Language Family

Language Family

When a group of languages shares a common origin language, or a protolanguage, they can be considered a language family.


5 - 8


Social Studies, Geography, Human Geography, English Language Arts, World History

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Certain languages are related to each other. Just as a person’s family consists of people who share common ancestry, related languages also come from shared lineages. A language family is a group of different languages that all descend from a particular common language. The one language that generated those other languages in its family is known as a protolanguage.

Some languages do not come from a protolanguage. These are known as language isolates, and include languages, such as Basque, spoken by some in southwestern Europe, and Pirahã, spoken by the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. However, most languages spoken throughout the world belong to a language family.

For example, languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, and French, all belong to the language family known as “romance languages.” The romance languages evolved from Latin, the language used in ancient Rome. The Latin word Romanicus,meaning “Roman,” was later shortened to “Romance,” which is where the language family name came from. Latin itself, however, evolved from the Indo-European language, an ancient protolanguage, which is the origin of most of the languages spoken in modern Europe and parts of Asia.

Other branches of the Indo-European language family have evolved into completely different groups. One example is the Germanic languages. Linguists generally describe Germanic languages in three groups: West Germanic, North Germanic, and East Germanic. The West Germanic group includes German, English, and Dutch. North Germanic includes Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese. East Germanic includes Gothic and the languages once spoken by members of peoples like the Vandals and the Burgundians. While the languages in the West Germanic and North Germanic groups are still spoken, those of the East Germanic group are now extinct.

Another important language family is the Sino-Tibetan family. It is the world’s second largest language family, with more than one billion speakers of its hundreds of different languages. It includes both the Sinetic languages (known as the Chinese dialects) and the Tibeto-Burman languages (such as Tibetan and Burmese). Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in this family. Like many Sino-Tibetan languages, Mandarin Chinese is tonal. In tonal languages (which also include Thai and Hmong), the vocal pitch the speaker uses when saying a word helps determine its meaning.

Although the Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan language families two of the largest in the world, linguists have categorized more than one hundred language families around the globe. As linguists continue to study language and its origins, our understanding of language families will continue to evolve.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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