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language families

Language families – looking at ancient human movement

Did you know that languages are grouped into various different language families? Certain languages have common linguistic ancestors, whilst others are more distant cousins.

The Dutch language, for example, belongs to a subgroup called the Germanic language family. Other West Germanic languages include English, German and Afrikaans. Dutch is thus more closely related to these languages than it is to, for instance, North Germanic languages like Icelandic, or Afroasiatic languages like Somali.

Proto Indo-European: myth or long lost ancestor?

The largest language family is Indo-European. This huge extended family includes several hundred distinct languages. Indo-European languages have around 3 billion speakers, worldwide, in Europe to Southeast Asia. Hindi, Spanish and English are just a few of the commonly spoken Indo-European languages on the planet.

The prevalence of Indo-European languages has lead some scholars to believe that, in the very distant past, all humanity spoke the same language. They termed this hypothetical common ancestor ‘Proto Indo-European’. The theory goes that gradually Proto Indo-European split off into a variety of different distinct languages, which eventually became the plethora of Indo-European languages spoken today.

Can languages tell us about how ancient human populations travelled and interacted?

Many people find it very intriguing that geographically distinct populations, in Asia and Europe, both speak languages that belong to the Indo-European family. Perhaps this is due to ancient human populations traversing the globe and passing on their language many thousands of years ago. Then, it can be hypothesised, this common language proceeded to evolve into various distinct languages in different parts of the world.

In more recent history, it has been the case that conquests and trade relations have lead to languages travelling the world and being picked up elsewhere. One example is Spanish, which travelled to South America from Europe with the Spanish Conquistadors, and is now spoken throughout the South American continent.

In the present day, we can certainly see languages on the move. More and more English speakers are learning Chinese languages, for instance, as China becomes a dominant world power.