Language family

A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestral language or parental language, called the proto-language of that family. The term "family" reflects the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a biological family tree, or in a subsequent modification, to species in a phylogenetic tree of evolutionary taxonomy. Linguists therefore describe the daughter languages within a language family as being genetically related. According to Ethnologue the 7,111 living human languages are distributed in 141 different language families. A "living language" is one, used as the primary form of communication of a group of people. There are many dead languages, or languages which have no native speakers living, extinct languages, which have no native speakers and no descendant languages. There are some languages that are insufficiently studied to be classified, some which are not known to exist outside their respective speech communities.

Membership of languages in a language family is established by research in comparative linguistics. Sister languages are said to have a "genetic" or "genealogical" relationship; the latter term is older. Speakers of a language family belong to a common speech community; the divergence of a proto-language into daughter languages occurs through geographical separation, with the original speech community evolving into distinct linguistic units. Individuals belonging to other speech communities may adopt languages from a different language family through the language shift process. Genealogically related languages present shared retentions. Membership in a branch or group within a language family is established by shared innovations. For example, Germanic languages are "Germanic" in that they share vocabulary and grammatical features that are not believed to have been present in the Proto-Indo-European language; these features are believed to be innovations that took place in Proto-Germanic, a descendant of Proto-Indo-European, the source of all Germanic languages.

Language families can be divided into smaller phylogenetic units, conventionally referred to as branches of the family because the history of a language family is represented as a tree diagram. A family is a monophyletic unit; some taxonomists restrict the term family to a certain level, but there is little consensus in how to do so. Those who affix such labels subdivide branches into groups, groups into complexes. A top-level family is called a phylum or stock; the closer the branches are to each other, the closer the languages will be related. This means if a branch off of a proto-language is 4 branches down and there is a sister language to that fourth branch the two sister languages are more related to each other than to that common ancestral proto-language; the term macrofamily or superfamily is sometimes applied to proposed groupings of language families whose status as phylogenetic units is considered to be unsubstantiated by accepted historical linguistic methods. For example, the Celtic, Slavic and Indo-Iranian language families are branches of a larger Indo-European language family.

There is a remarkably similar pattern shown by the linguistic tree and the genetic tree of human ancestry, verified statistically. Languages interpreted in terms of the putative phylogenetic tree of human languages are transmitted to a great extent vertically as opposed to horizontally; some closely-knit language families, many branches within larger families, take the form of dialect continua in which there are no clear-cut borders that make it possible to unequivocally identify, define, or count individual languages within the family. However, when the differences between the speech of different regions at the extremes of the continuum are so great that there is no mutual intelligibility between them, as occurs in Arabic, the continuum cannot meaningfully be seen as a single language. A speech variety may be considered either a language or a dialect depending on social or political considerations. Thus, different sources over time, can give wildly different numbers of languages within a certain family.

Classifications of the Japonic family, for example, range from one language to nearly twenty—until the classification of Ryukyuan as separate languages within a Japonic language family rather than dialects of Japanese, the Japanese language itself was considered a language isolate and therefore the only language in its family. Most of the world's languages are known to be related to others; those that have no known relatives are called language isolates language families consisting of a single language. An example is Basque. In general, it is assumed that language isolates have relatives or had relatives at some point in their history but at a time depth too great for linguistic comparison to recover them. A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as Albanian and Armenian within Indo-European, is also called an isolate, but the meaning of the word "isolate" in such cases is clarified with a mo

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