Introduction & explanation
I've modified these language maps and info about several of the world's language families from the appendix of my book, Native Grammar: How Languages Work. These are the families discussed on this page:
Language Families and Related Languages
On this page, you will find a series of maps. These maps focus on the distribution of languages within a particular language family. They should help you visualize the relationships between selected languages around the world. You meet many of these languages throughout Native Grammar.
How to read each section
The selection of language families includes some of the largest or most recognizable language families on the planet. Each map is titled with the name of the language family, and contains a few noteworthy facts below. The meaning gives a small insight into the reason for the family’s name. Where applicable, I list other names for the family. The descended from mentions the proto-language, or common parent, of that language family. Finally, the where indicates where in the world the language family is spoken, also known as its distribution.
On the following page, after each map, you will find more detailed information. In the section titled In the family, I present tidbits about the larger family tree, along with details about its individual branches. As its name suggests, Possibly related introduces one or more debated relatives of the language family, often mentioning controversial proposals. Not in this family mentions languages and language families that, as the current facts have it, are entirely unrelated, despite close proximity or cultural similarities.
About the maps
The images show a language family’s “home turf”. For reasons too intricate to explain here, the Americas don’t count as part of Indo-European’s home turf, despite the huge numbers of English, Spanish, Portuguese and French speakers (all Indo-European) calling these areas home. The current native speaker map of Indo-European is bigger than its home turf.
There are also home turfs that are bigger than their current distribution of speakers. Uto-Aztecan languages have a home turf that stretches from Southern California to Utah down into the heart of Central Mexico, but currently we can only find pockets of speakers here and there.
Some families have been included not because of their size, but because I have mentioned them in this course, and they are of potential interest. The Mayan languages are one good example.
When to use the maps
You can sit and read through the maps in one go, and you are welcome to do so. However, the information included on each family suggests deeper study. I highly recommend that you reference them as you meet each particular language in Native Grammar, or when curiosity about a particular family or branch strikes you.
The current distribution of select Afro-Asiatic languages
“Of Africa and Asia”
Hamito-Semitic (this has gone out of style)
North Africa, the Middle East
- The Semitic branch of this colorful family includes Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew. Some of the earliest surviving written documents are in Akkadian, a Semitic language. Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, and its older form, Ge’ez, are Semitic.
- The Egyptian languages form a separate branch in the family, including Ancient Egyptian, Demotic and a later form preserved liturgically in Coptic (still used by the Coptic Orthodox Church).
- Hausa belongs to the distinct Chadic branch. It serves as a major language of trade and communication throughout West Africa.
- The Berber languages are native to North Africa. The most widely spoken language of this branch is the Tamasheq language of the nomadic Tuareg peoples.
- The gigantic and highly controversial Nostratic superfamily may include Afro-Asiatic alongside Indo-European and others.
- As the language of Islam, Arabic has spread into non-Semitic countries where people don’t natively speak Afro-Asiatic languages. For example, Farsi and other Iranian languages (like Pashto in Afghanistan) are Indo-European, related to English but unrelated to Arabic.
- The Bantu languages, which cover much of the rest of Africa, belong to the Niger-Congo family.
- Apart from Maltese, the language of Malta, languages spoken north of Africa are unrelated, including Turkish (a Turkic language) and the Indo-European languages of Europe and Western Asia.
Present distribution of Austronesian. The image is missing Hawai‘i (to the north-east) and Easter Island (to the east).
“Of the South-wind Islands”
Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines, Madagascar, the Polynesian Triangle
- This family covers a lot of territory, mainly islands large and small from off the east coast of Africa to off the west coast of South America.
- The two major branches of the family are the Formosan languages and the Malayo-Polynesian languages. Taiwan (“Formosa”) houses all the Formosan languages, contains the most linguistic diversity of any Austronesian-speaking island and is probably the original homeland from which the rest of the family spread.
- The Malayo-Polynesian branch accounts for the rest of the Austronesian languages outside Taiwan.
- The Central Malayo-Polynesian branch is perhaps the most poorly studied of any group within the family, making it relatively difficult to classify well at this point.
- The Bornean languages, in the Malayo-Polynesian branch, include many of the languages of Borneo and, intriguingly, the Malagasy language, native to Madagascar.
- The Philippine languages include Tagalog, the major language of the Philippines.
- The Malayan subgrouping includes a number of closely related languages, notably Indonesian (the official language of Indonesia) and Malay (official to Malaysia).
- The Chamorro language, native to Guam, may be a unique, independent branch within Malayo-Polynesian.
- The inhabitants of the islands within the Polynesian Triangle (New Zealand – Easter Island – Hawai’ian Islands) speak languages in the Oceanic subgroup within the Malayo-Polynesian branch of this family.
- Proposals to link the Austronesian languages to others have had minimal success. Controversial groupings include a link with Tai-Kadai (including Thai) or Austro-Asiatic (which includes Vietnamese).
- The languages of mainland Southeast Asia seem to be unrelated. The languages indigenous to Australia are also quite distinct.
- Chinese, brought with colonizers to Taiwan, is a Sinitic language.
Early distribution of Indo-European. By about 500 BC, most of the above had become sufficiently distinct branches.
“Of India and Europe”
Europe, European colonies (former and current), North and Central Asia, Iran, North India
- Indo-European languages cover most of Europe and Western Russia, and include the languages of Iran, Armenia, Kurdistan and the northern half of India.
- Speakers of the Celtic branch once covered a very large portion of Western Europe, such as the notorious Gauls of Julius Caesar’s day. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton (in Northern France) and Cornish are the principal living Celtic languages.
- The Germanic branch has three subgroups. The Nordic languages are native to Scandinavia. The western languages include English, Dutch and German proper. The eastern branch, now entirely extinct, is mainly known through Gothic texts.
- The Italic languages include Latin, extinct siblings of Latin, and its children: the Romance languages. European colonization has spread Spanish, French and Portuguese, three Romance languages, far and wide.
- The two languages of the Tocharian branch were once native to Northern China. Both languages died before 1000 AD, but their texts have survived.
- The Hellenic branch includes all dialects of Ancient and Modern Greek. It is the second oldest recorded Indo-European branch, with inscriptions in Mycenaean Greek dating to sometime before 1300 BC.
- The Albanian language is a unique branch of Indo-European.
- The Armenian language is also its own, unique branch. Notable similarities between Greek and Armenian lead some to classify it alongside Greek as Greco-Armenian.
- Slavic languages include Polish, Russian and Ukranian. Some link Slavic alongside Baltic to form a single Balto-Slavic branch.
- The Baltic languages (Latvian and, especially, Lithuanian) retain notable characteristics of Proto-Indo-European.
- The intriguing case of Hittite was discovered in the early twentieth century, during the decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions. It stands as the oldest recorded Indo-European language.
- Indic languages are native to Northern India and surrounding areas, and have some of the old, like Classical Sanskrit, and the new, like Hindi.
- The Iranian branch includes Ancient and Modern Persian (mainly called Farsi), Pashto in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Kurdish (parts of Iran, Iraq and Turkey).
- It’s a source of great controversy, but links to reconstructed “superfamilies” of Asia are proposed. Some of the more controversial proposals would include even the Afro-Asiatic and Turkic languages.
- One hypothesis holds that Hittite broke off from an even earlier ancestor. In such a case, Hittite and Proto-Indo-European are siblings, and their parent is an even more remote Proto-Indo-Hittite. The proposed superfamily attempts to account for some of the trickier features of Hittite.
- This family spread far and fast, leaving many pockets along the way. It is the family with the largest number of speakers on Earth.
- The Basque language of Northern Spain and Southwestern France is related to no known language. It is the only non-Indo-European language native to Western Europe.
- The languages of Hungary, Finland and Estonia belong to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family.
- While Ancient Turkey once spoke Hittite and Hellenic, the modern language, Turkish, belongs to the Turkic family.
- The languages of southern India, including Tamil, are members of the Dravidian family.
- A number of nearby or co-existent languages in Central Asia.
The current distribution of some of the major Mayan langauges
“Of the Maya”
Southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize
- Related languages throughout the Mayan homeland claim as many as six million native speakers.
- The western branch includes the Q’anjobalan and Ch’olan languages (such as Ch’ol and Tzotzil). An ancient form of Ch’ol proper was the language of many of the famous Maya glyphs and texts, among the most precious archaeological treasures of the last two centuries.
- The Yucatecan branch includes Yucatec, native to nearly a million speakers in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, and a few languages to the south. An older form of Yucatec is found in many of the later Mayan inscriptions.
- Among the eastern languages are found the Quichean-Mamean languages of the Guatemalan highlands, like K’iche’ and Q’eqchi’.
- The Huastecan branch, including the modern language Wastek, looks like a distant relative of the other Mayan languages. In other words, we can contrast Huastecan, on the one hand, with every non-Huastecan Mayan language, on the other.
- Some relations to nearby language families have been suggested. The extremely controversial proposal for an “Amerind Family” included Mayan the languages alongside most other language families in the Americas.
- Despite cultural similarities and borrowings, the language of the Aztecs is quite distinct and unrelated (see Uto-Aztecan).
- The native languages of Central America that surround the Mayan languages may be entirely unrelated.
The location of major Niger-Congo languages in Sub-Saharan Africa
Niger (River) and Congo (River)
Most of Sub-Saharan Africa
- Niger-Congo languages belong to the most widely-spoken indigenous family in Africa.
- The Atlantic branch of this family includes the Benue-Congo Bantu languages that cover much of Southern Africa. Sesotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Kongo, Chewa and Lingala are all Bantu languages. Swahili, the major international language of East Africa, also belongs to the Bantu subgroup.
- Yoruba, another member of the Atlantic branch, is a Benue-Congo language, but belongs to the western subgroup. It is a not-so-distant relative of Bantu.
- Fulani, a fairly distant cousin of Bantu and Yoruba, belongs to the Senegal-Guinea subgroup within the same Atlantic branch.
- The debated Kordofanian languages may constitute a distinct branch of the family, if a branch at all.
- The smaller Nilo-Saharan family of inland North Africa could be related, but the two families are so challenging and diverse, making this classification very shaky.
- The Niger-Kordofanian proposal places Niger-Congo languages alongside Kordofanian languages, suggesting that both descend from a common parent, named Proto-Niger-Kordofanian (similar to Indo-Hittite, see Indo-European).
- The unrelated Afro-Asiatic languages to the north include Arabic, Amharic and, in antiquity, Egyptian.
- The Khoisan languages to the south-west fall outside Niger-Congo. They earned the nickname “click languages” because of the unique “click” consonant sounds found in some of the languages. Most Khoisan languages are endangered as a result of the spread of Bantu.
The location of select Quechuan languages in the Andes
Quechua, the Quechua language
Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, pieces of Colombia, Chile and Argentina
- The Quechuan family includes the languages of the descendants of the Inca and those in their sphere of influence, including all varieties of the Quechua language.
- Perhaps over ten million native peoples throughout the Andes speak a Quechuan language.
- Peru and Ecuador have the largest groups of speakers, but the Southern Quechuan subgroup extends into Bolivia, Argentina and even a sliver of Chile.
- The first of the two Quechuan branches includes Wanka and Ancash in Peru.
- The second of the two branches contains Kichwa proper (Quechua), its close and widely-spoken siblings, Ayacucho and Cuzco-Collao (or Qusqu-Qullaw), and their more remote relative Incahuasi-Cañaris.
- The nearby Aymaran languages of the Andes bear much resemblance. The Quechumaran proposal unites Quechuan alongside Aymaran languages, suggesting that both descend from a common parent: Proto-Quechumaran (similar to Indo-Hittite, see Indo-European).
- The extremely controversial proposal for an “Amerind Family” included Quechuan languages and most other language families in the Americas.
- The other non-Aymaran languages of South America appear unrelated.
- The unrelated Tupi and Carib families have large groups of speakers to the east, including Guaraní (a Tupian language), the official language of Paraguay.
The location of major Sinitic languages in China
Chinese languages, Chinese dialects
Most of China, Chinese colonies, Chinese-speaking communities globally
- The Sinitic family includes the languages of the majority of the Chinese populace, including Mandarin in the north (the official language of China) and Cantonese to the south.
- Despite significant differences between the languages, many refer to them as dialects of Chinese rather than distinct languages.
- The core Chinese branch includes Mandarin to the north, the official and most spoken language in the country, and Cantonese to the south. Wu, native to Shanghai, also belongs to this branch.
- The Min branch includes a number of languages native to Southeastern China and parts of Taiwan.
- While the specifics are still debated, a grouping with the Tibeto-Burman languages (Tibetan, Burmese, and others) is highly plausible and widely accepted as a working hypothesis.
- The Bai language of Southern China may be a cousin of Old Chinese, making it a fairly distant relative of the other Chinese languages. On the other hand, it may be a Tibeto-Burman language.
- Many peoples in the Chinese sphere of influence seem to share something, but that something isn’t a language family. Japanese and Korean to the north-east are unrelated (and may or may not be distant relatives of each other).
- Some of the languages to the south, including Vietnamese and Khmer (also known as Cambodian) belong to the Austro-Asiatic family, and are often taken to be unrelated.
- The Austronesian languages of Taiwan and the Pacific are unrelated.
- Thai (of Thailand) and Lao (of Laos) belong to the possibly unrelated Tai-Kadai language family.
Some of the Turkic languages across Eurasia and Siberia
Turkey, a vast area covering North and Central Asia, Siberia
- Turkish is the best-known member, but related languages are spoken throughout Asia.
- The Siberian branch includes Sakha and Dolgan to the north, and Tuvan and Altay to the south.
- The Uyghuric branch includes Uzbek, the language of Uzbekistan, and Uyghur in China.
- The Kypchak languages form a widely dispersed branch that contains the dialects of Tatar and Bashkir (both in Russia) and the Kazakh language, official to Kazakhstan.
- The Oghuz branch includes a few of the major Turkic languages, including Turkish proper, Azerbaijani (alongside the closely related Qashqai in Iran) and the Turkmen language of Turkmenistan.
- The Khalaj language of Iran seems classifiable as a unique, independent branch of the Turkic family.
- The proposed Altaic superfamily would group Turkic languages together with Mongolic (including Mongolian), perhaps the well-established Ugric family (including the Finnish and Hungarian languages), possibly Korean and just maybe even Japanese.
- A very controversial proposal places the Altaic superfamily (including Turkic) under a larger Eurasiatic superfamily within an even larger Nostratic superfamily.
- Turkey’s neighbors all speak unrelated languages, and many other Turkic languages are interspersed in non-Turkic territory.
- Many Turkic languages are found in Russia, where the dominant language, Russian, belongs to the Slavic branch of Indo-European.
Current distribution of the Uto-Aztecan languages
“Of the Utes and the Aztecs”
Southwestern USA, Western and Central Mexico
- Many indigenous languages, from Southern California to Utah down to Southern Mexico, are Uto-Aztecan.
- Most of the Uto-Aztecan languages not yet extinct in the US are endangered or threatened. Many of the branches in Mexico have healthier communities of speakers, particularly the Nahuan languages.
- Classifications within the family fall into the northern branch or the southern branch.
- The northern branch of the family includes the Numic languages of Comanche (Oklahoma), Shoshone (Wyoming), dialects of Ute (California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado), Northern Paiute (Nevada and Oregon) and Mono (Eastern California).
- The Takic languages, also in the northern branch, include Luiseño (San Diego, California) and the extinct languages native to Los Angeles and Orange County, California.
- The Hopi language stands as a unique subgroup within the northern branch.
- The southern branch includes the Pimic subgroup, represented by Pima Bajo, O’odham and Tepehuán.
- The Corachol-Aztec languages of the southern branch (spoken in Central Mexico) contain Cora, Huichol and the Nahuan languages. Classical Nahuatl, the prestige language of the Aztecs, was a Nahuan language, as are the languages of the modern Nahua people.
- The extremely controversial proposal for an “Amerind Family” included Uto-Aztecan languages and most other language families in the Americas.
- The spread of this family brought it face-to-face with unrelated neighbors, including the Chumash languages of Southern California, Navajo in the Southwest, and Mixe-Zoquean and Mayan languages in Mexico.
Learn about language through helpful explanations, examples and exercises in Native Grammar: How Languages Work.