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

Image for post
Image for post
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?

Image for post
Image for post
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.

Image for post
Image for post
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/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store