World language families map
(Other 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.)
Making a map of the world’s languages is certainly an imprecise art.
And we looked last time at one possible way to arrange it, and here is a somewhat more complicated map that shows the same idea, but you can see how there are some different possible ways to represent.
So this is the map we looked at last time, and this provides a simpler picture of the major language families.
And there’s really possibly the simplest possible way to simply say OK, this broad area, this is the main language, and just leave it at that.
Now this map presents a bit more of a complex picture.
Presenting the same idea, of course different colours, but there’s a lot more detail in terms of local areas and what language is considered to be the primary language there.
So in the previous map, we saw shades of red referring to the Indo-European language family, and this time it’s this light green.
So we can see this broad coverage.
But, unlike in this earlier map, where the red, the shades of red, sort of occupy entire chunks, here you can see that there’s a lot more stippling, or there’s various sort of threads and blobs – to use very non-technical terms – for how the language is spread around.
So, for example, you can see that in this map, we have North America presented, well, OK, we have Spanish in Mexico, and then English in the United States and Canada, except for Quebec, which is French.
And then we have these other languages in the far north, the Inuit area.
And you can see a few dots here, mainly referring to, you know, some various Indian reservations, as they’re called, where there are some indigenous languages still being spoken there.
But when we look at the way this map presents North America, certainly see a lot more detail.
So of course, you have still Spanish in Mexico, English in United States and Canada, but really here, this is a more realistic presentation of what Canada looks like.
This, you know, English Canada is this band that is just barely to the north of the Canada-US border.
Whereas, you know, here it’s presented as basically stretching across all this land.
Here we see that it’s, you know, the presence of English in Canada is still quite near the border.
And same with the French here – which is all presented in the same colour, because it’s all Indo-European language family – and that’s near the St.
Lawrence valley down here.
Whereas in this map, French is sort of presented as occupying almost all of the territory of Quebec up here.
So we have is English and French as the primary languages through most of the United States and the southern band of Canada, but here we can see greater resolution of indigenous language families.
A lot of debate about the specific ways in which indigenous languages are grouped into families, but here there’s certainly some kind of Algonquian, Algonkian-related language families, like Cree, around this area of the boreal forest of eastern Canada, and the Dene language families, which include many up here in the west, and this also includes the Navajo down here.
And then we see in the Rocky Mountains area a collection of different language families, indigenous languages, that are still being spoken.
Now, it may be exaggerated in some areas, you know, how much the indigenous languages are a majority – there’s certainly a lot of English speaking all throughout these areas – but this gives a more complete picture of what you might call the language map of this territory.
And this map also provides further detail, like showing that these are the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which occupy the Arctic coasts, all the way from the Aleut Islands, around Alaska, through to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, northern coasts of Quebec and Labrador, and through Greenland.
So a truly Arctic language family in blue here.
And this is separated from black.
Now, that’s not the name of a language family, but simply land that is essentially uninhabited, the interior of Greenland, and the far north of the Archipelago.
So that’s a just a higher level of resolution on North America in particular.
We can see some other patches of different language families.
This map tries to show them with many different colours, but it’s very difficult to sort out the exact shades here for a lot of these languages.
But you see this same pattern throughout the New World, North and South America, where you have the predominant territory is Indo-European – we have French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese all sharing this light green here – and then you see bands or patches of different languages where various indigenous languages are spoken: Aztecan, Mayan, the different…
Quechua, various like the Incan languages, languages of the Amazon, Tupian, and so on.
And typically you can see that there’s a lot of concentrations in mountainous areas.
So typically, when people are spreading, conquering, and colonizing, they will tend to colonize the coasts and the river valleys and the plains.
These are the easiest to move through.
Whereas those who are living in the mountains have a certain kind of natural fortress and isolation, so there tends to be a lot more fragmentation.
And this pattern is repeated around the world.
You can see it here in the Rocky Mountains and the highlands of Central America.
Certainly in the Andes here in South America.
An exception being in the jungle.
Of course, the jungle itself, the Amazon rainforest, also provides that kind of isolation, because of its inaccessibility.
And we see the same thing all the way over here, for example, in Europe.
This sort of concentration of colour here is the Caucasus Mountains, which contain a great diversity of languages.
Although we don’t see it in the Himalayas themselves.
When I think mountains, I think Himalayas, Mount Everest, the highest mountains.
These don’t have quite the same diversity.
But then you get into these mountains here of Southeast Asia, the highlands, you see again this patchwork.
And it’s also shown in the highlands of New Guinea, although here there’s certainly a great variety of languages, although many are believed to possibly belong to this Trans-New Guinea family, although that again is still under debate exactly how these languages are exactly genetically divided into different language families.
So we can see here in the Old World, in northern Eurasia, the spread of Indo-European languages towards the east.
Like up here, we see the spread of Russian through Siberia.
So it’s like you can really almost see like a corridor, like a highway spreading through the steppes, the grasslands of central Asia.
Whereas to the north of the grasslands are the boreal forest, the taiga, and here, this land is much less accessible, much harder to get to, and so here you can see a lot of the sort of spotty patchiness of other language families of the boreal forest that are, you know, survived.
So you just imagine these sort of waves or flows of Indo-European speakers along coasts and rivers and plains, and then you see mountains, forests, less accessible places, where other language families can sort of survive and flourish there without being taken over.
And you see, almost, you see a similar kind of like flow here from eastern Turkey, Armenia, through Persia, and into northern India.
Really you see this as the linguistic residue of ancient expansions, you know, well over 2000 years ago, these ancient expansions of Indo-European speakers through to the east and south, through into northern India.
This remains to this day through what we see here of the linguistic map.
Although still, again, you notice the patchwork.
The highlands of eastern Turkey, Armenia, Iran, having a lot of these other languages sort of patched in here.
Turkic and Mongolic are the major families of central Asia, and you can really see Turkic really having a broad stretch all the way from, of course, Turkey itself to the Stans of central Asia, and far out into Siberia as well.
And, you know, before the Russian expansion here through it, these would have been even further, these lands would have been even more Turkic, and so really a great language family of central Asia, along with Mongolic.
Africa here shows greater detail with you have the Afro-Asiatic, dominated by Arabic, and then the Niger-Congo languages, dominated by the Bantu language families.
And then Khoisan here is marked with a star, meaning that it’s not considered to be a single language family, but rather a group of families in this area.
And here you can see this sort of stretch of Nilo-Saharan that occupies this intermediate territory in central Africa between the Arabic north and the Bantu south.
Over in the east edge of Asia, we see Koreanic and Japonic, which is an attempt to make an adjective form, make a language family name, but these are very small families that are almost entirely based on single languages.
Koreanic refers to Korean and also the language of Jeju Island.
Japonic refers to Japanese and also languages of the Ryukyu Islands, like Okinawa.
So you often see this as well where islands, just you have a mainland with a major language, and then an island will tend to have a slightly different version, just based on the same concept of isolation.
So anywhere that is isolated will tend to keep its own language, whereas areas that are interconnected, the one language will tend to take over.
Finally, we see a similar pattern in Australia, with these patches of green and pink, where green refers to English, in the Indo-European family, and the pink refers to some Australian language groups.
Oh, there’s also a darker green referring to this Australian, a language family called Australian – although again, with a star, showing it’s not a true family, but rather a group – and these Pama-Nyungan, which is a another hypothesized family of Aboriginal Australian languages.
You see a few spots here in New Zealand for Maori.
And this map also gives a nice presentation of some of these islands through the western Pacific here.
And you can see the main language of this region, Austronesian, stretching all the way from Madagascar, through Indonesia and the Philippines, out to Tahiti, all the way out to Rapa Nui, Easter Island.
So here’s another way of presenting the world’s language families.
A little bit more complex, but of course, still a very simplified picture, but trying to present what is the major language of each region of the world and how they’re distributed.