Week 15  Module 6 Lesson 6.1 Historical Linguistics and Global Language Families

Historical linguistics is concerned with the examination of the historical development of languages. In this module, we will have a look at the development of the English language.  

Looking at a living language, one of the most interesting aspects is language change. All languages, except for the extinct ones, change permanently. Usually we don't notice the change that takes place during our own time because it happens quite slowly. But if we take a look back over a considerable span of time, language change becomes more obvious.

Some changes in language are clearly motivated by changes in culture or environment. Language is an expression of human activity and of the world around us, and changes in the world bring forth innovations in a language.  Think about all of the internet related words that have entered English just in your lifetime. Also, contact with other languages may cause a language to change very quickly and radically. Looking back at the history of Hawai'i, we know first hand how true this statement is.

At any rate, the language of isolated communities seem to change least (such as Russian Old Believers in Oregon, Amish in Pennsylvania, late medieval Castilian Spanish in New Mexico.)  English has changed radically over the last 1000 years, perhaps more than any other European language.  Icelandic is the most conservative of the Germanic languages. And Lithuanian has changed the very least over the last 2000 years. 

This module looks back over 1000 years of contact and development that made the permanent change we know as today's English.

Let's start at the beginning with the concept of genetically related language families. Then we'll look at the mother language of English, Proto Indo-European. Finally, we'll turn our attention to the three broad time periods of the English language -- Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

Language Families

Of course, there were no textbooks in the beginnings of language, but linguists have developed certain methods to trace back words even beyond earliest records. Thus we have knowledge not only of the last 1000 years of English. We can even make an assumption about the very roots of the language. 

Most languages belong to language families. A language family is a group of related languages that developed from a common historic ancestor, referred to as proto language (proto means 'early' in Greek). The ancestral language is usually not known directly, but it is possible to discover many of its features by applying the comparative method that can demonstrate the family status of many languages.

One scientific way to study the origin of language is to try to prove historical relationships between languages.  To find language families, that is, groups of languages descended from a common ancestor, linguists compare languages to find systematic differences or similarities.  

This method of analyzing languages is known as the comparative method, and linguists using it are referred to as comparative linguists.  Some languages are obviously related to one another, as shown by the presence of systematic differences. 

Constructing a Proto Language

When comparative linguists discover a group of historically related languages, they try to reconstruct the original form of the ancestor language of each family, which they call a proto language. Obviously, there is no way to prove the results since no one living has ever actually spoken the proto language, but the reconstructions are based on evidence in today's languages and are accepted by most linguists.

Sometimes a protolanguage can be identified with a historically known language. Thus, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin gave rise to the modern Romance languages, so the Proto-Romance language is more or less identical with Latin. Similarly, Old Norse was the ancestral of Viking people: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. Sanskrit was the protolanguage of many of the languages of the Indian subcontinent, such as Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu.

Further back in time, all these ancestral languages descended, in turn, from one common ancestor. We call this ancestor Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

Language families can be subdivided into smaller units called branches.

How do linguists establish relationships among languages?

In some cases, it is relatively easy to establish relationships among languages. Let's look at the Romance languages. We know that Italian, for instance, is a descendant of Latin, a language that was spoken in Italy two thousand years ago, and one which left a great number of written documents. The Roman conquest helped spread Latin throughout Europe where it eventually developed into regional dialects. When the Roman Empire broke up, these regional dialects evolved into the modern Romance languages that we know today: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and others. These languages form the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family. 

The comparative method looks for cognate words (that is, words that are related genetically from the same ancestral language) for basic vocabulary (such as for parts of the body, nature, family relationships.) Here are two comparative analyses of cognate words from Germanic, and Polynesian languages.

Example 1 Western Germanic Languages

The case with Germanic languages is unusually easy because their common ancestor Latin left many written documents. 

Comparative Analysis of the Western Germanic Languages
sun sinne zon Sonne
fox foks vos Fuchs
sit sitte zitten sitzen
book boek boek Buch
red read rood rot
sleep sliepe slapen schlafen
hand han hand hand
three trije drie drei
help helpe helpen helfen
heart hert hart herz

Example 2 Polynesian Languages

Unlike Latin, Polynesian languages are oral and the ancestral language was not written. As a result, linguists look at similarities among the modern descendants to establish common origins. Take a look at these cognates:

Comparative Analysis of the Polynesian Languages
sky lani laNgi ra?i raNi laNi
north wind ko'olau to?elau to?erau tokerau tokelau
woman wahine fafine vahine wahine fefine
house hale fale fare whare fale
parent makua matua metua matua motu?a

[N] = ng, [?] = glottal stop, the [r] is rolled

What if the ancestral language left no records, or we know little about the languages?
In many parts of the world, there are no written records, and we don't know enough about the languages themselves. Consequently, we have to resort to grouping languages on the basis of geography. This is the case with many of the aboriginal languages of Australia, the native Indian languages of the Americas, the tribal languages of Africa, and countless other languages all over the world. 
How many language families are there?

According to Ethnologue, there are 218 language families in the world. This figure is probably an overestimate because of our limited knowledge about the languages of the most linguistically diverse areas of the world. For example, the Austronesian family (Pacific area) has 1,262 languages, many of them little known. So the actual number of families, once these languages are studied and relationships among them are established, will probably be smaller.

Today, the people of the world speak more than 6,000 distinct languages, which are grouped into language families. 

The world's languages have been grouped into families of languages that are believed to have common ancestors. Some of the major families are the Indo-European languages (which includes English), the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Austronesian languages, and the Sino-Tibetan languages. Together they account for nearly two-thirds of all languages and five-sixths of the world's population. 

Language family & membership
Number of languages
Number of speakers
Where the languages that belong to the family
are spoken
Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Cameroon, Chad, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen
Brunei, Cambodia, China, Cook Islands, East Timor, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, HAWAI'I,  Indonesia, Kiribati, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mayotte, Micronesia, Myanmar, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Taiwan, Thailand, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, USA, Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Wallis and Futuna
Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Maldives, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, USA, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Venezuela
Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Viet Nam
Australia, East Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

Additional large language families include the following:

Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda
China, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam
India, Nepal, Pakistan
145,069,278 Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Russia, Sweden

There are no large language families in the Americas and in Australia. Instead, these continents have a large number of small language families consisting of languages with small numbers of speakers. Examples are Native American languages.

Students interested in Polynesian languages may want to explore the University of Hawai'i' Linguistics Department courses in Proto Polynesian

Indo European Language Family

In 1786, scholar Sir William Jones (1746 - 1794) suggested that similarities among languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, and others were so striking as to suggest that they had sprung from a common, no longer existing source now called Proto-Indo-European. By the 19th century, August Schleicher's Family Tree had been proposed to model the relationships among the Indo-European languages as the branches of a tree.

Indo European Language Family. Click here for a clearer printable version of this Indo European tree (.pdf)

The closer the branches, the more alike the languages are. Look for English (Germanic,  top left of the tree.) From this diagram, you can see that English is much more similar to Dutch and Flemish than it is to Danish and Norwegian. It's even less similar to the Romance languages of Spanish and French, and even less than the Indic languages of Hindi and Bengali. Yet all of these languages are genetically related. The shared features of languages from one family can be due to shared ancestry. At one point in time, they had a common ancestor. Over hundreds of years, through migration, geography, wars, trade, and technological advances, the languages have become separate, mutually unintelligible languages. 

What do we think we know about the people who spoke Proto Indo European?

There is no clear agreement on exactly where or when the speakers of PIE lived, but a popular theory places them at approximately 8000 - 4000 BC. One theory says their homeland is in what is currently the Russian steppe north of the Black Sea while another theory places them in Anatolia in modern day Turkey. 

By 3000 BC PIE had broken up into a number of dialects. As the tribe grew larger and spread throughout the region, dialects arose which, over time, became more and more mutually incomprehensible. When different dialects become mutually incomprehensible, they are different languages. Then dialects developed in the new languages as the tribes prospered and expanded until a tree of related languages and dialects developed and all the languages spoken throughout the Indo European area.

A map of Indo European languages



Fun with Language Families

The internet is a huge repository of info related to languages of the world.

  1. Languages of the World has a well presented, fun, fact-filled website.

  2. Some linguists organize family trees into classes rather than trees. Indo European languages can be arranged into two main classes: Learn about Indo European languages Centum languages (English, Spanish, and others) Satem languges (Slavic, Hindi, and others) Clickable maps from interesting internet Renaissance man Dan Short.

  3. The Proto Indo European Language Demonstration and Exploration Website invites you to become a language detective. From the University of Texas at San Antonio

  4. What do Ainu (Japan), Porome (Papu New Guinea), Basque (Spain), and Korean have in common? They are language Isolates, which are languages with no demonstrable genealogical (or "genetic") relationship with other living languages. They are, in effect, language families consisting of a single language. From Languages of the World.

  5. Is there a Mother language of all languages? Stanford University's Professor Joseph Greenberg and his colleagues believe they will one day construct Proto World. Greenberg's hypothesis holds that the original language developed in Africa among early Homo sapiens.  As Homo sapiens spread across the world, they took their language with them.  That single language, which he calls the Mother Tongue or proto-world, diverged naturally over time into the several thousands of diverse forms spoken today. Read the transcript for In Search of the First Language from Nova PBS. So far no one has found conclusive proof that all existing languages are descended from a common source.  But the more we learn, the more it may very well be proven that there is a single mother tongue.



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Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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