World language families map
(Correction: The unity of the Niger-Congo family is disputed. Its largest branch is the generally accepted Atlantic-Congo family, which covers almost all of the same area.)
So what’s the big picture of the languages of the world?
I like to look at this world map and just get an idea of how languages are distributed over the world.
Now you may see many different versions of this map, painted in all different colours, and of course different ways of dividing things up.
So of course, a couple of problems that come up when you try to make a map like this, and one is how do you actually divide the languages?
So here, I like this map because it tries to identify the highest-level language families.
Languages that are known to be related to each other, that are presumed to come from a common ancestor, like one big family, they’re printed in the same shade.
So this is really the least you can divide it.
This is looking at the languages in the broadest possible way.
So I think this map does a fairly good job.
Although the second problem is a problem that is really not solvable on a map like this, it seems, because you can’t really just tile the world, you know, with a certain colour, as if a certain area belongs to a certain language.
Of course, there are a mix of speakers that are distributed all over the world.
And I suppose if you made it really, really high resolution, you could have one coloured dot for each speaker, and then that could be a very interesting world map, where each speaker’s native language gets their colour, and then you could sort of cluster it.
So there are a lot of potential ways to make a more precise map.
This is just an attempt to give a broad perspective of what is what you might call the main language of the area.
It’s a highly disputed thing, because of all the politics related to language.
But this is something that’s not necessarily about official languages, although there’s sort of this interplay between what is the official language of an area and then what are the languages, you know, spoken by most of the people in the area.
So certainly there’s room for dispute about a lot of this map.
But nonetheless, this does give a general picture of how the world is divided into language families at the highest level.
So here, let’s look first over here.
So over here we have a list of some of the most prominent language families, details of which we’ll get into in future times.
But here they’re presented at the highest level.
So the most popular and dominant language family in the world is the Indo-European language family, and here that’s presented in some form of a shade of red.
And you can see that it occupies the most territory in the world, and it’s divided according to these major branches, although of course, there are many more branches of the tree.
But first we see the red, just the bright red here, is for any part of the family that’s not in one of these sub-trees or sub-branches.
And so that’s where you see up here, like Lithuanian and Latvian, which have their own branches, and here’s Greek with its own branches, and so on.
But of the major sub-branches, you can see that the one that possibly stands out the most here is Germanic.
Because of course, that includes English.
So we see that we have England, we have English here, German, the Nordic languages.
And then we see that English, of course, has spread through most of North America, and all the way over in Australia and New Zealand.
And we also see some Germanic in South Africa, representing Afrikaans, a Dutch-derived language.
And then we see the next most prominent colour is we see this sort of crimson here, which represents the Latin or Romance languages.
Here we have France, Spain, Italy, Portugal.
And then their holdings in the New World, we have Quebec here with the French, and all of Latin America, with here mostly Spanish, and Portuguese in Brazil.
And so you see that, you know, this reach of Indo-European has extended quite far beyond its historical roots in, of course, India and Europe.
But we see here, as well, another movement to the east, which is the pink colour here represents Slavic.
So that of course has the eastern European languages and Russian.
So of course, as Russian speakers spread across Siberia here, we see that spread out across the north side of Asia.
And then there’s the other branch of Indo-European, which is the Indic branch, the Indian branch, where we see this other movement towards the east, you know, starting sort of in eastern Turkey, Armenia, through Persia, Afghanistan, and then into Pakistan and northern India.
So that’s a whole other ancient branch of expansion.
So you can almost see these pathways of expansion, where you see in ancient times this movement from the Middle East through Persia into northern India, sort of spreading out that way.
And then we see the more recent spreads.
Through the colonization of the New World, we can see the Germanic and Latin languages spreading to take over most of North and South America, and as well all the way at the tip of Africa and Australia and New Zealand.
And as well on land, the land version of that expansion, through the Russian language expanding across Siberia to the Pacific.
So the expansion of this language family is like no other in the world.
And of course, this is nothing to do with the language itself, but simply the fact that the language is carried by its speakers.
Speakers of these languages spread and expanded their territories, conquered, colonized, and expanded their territory to spread through a very large portion of the world, and that’s why these languages are spoken in more territory than any other.
So this is the Indo-European language family.
Now the next language family that stands out to me here is this Afro-Asiatic language family.
This is the language family of North Africa and the Middle East.
The most prominent language which it contains is Arabic, and that is denoted by the darker green, the different varieties of Arabic that spread from Arabia here through across North Africa.
Now this, of course, only shows the influence of the spoken language.
If we look at the influence of the written language, which would be a whole other topic – this is purely about spoken language – but the Arabic writing system also spread further east all the way into Pakistan as well, and has a much further reach.
But in terms of the spoken Arabic, this is its range.
This also includes Hebrew.
It includes the Egyptian languages, including Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and some related languages here in the Horn of Africa.
So these two language families, Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic, sort of are the way that the map looks for these areas.
And once again, this is based on the expansion of the speakers of this language, rather than the properties of the language itself.
It’s simply that, you know, Arabic speakers, Afro-Asiatic language speakers, spread through this area, and therefore this language family can be considered the main language family of these areas.
The next language family that stands out as being very prominent is this blue here, which occupies basically most of Africa south of the Arabic, Afro-Asiatic area.
And this is one of the major cultural divides making up the map of Africa, that we have the northern area which is sort of in this Arabic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Semitic domain of northern Africa, and then what is sometimes called Sub-Saharan Africa, as in it’s below the Sahara.
Although I don’t like that term, because it’s not really below the Sahara.
It is south of the Sahara, not necessarily below, unless your map has north of the top, which is certainly optional.
But of course, the Sahara desert here in northern Africa makes a great cultural barrier of mostly empty space between this sort of Mediterranean domain and the domain of the rest of Africa further south.
And here, in this region, one language family has taken over most of the area.
We see this is called the Niger-Congo language family, and it is almost entirely composed of the Bantu language family, plus a few other smaller branches, and it spread throughout most of Africa.
The only remaining areas are these few areas sort of in between that are the Nilo-Saharan language families that occupy this, named after the river Nile and the Sahara Desert, that occupy some of this intermediate zone.
And then you can see in southwest Africa, these are the Khoisan languages which are famous for including many click languages, the use of more clicks than any other language family, in the Kalahari Desert and surrounding area.
And then, of course, the Afrikaans Germanic speakers in the Cape Town and South Africa area.
Now, looking now further east into Asia – because really we’ve covered most of the world now except for the largest continent, Asia – you can see that of course, one of the most prominent language families in the world is, of course, the Chinese language, and the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Sino is an old Latin term referring to China.
And so Sino-Tibetan covers both Chinese languages, which you can see here with this darker yellow, and then including some Tibetan languages, which are seen here in the lighter yellow.
And they are another major language family.
And once again, we see that the effects of the writing system and culture are felt much further than the spoken language.
So you can see here that in Korea and Japan, these languages are presumed to be entirely independent of the Chinese language.
There’s no known relation between them in terms of the spoken language.
Entirely different spoken languages.
And yet they’ve both been greatly influenced by the Chinese writing system.
And that influence also extended into Southeast Asia, Vietnam, as well.
Now in the middle of Asia, here we can see the Turkic languages.
And this term Turk, Turkic: of course we have the country of Turkey here at the western end of Asia, but the Turkic languages are found throughout the continent of Asia, really one of the the major language families of Central Asia, found all the way throughout, even far into Siberia.
While I think there may be some dispute about, you know, what exactly, you know, counts as related to Turkic, but it certainly is one of the major language families of Central Asia, the major language family of the Central Asian region.
And here we have Mongolic, which just a way of referring to Mongolian and some related languages that are also part of this Central Asian picture.
Now we’re settling in on this final corner here.
We have southern India, which there’s a very interesting language divide in India.
India has many languages.
The northern languages, such as Hindi, are within the Indo-European family, but the southern languages are in what’s called the Dravidian language family, many other languages of South India that have an entirely separate language family tree.
And so yes, there’s a lot of linguistic variety within India, but these are the two major groups that they fall within.
Down to Southeast Asia, we find the the Tai-Kadai language family, which includes the language of Thailand and Laos, and that is its own language family, influenced by Chinese.
I mean, we can see many local influences of nearby languages, but genetically speaking, in terms of a common ancestor, in terms of the language family, this is its own independent language family with no known connection.
And finally, we get into the Austronesian language family, which refers to the language of – Austronesian means the southern islands – and so here we have Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and includes dots that are so small, they’re not even represented on this map, but the Pacific Islands, Hawaii and – oh, is it there?
Nope, no Hawaii – the Pacific Islands, Tahiti, and so on, all speaking languages of this Austronesian family.
The Polynesian world.
And this is where we have another, you know, very interesting little twist of geography and history, that this orange for Austronesian extends all the way west to the island of Madagascar.
It was settled by the same speakers that settled further east to Hawaii, Tahiti, Polynesia, all the way to Easter Island, Rapa Nui.
They also explored west across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar.
So some incredible seaborne expansion centuries ago led to Madagascar speaking a language in the same family as Easter Island and Hawaii.
So I believe that covers the major, the languages that were considered major enough to get a colour on this map.
And of course, the grey areas, there are some other language families that are not considered, you know, part of any other language.
For example, you can see here there’d be the Inuit or the the Eskimo-Aleut language family of the far north here.
We see Finnish and Hungarian are part of their own language family, the Finno-Ugric family.
We see some more families within Siberia.
Vietnam and Cambodia have their own language family.
We have a few families within the indigenous Australian languages that it’s still quite debated exactly how they’re related.
Possibly two major families, but those connections are still tenuous.
And then we have here in New Guinea, the island of New Guinea is famous for being really a cradle of languages, having, I believe, possibly even a thousand languages on this island itself, especially in the central highlands.
You can see some Austronesian along the coast, but in the central highlands of this island, many, many different languages.
And we see some as well within the Amazon, the Amazon basin here, and up in the highlands of South America.
So this is a very simplified picture of the world’s languages.
It is leaving out a lot.
It’s leaving out a lot of minority speakers that are within these regions.
But in terms of dividing the world into sort of these major zones of languages, I think this provides a pretty simple starting picture.