Classification Conundrums

February 2014 Amy Lupin

With over 6,000 languages out there and perhaps even as many as 10,000 languages, one might wonder how they all relate to each other.

Most languages belong to what is called a language family. This term refers to the historical relationships between different languages. Spanish, French and Italian, for example, belong to the Indo-European language family. Language families consist of several subfamilies and branch off from proto-languages, which is the term for a common ancestor language. In the case of the Indo-European language family, the proto-language is said to be Proto-Indo-European. It is believed to have been spoken around 4000 BC by the Kurgans, a nomadic group living in southern Russia. Over time, the language would have gradually diverged and become other languages, such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

However, this isn't necessarily a straightforward matter, as languages converge as well as diverge. This is partly a result of language contact, in addition to social factors. Often words are borrowed by one language from another. Japanese, for example, borrows some words from English and French, such as aisukurimu (from the English word "ice-cream") and pan (from the French word pain, meaning "bread"). Japanese is still very distinct from both English and French, but in other cases, language contact can lead to two languages becoming very similar, despite not having been part of the same language family to begin with. By extension, languages within a particular language family can be influenced by other languages, to the point that they seem to be part of completely different language families.

Other language families include but are not limited to Afro-Asiatic, Altaic, Dravidian, Niger-Congo, Sino-Tibetan and Uralic. In total, there are about 32 different language families. The classification of languages into language families is known as genetic classification.

More complex, however, is the classification of sign languages. There is little known about the actual number of sign languages that exist. It is estimated to be 137, but it is likely that even more exist. Research into sign language is fairly new, occurring approximately within the last 40 years, and as a result, sign languages are not yet fully documented. It is also difficult to determine whether relationships between sign languages are genetic or based on language contact. A further complication is that sign languages don't have a writing system as such, and therefore, it is not always clear how sign languages have evolved over time. It is plausible that sign languages existed during ancient times, though there are no records of these. The oldest documented sign language is the one used at the Ottoman court in Turkey about 500 years ago. This contrasts with the oldest written records of a spoken language, which date back to the fourth millennium BC.

Another type of classification is typological classification. This involves classifying languages according to their structure by examining the phonologies, grammars, vocabularies and morphologies of languages, rather than by their historical relationships. One of the issues posed by typological classification is whether or not certain criteria are seen as being more significant. For example, it has not yet been established whether a set of languages with a similar phonology but a completely different grammar is considered to be related to a set of languages with a similar grammar but a completely different phonology.

Based on morphological criteria, there are four types of languages--isolating (or analytic), agglutinating, inflectional (or fusional) and polysynthetic. They range from words consisting of single morphemes, such as in Vietnamese, to words consisting of long strings of morphemes that are associated with entire sentences in other languages. Examples of polysynthetic languages are Cree and Inuktitut. However, in reality, languages typically have several different morphological features. English, for example, is both an isolating and an agglutinating language.

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