Language Families


Dividing up Languages

Linguists divide up the world’s languages into families. Above is a map showing the world’s top ten language families and below is a table showing their subgroups. I ranked the top 10 languages by the number of present speakers as of November 2013. My data was taken from Ethnologue and map from wiki.  Looking at Ethnologue: here are the language families (there are dozens) and here are the number of speakers. The map and table shows the name of the family, the percent of world speakers for whom it is their native tongue and then the number of individual languages in that group.


Jumping Language Families

Trust me, for any of you who can speak fluently more than one language fluently, you have never studied a “foreign” language, until as an adult, you have learned a language outside of your mother language’s family group.  For instance, my mother language is English.  I first studied German, then dabbled with Greek, then learned to speak/read/write Hindi & Urdu.  At that time, I thought my language skills were pretty broad.  But all those languages are Indo-European.  And when I landed in Japan, I quickly found out what “Language Family” meant.  In Japanese I had to twist my linguist brain into completely new knots.

Choosing the Top Ten

I arbitrarily chose the top 10 languages and arbitrarily chose what qualified as “top” by the number of speakers (not land covered).  If my arbitrary choices excluded your favorite language or seems to minimize it, then tough luck I’m sorry. Also, for sake of size, I left the Americas off the map because the only top 10 language family there is Indo-European.  Remember, as of today there are 7,105 living languages — hard to include them all.



Filed under Linquistics

5 responses to “Language Families

  1. rautakyy

    The maps on the Ethnologue page do not correspond much with the identity of people, wich in turn wery much corresponds with their languages. Are these maps trying to be political, or geographical maps? Certainly they have very little to do with the actual language families. At least when they have divided Africa and “Asia” into two different colours while Arabic is the main language spoken on both sides of the Red Sea.

    All of Russian Siberia is included into the Europe, so I suppose the division is more political, than geographical. But then, what is with the division of Europe into East and West Europe on one of the minor maps? Most people in Poland, the Chech Republic, or Austria would identify being from Central Europe, not from Eastern Europe and politically they are part of the EU.

  2. @rautakyy,
    Yeah, I debated if just showing the languages in a table was enough or putting them on a map to give a feel would be helpful. The colors aren’t helpful in many ways. And speakers are scattered amongst different countries, of course. I may have to find a blank map, but if I do that, someone could object to the places where I put the words on the map.

    Now, with that out of the way, do you have any interaction with the content of this post?

  3. rautakyy

    @ Sabio Lanz. Oh, sorry. I should have mentioned, that I enjoyed and agree with your post and it’s written content. I simply tried to keep my comment simple and short (failing once again). But since pictures are there, they are part of the content also, and often they transmit concepts, or strengthen prejudices. And it is interresting to see how people who provided you the map you decided to divide the world. When we draw division lines between human cultures, we are moving on a very delicate territory of possible segregation. Maybe not so much in a single blog post, but on an authorative source, like the Ethnologue page appears as.

    Perhaps the blank map would be good, as any interpretation on it would be your own doing and considered by yourself. I think you, as a critical and analytical thinker, would make much better and logical map about the subject. However, you are also right about the fact, that there are always people who get upset about some seemingly minor mistake. I suppose I may have been overreacting, but I am intrigued by the unintended messages inhereted from our separate and different cultural “heritages”.

  4. OK, rautakyy (20 minutes later), I found a better map. Thanx for the objections.

  5. rautakyy

    Sorry for the extra trouble. But I must say I love your new map.😉

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