Language Families

Hey there! Let’s get back to some language talk today. Let’s talk about language families.


So, first, what is a language family?

It is a group of languages that are derived from the same ancestor (proto) language. So, the mother language for all Indo-European languages is Proto-Indo-European, for example. We get languages families by building cognates (comparison of basic vocabulary) and assessing similarities. So, for example, English is was Sanskrit ás-ti, Latin es-t, Gothic is-t (You can see a lot more examples here:

Today, I will talk about three of these families. Indo-European, well, because if you are reading this post, you all know English and English is an Indo-European language. Then, I will also talk about Uralic-Altaic languages. That is because my mother tongue, Turkish, is an Altaic language. The last one is Semitic because Semitic languages are sort of close to both of these families geographically.

Ok, now Indo-European languages. As I said, they all derive from Proto-Indo-European, which now has about 445 daughters ( Geographically, this family extends from Europe to Siberia and India (and now obviously the Americas as well), though it is thought to have started in Eastern Europe. This family was essentially discovered when European visitors noticed similarities between Indian (mainly Sanskrit) and Iranian languages and European languages. So, now, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi/Persian, Armenian, Slavic languages and most languages of Europe (not all, see Basque) are considered to be in the same language family.

Some of the defining characteristic of this language family is that most languages in it have a nominative-accusative case system (rather than ergative-absolutive).

It mostly has a Subject-Verb word order for declarative sentences and Verb-Subject for questions (something like Ate you the cake? for Did you eat the cake?; Note: English was historically like that too, but it changed later).

They tend to have suppletion of tense-aspect (e.g. went for the past of go). You can see the distribution of suppletion here:

They tend to have gender-marking. 

There are many other featuring characteristics, at the word and sound level. You can check and for these.  They are great sources.


Moving onto Uralic-Altaic languages now. This includes languages of Central Asia, extending to Western China and Northern Siberia to Finland and Anatolia. Some people include Korean and Japanese here too. Note: There is some debate whether Uralic (Finland-side) and Altaic (Asian-side) branches derive from the same ancestor or not. But for now, let’s assume so.

Uralic-Altaic languages have many similarities. Many are verb-final. So, you say I the book read by default (for I read the book).

They have vowel harmony (say, a goes with u in the same word but not with e because the former two are ‘back vowels’ and the latter is a front vowel).

They don’t have gender.

They are agglutinative, meaning that you add many affixes to the word. Remember the Turkish example in my first post here (click here to read it again if you want to):


This word/sentence has many affixes on it. I separated them below for you:


It means ‘Are you one of those whom we could not make to be Czechoslovakian?’


The third language family that I will talk about is Semitic languages. Spoken in the Middle East and Africa. Some of the languages in this family are Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic. We don’t really know where the ancestor language was spoken. Some people say Arabian Peninsula, others say Mesopotamia, still others North Africa. So, who knows.

What is shared in these languages?

They mostly have Verb-Subject-Object order. So, you say Ate I the cake by default (for I ate the cake).

They mark number on nouns in three ways: singular, dual and plural.

They have a lot of person and tense-aspect distinctions.

Morphologically, they have templates, which are three consonant roots. Famous example: the root ktb. You put different vowels in between and you get different words. Kitab means book and katib means writer (masculine).


Now, you talk. Do you speak any languages belonging to these three families? If so, what is interesting about the language you speak? Did you look into or learn other sister languages in the same family? How are they similar or different? What other language families do you know exists? And do you speak any languages from other families? If so, what is interesting about them?


12 thoughts on “Language Families

  1. This was such a wonderful post to read! I absolutely love the history of language and its progression. I love reading breakdowns and tidbits of linguistic approaches. It’s so fascinating to me. Thank you for the insight! 🙂

  2. I love the study of languages. I am currently a communication grad student. I studied several languages on a cursory level, but I am not fluent in any of them. I have enjoyed seeing how the roots of each are similar or different depending on the language branch. I like how you broke that concept down in your article. I am fascinated with language and communication.

      1. I don’t really know. I grew up in a farming town with about half of the population being Hispanic farm workers so hearing Spanish was normal in grade school. I took French in High School and hung out with the exchange students. My brother married one of them from Germany. Since then, I studied Hebrew and Greek in seminary, Latin for grad school. I have been exposed to other languages through training in Judo and Sumo (Japanese) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Portuguese). I adopted my children from other countries and we had to spend time in the country during the process. My daughter is Chinese and my son is Hungarian. For a smalltown guy, I have enjoyed seeing and experiencing the world as much as I can. It reminds me that we are all in this together. Language and culture often tethered in my opinion. For this reason, studying a language allows an insight into the culture too. These are some of the many reasons I love language.

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