There are thousands of spoken languages in the world and most can be traced back in history to show how they are related to each other.
By finding patterns like these, different languages can be grouped together as members of a language family.
There are three main language families:
- Indo-European (Includes English)
- Sino-Tibetan (Includes Chinese)
- Afro-Asiatic (Includes Arabic)
Indo-European is the largest language family, followed by Sino-Tibetan, and lastly Afro-Asiatic. The Language Tree below shows languages that come from the same origin. (sorry about the quality. I’ve relabelled some popular languages) The numbers on the tree below are in millions of native speakers.
Linguists often use the tree metaphor to show the historical relationships between languages and how they relate to one another. In a language history course, these trees would most of the time look very simple and informative, but they lack imagination. Minna Sundberg, creator of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, thinks that there is no reason why linguistics should be so visually uninspiring and unimaginative. So, she remapped the languages into one beautiful and magnificent tree that is quite a sight to feast your eyes on.
This tree beautifully captures the connections between groups of languages, and it shows that all languages descend from a common ancestral proto-language. The size of the leaves on top of each branch approximates how many people speak each language, with English being one of the largest groups, alongside Spanish and Hindi.
- Sino-Tibetan branch includes Mandarin and Thai
- Indo-European branch includes: English, Russian and Hindi
- Austronesian branch includes: Malay, Indonesian and Tagalog
- Japanese and Korean have their own branches
- Tamil is on another branch called Dravidian
NB: “It has been suggested that Thai could be part of the neighbouring family called Austronesian, rather than the Sino-Tibetan family. Perhaps the similarities that Thai shares with Chinese are due to borrowing, not descent from a common ancestor.” – Peter Thomas
Just like a family tree, we can think of branches as different families, and leaves as languages. By tracing these branches back we arrive at larger branches, such as Indo-European, and by tracing the Indo-European branch back, we arrive at even larger branches. Eventually, It is believed that you will arrive at the main trunk of this tree into which all of the languages came from.
The European region splits into Slavic, Romance, and Germanic branches. Celtic languages, as well as Latin, are shown as delicate twig-like branches.
As beautiful and illustrative as the infographic seems, it still overlooks other very significant languages. One language that does not feature in this tree is Arabic and other Asian and African languages of which the number of native speakers could easily amount to a billion speakers. But then again, that tree would be too big to fit on a web page. Just imagine how humongous a tree would look if it included all the 7000+ beautiful languages that we have in the world today.
The original mother tongue may never be found. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between inheritance from a common ancestor and borrowing from another group. There are no written records, so we can never know if word similarities happened by sheer chance or by accident.
However, what is known about the main language groups is still fascinating, such as:
- The amazing fact that in the 18th century it was discovered that Sanskrit (the ancient language of India), resembles and has relationships with Greek and Latin.
- Malay, Indonesian, Javanese, and Tagalog are all related.
- Hokkien is a direct descendant of old Chinese, and is the oldest of the Sino-Tibetan languages alive today.