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Most languages are known to belong to language families. An accurately identified family is a phylogenetic unit; that is, all its members derive from a common ancestor. This ancestor is very seldom known directly, since most languages have a very short recorded history. However, it is possible to recover many of its features by applying the comparative method—a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th century linguist August Schleicher. This can demonstrate the validity of many of the proposed families listed below.

Language families can be divided into smaller phylogenetic units, conventionally referred to as branches of the family, because the history of a language family is often represented as a tree diagram. However, the term family is not restricted to any one level of this "tree"; the Germanic family, for example, is a branch of the Indo-European family. Some taxonomists do restrict the term family to a certain level, but there is little consensus in how to do this. Those who do affix such labels also subdivide branches into groups, and groups into complexes. The terms superfamily, phylum, and stock are applied to proposed groupings of language families whose status as phylogenetic units is generally considered to be unsubstantiated by accepted historical linguistic methods.

The common ancestor of the languages belonging to a language family is known as its protolanguage. For example, the reconstructible protolanguage of the well-known Indo-European family is called Proto-Indo-European. This is not known from written records, since it was spoken before the invention of writing, but sometimes a protolanguage can be identified with a historically known language. Thus, provincial dialects of Latin ("Vulgar Latin") gave rise to the modern Romance languages, so the Proto-Romance language is more or less identical with Latin (if not exactly with the literary Latin of the Classical writers), and dialects of Old Norse are the protolanguage to Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic.

Languages that cannot be reliably classified into any family are known as language isolates. A language isolated in its own branch within a family, such as Greek within Indo-European, is often also called an isolate, but such cases are usually clarified. For instance, Greek might be referred to as an Indo-European isolate.

Some major language families


Largest families

According to the numbers in Ethnologue, the largest language families in terms of number of languages are:

Niger-Congo (1514 languages)
Austronesian (1268 languages)
Trans-New Guinea (564 languages) (validity disputed)
Indo-European (449 languages)
Sino-Tibetan (403 languages)
Afro-Asiatic (375 languages)
Nilo-Saharan (204 languages)
Pama-Nyungan (178 languages)
Oto-Manguean (174 languages) (number disputed; Lyle Campbell includes only 27)
Austro-Asiatic (169 languages)
Sepik-Ramu (100 languages) (validity disputed)
Tai-Kadai (76 languages)
Tupi (76 languages)
Dravidian (73 languages)
Mayan (69 languages)

Language families (spoken)

In the following, each "bulleted" item is a known or suspected language family. The geographic headings over them are meant solely as a tool for grouping families into collections more comprehensible than an unstructured list of the dozen or two of independent families. Geographic relationship is convenient for that purpose, but these headings are not a suggestion of any " super-families" phylogenetically relating the families named.

Africa and southwest Asia

Afro-Asiatic languages (formerly Hamito-Semitic)
Niger-Congo languages (sometimes Niger-Kordofanian)
Nilo-Saharan languages
Khoe languages (part of the Khoisan proposal)
Tuu languages (part of Khoisan)

Europe, and north, west, and south Asia

Indo-European languages
Dravidian languages
Northwest Caucasian languages (often included in North Caucasian)
Northeast Caucasian languages (often included in North Caucasian)
Hurro-Urartian languages (extinct, perhaps related to Northeast Caucasian)
Kartvelian (South Caucasian)
Altaic languages
Uralic languages
Yukaghir languages (perhaps related to Uralic)
Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages
Yeniseian languages (perhaps related to Burushaski)
Andamanese languages (perhaps two families)

East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific

Austroasiatic languages
Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) languages
Hmong-Mien languages
Japonic languages (or Fuyu languages)
Sino-Tibetan languages
Tai-Kadai languages

Papuan languages

Baining languages
Border languages
Central Solomons languages
East Bird's Head-Sentani languages
Eastern Trans-Fly languages (one in Australia)
East Geelvink Bay languages
Lakes Plain languages (upper Mamberamo River)
Left May-Kwomtari languages
Mairasi languages
Nimboran languages
North Bougainville languages
Piawi languages
Ramu-Lower Sepik languages
Senagi languages
Sepik languages
Skou languages
South Bougainville languages
South-Central Papuan languages
Tor-Kwerba languages
Torricelli languages
West Papuan languages
Yuat languages

Australian Aboriginal languages

Bunaban languages
Daly languages
Limilngan languages
Djeragan languages
Nyulnyulan languages
Wororan languages
Mindi languages
Arnhem Land languages (3 families and 2 isolates)
Gunwinyguan languages
Pama-Nyungan languages

North America

Algic languages (incl. Algonquian languages) (29)
Alsean languages (2)
Caddoan languages (5)
Chimakuan languages (2)
Chinookan languages (3)
Chumashan languages (6)
Comecrudan languages (3)
Coosan languages (2)
Eskimo-Aleut languages (7)
Guacurian languages (a.k.a. Waikurian) (8)
Iroquoian languages (11)
Kalapuyan languages (3)
Kiowa-Tanoan languages (7)
Maiduan languages (4)
Mayan languages (North America & Central America) (31)
Muskogean languages (6)
Na-Dené languages (40)
Oto-Manguean languages (North America & Central America) (27)
Palaihnihan languages (2)
Plateau Penutian languages (a.k.a. Shahapwailutan) (4)
Pomoan languages (7)
Salishan languages (23)
Shastan languages (4)
Siouan languages (16)
Tequistlatecan languages (3)
Totonacan languages (2)
Tsimshian languages (2)
Utian languages (12)
Uto-Aztecan languages (31)
Wakashan languages (6)
Wintuan languages (4)
Yokutsan languages (3)
Yukian languages (2)
Yuman-Cochimí languages (11)

Central America and South America

Alacalufan languages (South America) (2)
Algic languages (North American & Central America) (29)
Arauan languages (South America) (8)
Araucanian languages (South America) (2)
Arawakan languages (South America, Caribbean) (73)
Arutani-Sape languages (South America) (2)
Aymaran languages (South America) (3)
Barbacoan languages (South America) (7)
Cahuapanan languages (South America) (2)
Carib languages (South America) (29)
Chapacura-Wanham languages (South America) (5)
Chibchan languages (Central America & South America) (22)
Choco languages (South America) (10)
Chon languages (South America) (2)
Comecrudan languages (North America & Central America) (3)
Guacurian languages (a.k.a. Waikurian) (8)
Harakmbet languages (South America) (2)
Jicaquean languages (Central America)
Jivaroan languages (South America) (4)
Katukinan languages (South America) (3)
Lencan languages (Central America)
Lule-Vilela languages (South America) (1)
Macro-Ge languages (South America) (32)
Maku languages (South America) (6)
Mascoian languages (South America) (5)
Mataco-Guaicuru languages (South America) (11)
Mayan languages (Central America) (31)
Misumalpan languages (Central America)
Mixe-Zoquean languages (Central America) (19)
Mosetenan languages (South America) (1)
Mura languages (South America) (1)
Na-Dené languages (North America & Central America) (40)
Nambiquaran languages (South America) (5)
Oto-Manguean languages (North America & Central America) (27)
Paezan languages (South America) (1)
Panoan languages (South America) (30)
Peba-Yaguan languages (South America) (2)
Quechuan languages (South America) (46)
Salivan languages (South America) (2)
Tacanan languages (South America) (6)
Tequistlatecan languages (Central America) (3)
Totonacan languages (Central America) (2)
Tucanoan languages (South America) (25)
Tupi languages (South America) (70)
Uru-Chipaya languages (South America) (2)
Uto-Aztecan languages (North America & Central America) (31)
Witotoan languages (South America) (6)
Xincan languages (Central America)
Yanomam languages (South America) (4)
Yuman-Cochimi languages (North America & Central America) (11)
Zamucoan languages (South America) (2)
Zaparoan languages (South America) (7)

Language isolates (oral languages)
Central & South America

Aikaná (Brazil: Rondônia)
Andoque (Colombia, Peru)
Betoi (Columbia)
Camsá (Columbia)
Canichana (Bolivia)
Cayubaba (Bolivia)
Cofán (Colombia, Ecuador)
Cuitlatec (Mexico: Guerrero) [extinct]
Huaorani (a.k.a. Sabela, Waorani, Waodani) (Ecuador, Peru)
Huave (Mexico: Oaxaca)
Irantxe (Brazil: Mato Grosso)
Itonama (Bolivia)
Jotí (Venezuela)
Koayá (Brazil: Rondônia)
Mapudungun (Chile, Argentina)
Movima (Bolivia)
Munichi (Peru)
Nambiquaran (Brazil: Mato Grosso)
Omurano (Peru)
Otí (Brazil: São Paulo) [extinct]
Pankararú (Brazil: Pernambuco)
Puelche (Chile)
Puinave (Columbia)
Puquina (Bolivia) [extinct]
Seri (Mexico: Sonora)
Tarascan (a.k.a. Purépecha) (Mexico: Michoacán)
Taushiro (Peru)
Tequiraca (Peru)
Ticuna (Colombia, Peru, Brazil)
Warao (Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela)
Yámana (a.k.a Yagan) (Chile)
Yuracare (Bolivia)
Yuri (Colombia, Brazil)
Yurumanguí (Columbia)

North America

Chimariko (US: California)
Chitimacha (US: Lousiania)
Coahuilteco (US: Texas, northeast Mexico)
Esselen (US: California)
Haida (Canada: British Columbia; US: Alaska)
Karankawa (US: Texas)
Karok (a.k.a. Karuk) (US: California)
Keres (US: New Mexico)
Kootenai (Canada: British Columbia; US: Idaho, Montana)
Natchez (US: Mississippi, Louisiana) (sometimes linked to Muskogean)
Salinan (US: California)
Siuslaw (US: Oregon)
Takelma (US: Oregon)
Timucua (US: Florida, Georgia)
Tonkawa (US: Texas)
Tunica (US: Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas)
Washo (US: California, Nevada)
Yana (US: California)
Yuchi (US: Georgia, Oklahoma)
Zuni (a.k.a. Shiwi) (US: New Mexico)


Enindhilyagwa (AKA Andilyaugwa, Anindilyakwa)
Minkin [extinct; perhaps a member of Yiwaidjan or Tankic]
Ngurmbur (perhaps a member of Macro-Pama-Nyungan)
Tiwi (Melville and Bathurst Islands)

New Guinea

Abinomn (Baso, Foia) (north Irian)
Anêm (New Britain)
Ata (Pele-Ata, Wasi) (New Britain)
Busa (Sandaun)
Isirawa (north Irian)
Kol (New Britain)
Kuot (Panaras) (New Ireland)
Kwotari-Baibai (a.k.a. Pyu)
Sulka (New Britain)
Taiap (Gapun) (Sepik)
Yalë (Nagatman) (Sandaun)
Yawa (Geelvink Bay)
Yélî Dnye (Yele) (Rennell Island)
Yuri (Karkar) (Sandaun)


Ainu language or languages (Russia, Japan) (like Arabic or Japanese, the diversity within Ainu is large enough that some consider it to be perhaps up to a dozen languages while others consider it a single language with high dialectal diversity)
Burushaski (Pakistan, India) (sometimes linked to Yeniseian)
Japanese (Islands of Japan, USA) (sometimes linked to Austronesian)
Kalto or Nahali (India) (sometimes linked to Munda)
Korean (North & South Korea, China, USA) (sometimes linked to Altaic)
Nivkh or Gilyak (Russia) (sometimes linked to Chukchi-Kamchatkan)
Sumerian (Iraq) [extinct]
Elamite (Iran) [extinct] (sometimes linked to Dravidian)
Hattic (Turkey) [extinct] (sometimes linked to Northwest Caucasian)


Hadza (Tanzania)
Sandawe (Tanzania)
Juu (Angola, Botswana, Namibia)
‡Qhôã (Botswana) (may be related to Juu)

(all sometimes included under Khoisan)


Basque (Spain, France) (related to extinct Aquitanian)
Etruscan (Italy) [extinct; part of the poorly attested Tyrrhenian family]

Unclassified languages

Languages are considered unclassified either because, for one reason or another, little effort has been made to compare them with other languages, or, more commonly, because they are too poorly documented to permit reliable classification. Most such languages are extinct and most likely will never be known well enough to classify.


Iberian (Spain) [extinct]
Tartessian (Spain, Portugal) [extinct]


Meroitic [extinct]


Quti [extinct]
Kaskian [extinct]
Cimmerian [extinct]


Tasmanian languages [extinct]

South America

Baenan (Brazil) [extinct]
Culle (Peru) [extinct]
Cunza (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina) [extinct]
Gamela (Brazil: Maranhão) [extinct]
Gorgotoqui (Bolivia) [extinct]
Huamoé (Brazil: Pernambuco) [extinct]
Kukurá (Brazil: Mato Grosso) [extinct]
Natú (Brazil: Pernambuco) [extinct]
Tarairiú (Brazil: Rio Grande do Norte)
Tuxá (Brazil: Bahia, Pernambuco) [extinct]
Xokó (Brazil: Alagoas, Pernambuco) [extinct]
Xukurú (Brazil: Pernambuco, Paraíba) [extinct]
Yurumanguí (Colombia) [extinct]

North America

Adai (US: Louisiana, Texas) [extinct]
Alagüilac (Guatemala)
Aranama-Tamique (US: Texas) [extinct]
Atakapa (US: Louisiana, Texas) [extinct]
Beothuk (Canada: Newfoundland) [extinct]
Calusa (US: Florida) [extinct]
Cayuse (US: Oregon, Washington) [extinct]
Cotoname (northeast Mexico; US: Texas) [extinct]
Maratino (northeastern Mexico) [extinct]
Naolan (Mexico: Tamaulipas) [extinct]
Quinigua (northeast Mexico) [extinct]
Solano (northeast Mexico; US: Texas) [extinct]

Sign languages

Although deaf sign languages have emerged naturally in deaf communities alongside or among spoken languages, they are unrelated to spoken languages and have different grammatical structures at their core. A group of sign "languages" known as manually coded languages are more properly understood as signed modes of spoken languages, and therefore belong to the language family of the spoken language; one example of such a signed language is Warlpiri Sign Language.

There has been very little historical linguistic research on sign languages, and few attempts to determine genetic relationships between sign languages, other than simple comparison of lexical data and some discussion about whether certain sign languages are dialects of a language or languages of a family. Auslan, NZSL and BSL are usually considered to belong to a language family known as BANZSL, and Japanese Sign Language, Taiwanese Sign Language and Korean Sign Language are thought to be members of a Japanese Sign Language family. There are a number of sign languages that emerged from Old French Sign Language and might tentatively be considered a part of a French Sign Language Family: French Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language, American Sign Language, Irish Sign Language, Dutch Sign Language, Flemish Sign Language, Belgian-French Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, Mexican Sign Language and others; Bolivian Sign Language is sometimes considered a dialect of American Sign Language, and thus would also belong with this group. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Finnish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language and Norwegian Sign Language belong to a Scandanavian Sign Language family. Other languages, such as Nicaraguan Sign Language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, and Providence Island Sign Language are known to be isolates.

Creole languages, pidgins, mixed languages, and trade languages

American Indian Pidgin English
Basque-Algonquian Pidgin (a.k.a. Micmac-Basque Pidgin, Souriquois)
Bislamic languages

Australian Creole (a.k.a. Kriol)
Tok Pisin
Torres Strait Creole (a.k.a. Broken, Cape York Creole, Lockhart Creole)

Broken Oghibbeway (a.k.a. Broken Ojibwa)
Broken Slavey (a.k.a. Slavey Jargon, Broken Slavé)
Callahuaya (a.k.a. Machaj-Juyai, Kallawaya)
Carib Pidgin (a.k.a. Ndjuka-Amerindian Pidgin, Ndjuka-Trio)
Carib Pidgin-Arawak Mixed Language
Chabacano - A Spanish creole spoken in South of the Philippines.
Chinook Jargon
Delaware Jargon (a.k.a. Pidgin Delaware)
Eskimo Trade Jargon (a.k.a. Herschel Island Eskimo Pidgin, Ship's Jargon)
Greenlandic Eskimo Pidgin
Haida Jargon
Haitian creole
Hawaiian Creole English
Hiri Motu
Hudson Strait Pidgin
International Sign or Gestuno - constructed language
Inuktitut-English Pidgin
Jargonized Powhatan
Kutenai Jargon
Labrador Eskimo Pidgin (a.k.a. Labrador Inuit Pidgin)
Lingua Franca Apalachee
Lingua Franca Creek
Lingua franca
Lingua Geral do Sul (a.k.a. Lingua Geral Paulista, Tupí Austral)
Loucheux Jargon (a.k.a. Jargon Loucheux)
Media Lengua
Mednyj Aleut (a.k.a. Copper Island Aleut, Medniy Aleut, CIA)
Michif (a.k.a. French Cree, Métis, Metchif, Mitchif, Métchif)
Mobilian Jargon (a.k.a. Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw-Chocaw Trade Language, Yamá
Montagnais Pidgin Basque (a.k.a. Pidgin Basque-Montagnais)
Nheengatú (a.k.a. Lingua Geral Amazônica, Lingua Boa, Lingua Brasílica, Lingua Geral do Norte)
Nootka Jargon
Pidgin Massachusett
Portuguese-based creole languages

Proposed language stocks

Almosan (= Sapir's Algonkin-Wakashan)

Central Amerind

Andean languages
Equatorial languages
Gulf languages
Hokan languages

Na-Dene (Sapir's)


Boas, Franz. (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 1). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
Boas, Franz. (1922). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 2). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
Boas, Franz. (1933). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 3). Native American legal materials collection, title 1227. Glückstadt: J.J. Augustin.
Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-1604-8774-9.
Goddard, Ives. (1999). Native languages and language families of North America (rev. and enlarged ed. with additions and corrections). [Map]. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (Smithsonian Institute). (Updated version of the map in Goddard 1996). ISBN 0-8032-9271-6.
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version: https://www.ethnologue.com).
Greenberg, Joseph H. (1966). The Languages of Africa (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University.
Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
Ross, Malcom. (2005). Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages. In: Andrew Pawley, Robert Attenborough, Robin Hide and Jack Golson, eds, Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples
Ruhlen, Merritt. (1987). A guide to the world's languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978-present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).
Voegelin, C. F.; & Voegelin, F. M. (1977). Classification and index of the world's languages. New York: Elsevier.

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