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Classification of Human Languages Why to classify languages?


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Classification of Human Languages
Why to classify languages?

- How many different languages exist?

- How old are the languages?

- Is there a common ancestor of all the languages?

- How do languages evolve?
Three main types of language classification:


  1. Areal classification

    1. Different languages spoken in the same area tend to present common characteristics (Why?).

    2. Ex.: use of French words in English.

  2. Typological classification

    1. Common features of languages used in the classification.

      1. Ex.: tonal languages such as Chinese and Vietnamese, versus flatten languages such as Japanese.

    2. Are similar languages necessarily related?

  3. Genetic classification

    1. Languages share ancestors.

    2. Ex.: Romance languages descend from Latin: Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian, Spanish

    3. Ex.: English <- Western German <- Proto-Germanic <- Balto-Slavo-Germanic <- Proto-Indo-European

Universal versus Specific:



  1. Which properties are present in every language?

  2. Which properties are specific of languages?

Typological classification: word building:



  1. Isolating/root/analytic languages:

    1. There are no endings - words are not inflected

    2. All grammatical relationships are shown through the use of word order and/or independent grammatical units (particles, words).

    3. E.x.: Mandarin: Wo(I) mai(buy) juzi(orange) chi(eat)

  1. Agglutinating languages (Lat. agglutinare `to glue together')

    1. Word is built up out of a long linear sequence.

    2. Often a single morpheme constitutes a sentence.

    3. E.g. in Swahili: mimi ni -na -ku -penda wewe . me I PRESENT you love you

  2. Inflectional/fusion languages:

    1. Grammatical relationships are expressed by changing the internal structure of the words through inflections

    2. Suffixes typically express several grammatical meanings.

    3. E.g. in Polish: szloch-am (-am = 1sg, pres. or cont. tense, active, indicative) 'I am sobbing'

    4. Many Indo-European and Semitic languages belong to this group.

Typological classification: subject/object/verb order:



  1. SVO: He killed the dragon.

    1. 60% of languages.

    2. Ex.: English, Vietnamese, and Portuguese.

  2. SOV: He the dragon killed.

    1. 15% of languages.

    2. Ex.: Japanese, Korean, Georgian, Cherokee.

  3. VSO: Killed he the dragon.

    1. 15% of languages:

    2. Ex.: Welsh and Hawaiian.

  4. VOS: Killed the dragon he.

    1. Less than 10% of languages.

    2. Ex.: Malagasy.

  5. OVS: A dragon killed he.

    1. Ex.: Hixkaryana (Amazonian Language).

  6. OSV: A dragon he killed.

    1. Ex.: Apurina (Amazonia Language).

  7. Ordering is not absolute.

    1. Ex.: OSV: what fools these mortals be (Shakespeare).

  8. What is the favored ordering of master Yoda (Star Wars)

    1. “A sign you shall see”.

    2. “Your father he is”.

Genetic Classification:



  1. Most languages share common ancestors.

    1. E.x.: English and German; Portuguese and Rumanian; Mandarin and Cantonese.

  2. Genetic markers: characteristics shared by related languages that hardly would happen by chance.

    1. Chance of independent occurrence must be close to zero (Why?).

    2. Likelihood of diffusion must be low (Why?).

  3. Cognate words:

    1. Words that share a common origin.

    2. Ex.: night (English), Nacht (German), noc (Czech), nox (Latin), and nakti (Sanskrit)

    3. But, take care: two (English), tu (Korean); dog (Mbabaram).

    4. False cognates: habere (Latin)/haben(German). Do you know any other false cognate?

  4. Glottochronology:

    1. Permit to determine the age of a language.

    2. Same principle as dating based on decay of Carbon 14.

      1. Languages lose words. One out of five at each one thousand years.

      2. List of universal words (cognates). Can you guess some of these words?

      3. Languages more close related share more cognates.

Family of related languages:



  1. Currently, between 6000 and 7000 languages grouped in 300 Stocks.

  2. Stock: a set of languages that share a common origin.

    1. Ex.: Indo-European, Kartvelian, Basque.

    2. Stocks can be represented by trees. How the previous stocks look like?

  3. Examples of families of languages:

    1. Niger-Congo, Austronesian, Trans-New Guine, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic(includes semitic languages), Australian, Nilo-Saharan, Oto-Manguean, Austro-Asiatic, Sepik-Ramu, Tai-Kadai, Tupi, Dravidian, Mayan.

Applications of Language Classification



  1. The age of languages:

    1. Age of the genus Homo: 1,800,000. Most conservative estimate for the Homo Sapiens: 100,000 -> Maximum age of languages.

    2. Number of stocks grows approximately 50% every 6000 years. There are 300 stocks. How to estimate the age of languages? How to explain discrepancies?

  2. Language reconstruction:

    1. Internal reconstruction: only one language as source of data.

    2. External reconstruction: relationships between genetically related languages.

    3. Ex.: word for father in Latin.

      1. Descendents of Latin: Italian (padre), Catalan (pare), French (Pere).

      2. Weakening: t may have changed into d

      3. Metathesis: er may have changed into re;

      4. Vowel reduction: a in the first syllable my have changed into e.

      5. Possible forms: pater, peter, p?ter, etc

How to explain the diversity of languages?



  1. Small, isolated populations: New Guine, Central Africa, and South America before the arrival of Europeans.

  2. Social stratification: vulgar Latin: Romance languages.

  3. Contact between different cultures:

    1. Pidgin: language created spontaneously to facilitate communication between peoples from different cultures. Caribbean pidgin (slaves from different tribes), Portuguese traders.

    2. Creole: language that originated from a pidgin. Ex.: Macanese is a Portuguese Creole spoken in Macau. Chinese and Malay substrate.

  4. Example: the evolution of the Portuguese language.

Examples of Classification:



  1. Russian <- East Slavic <- Slavic <- Indo-European

    1. Sister languages: Belarusian, Ukrainian, Rusyn

  2. Franch <- Oil <- Gallo-Rhaetian <- Gallo-Romance <- Italic Romance <- Indo-European

    1. Sister languages: Lombard, Piedmontese, Ligurian, Franco-Provencal

  3. Mandarin <- Chinese <- Sino-Tibetan

    1. Sister languages: Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Cantonese, Min.


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