Written to the song: Sleepyhead — Passion Pit

“I don’t have to look up my family tree, because I know that I’m the sap.”
— Fred Allen

Lisbon, Portugal.

Have you ever wondered how languages are classified and how language families work? In the 18th century, scholars were curious about how language connectivity. Is there a relationship between languages, and if so should we classify them in a specific manner?

Nice, France.

Historical linguists compare languages by identifying similarities and differences. “Cognate” is the term referring to languages with the same ancestor (Crystal, 2006). When a parent language exists and is known, it is easiest to identify and trace the linguistic roots of a language. For example, the words vino (‘wine’ in Spanish and Italian) and vin (‘wine’ in French) derive from the Latin word vinum (Dworkin, 2012). As Latin is a known and documented language, linguists can trace the roots of Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Romanian, etc.) to Latin.

Language Family Tree (Lynch, 2014).

Language relationships are demonstrated through a language family tree. For example, as seen in the above Proto-Indo European language family tree, Balto-Slavic is considered to be a “parent”, whose “daughters” are Polish, Russian and Serbo-Croatian.

Languages are historically classified in two ways. The first is called “genealogical”, describing the divergence of languages from a common ancestor, based on historical relationships. In this case, if a parent language cannot be identified, a parent language can be reconstructed. The other approach is “typological” which compares language structures, phonology, vocabulary and grammar, to decipher the historical roots of a language. Neat, eh?


Crystal, David. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2006. Print.

Dworkin, Steven. A History of the Spanish Lexicon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Lynch, Jack. “The Indo-European Language Family Tree.” Lynch, Indo-European Language Family Tree. Rutgers, 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

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