linguists to discover so many similarities among some of the languages, as to assume their possible descent from common ancestral languages.

This kind of relationship has been given the name of language family.

Languages evolve and spread based on processes which are almost clear, although some respects of this evolution are controversial.

Genetic research conducted on several populations worldwide has recently brought scientists to draw a human family tree based on genetic characters, which can be largely superimposed on a similar tree drawn on linguistic data alone.

Paleoanthropological research relating to the origin of the species  Homo sapiens, and archaeological research relating to cultural changes and migrations, supported by increasingly reliable dating techniques, have provided important confirmation elements of language spread assumptions.

The early migration

Genetic, paleoanthropological, and archaeological data lead us to believe that modern humans (H. sapiens) emerged in Africa between 200 000 and 100 000 years ago, started a slow migration from Africa to other continents, and relegated other existing human species (H. neanderthalensis present in Europe as late as 30 000 years ago) to increasingly narrow and remote regions, until their extinction.

This early migration, that extended over 80 000 years, brought the modern humans to all continents, with a northern latitude limit (approximately  54 degrees northern latitude) due to the Ice Age.

Evidence of the migration survives in certain language isolates and language families whose spreading territories feature high linguistic diversity (a patchwork of languages in a certain region), this circumstance proving in general long permanence of a language in a territory without being replaced by external languages (language differentiation due to divergence by separation between the languages): 

Khoisan (the languages spoken by San and Khoikhoin peoples) in Namibia and South Africa
Nilo-Saharan in Central and Eastern Africa
Basque in the region between Spain and France
Caucasian in the region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea
Daic in Viet Nam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
Andamanese in the Andaman Islands
Australian (non-Pama-Nyungan languages spoken in North Western Australia and the Northern Territory)
Amerindian (patchwork of languages spoken in the American Continent)

The spreading of agriculture

The development of agriculture on the part of nuclear communities of food gatherers, followed by increasing availability of food, increase of birth rate and decrease of premature death risk, has brought about an increase of local population, hence the necessity of enlarging the cultivable and the grazing land, and the need for farming families to move on the land.

Therefore, the languages spoken by the original communities have spread and evolved, following the spreading of agriculture, as a slow demic diffusion process, which over thousands of years has brought some language families to extend over extremely vast regions:

Indo-European, a language family linked to the domestication of wheat, extending from Anatolia to the Balkans, to European Russia, to all the European continent with the already mentioned northern latitude limit, except the Basque region
Dravidian, extending from the Zagros region to the Indian peninsula
Afro-Asiatic, in Middle East and North Africa
Niger-Kordofanian, a language family originating in Subsaharan Africa and extending in the Niger, Congo and Zambezi basins
Sino-Tibetan, a language family linked to the domestication of millet and rice in China
Austronesian, a language family originating from the cultivation of taro and rice in South Western Asia and spread in the course of 10 000 years from Madagascar to Easter Island

The diffusion of languages connected to recent climate changes

A new opportunity for human diffusion opened when the most recent Ice Age ended (about 10 000 years ago) with the widespread heating of dry lands: the belt of lands located over the 54 degrees latitude limit was gradually populated by groups speaking languages whose evolution brought about the following language families:

Uralic in northern regions of Europe
Chukotko-Kamchatkan in the farthest Asian Russia
Na-Dene in Canada
Eskimo-Aleut on the shorelines of Arctic and Subarctic regions  of the American Continent and the farthest strip of North Eastern Siberia

The substitution of languages by dominant languages

In the course of late Prehistoric and Historic Ages, certain cultures succeeded in establishing their domination over other territories using their organisation capabilities, or the authority resulting from technological know-how, or the use of their military force, thus widening the diffusion of the languages they spoke.

That was the case for the spreading of the Indo-European family toward Iran, Pakistan and Northern India in the second millennium BC, and the spreading of the Altaic family in Central Asia, based on the force of horse riding warriors.

That was also the case for the spreading of the common supra-regional Greek (Koine Greek) in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin, which was based on the authority of the Greek culture, and the spreading of Latin in European countries, which was based first on the army and the law of Rome and then on the authority of the Christian Church.

To learn more

The Language Gulper
Description of main languages, language families, linguistic areas. Information about writing systems, historical or cultural importance of the languages, key literary works, linguistic maps and glossary.
Linguist List
This site, an autonomous research center at Eastern Michigan University, is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world.
Ethnologue
A catalogue of more than 6800 languages spoken in more than 220 countries, published by Summer Institute of Linguistics, an organisation conducting research in linguistics, whose aim it is to  promote communication among cultures and to develop documentation useful for linguists, translators, anthropologists, missionaries, language teachers, public officers and administrators, and everybody interested.
The Rosetta Project
A global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible online archive of all documented human languages, to create the most broad and complete reference work on the languages of the world to date.
The language families of the world
A collection of maps showing the geographical distribution of the major language families, by dr. C. George Boeree, based on the work of the great linguist Joseph Greenberg.
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