Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University

The following maps and classification are based on Merritt Ruhlen's book A Guide to the World's Languages (Stanford University Press, 1987), which in turn is strongly influenced by the work of the great linguist Joseph Greenberg, who died May 7, 2001.  Please understand that both the maps and statistics below are approximations.  All errors are mine.

The Khoisan Family

About 30 languages with about 100,000 speakers, the Khoisan family includes the people we call the Bushmen and the Hottentots.

The Niger-Kordofanian Family

The largest sub-Saharan African family of languages, it includes some 1,000 languages with close to 200 million speakers.  Best known are Mandinka, Swahili, Yoruba, and Zulu.

The Nilo-Saharan Family

With about 140 languages and 10 million speakers.  The best known of these languages is Maasai, spoken by the tall warrior-herdsmen of east Africa.

The Afro-Asiatic Family

This is a major language group, with 240 languages and 250 million speakers.  It includes ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as the great Nigerian language Hausa. The many dialects of Arabic alone are spoken by as many as 200 million people.

The Indo-European Family
(with the isolates Basque, Burushaski, and Nahali)

The single largest language family, Indo-European has about 150 languages and about three billion speakers.  Languages include Hindi and Urdu (400 million), Bengali (200 million), Spanish (300 million), Portuguese (200 million), French (100 million), German (100 million), Russian (300 million), and English (400 million) in Europe and the Americas.  With English, one can reach approximately one billion people in the world.

There are three language isolates represented on this map, unrelated to any of the language families:  Basque thrives between France and Spain. Burushaski and Nahali are found in the Indian subcontinent.

The Caucasian Family

There are 38 Caucasian languages between Russian and the Middle East, with about five million speakers.  Abkhasian and Chechenian are the most familiar.

The Kartvelian languages are considered by many linguists to be a separate family, possibly related to Indo-European.  Its prime example is Georgian.

The Dravidian Family

These are the "old" languages of India, with about 25 representaties and 150 million speakers.  Best known are Tamil and Telugu.

The Uralic-Yukaghir Family

There are about 20 languages with 20 million speakers in this family.  Best known are Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Saami, the language of the Lapplanders.

The Altaic Family
(with the isolates Ket and Gilyak)

There are about 60 langauges in the Altaic family, with about 250 million speakers.  Included are Turkish and Mongolian.

There is considerable controversy about this family.  First, it is often classified with the Uralic languages (see above), which have a similar grammatic structures.

Second, many linguists doubt that Korean, Japanese (125 million speakers), or Ainu should be included, or that these last three are even related to each other!

Also represented here are the language isolates Gilyak and Ket.

The Chukchi-Kamchatkan ("Paleosiberian") Family

Perhaps the smallest family, this one includes 5 languages with 23,000 speakers in the farthest northeastern reaches of Siberia. Many linguists consider these two unrelated families.

The Sino-Tibetan Family

A very important language family, it includes some 250 languages.  Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) alone is spoken by one billion people!

The Miao-Yao, Austro-Asiatic, and Daic Families

Austro-Asiatic (Munda in India and Mon-Khmer in southeast Asia) has 150 languages and 60 million speakers, including Vietnamese.

Miao-Yao consists of four langauges with seven million speakers, scattered all over southern China and southeast Asia generally.

Daic has some 60 languages with 50 million speakers, especially Thai (Siamese).

These three language families are sometimes grouped with the Austronesian family (below) into a "superfamily" called Austric.  On the other hand, some linguists consider Miao-Yao and Daic relatives of Chinese.

The Austronesian Family

This family includes some 1000 different languages, spoken by about 250 million speakers.  Malay and Indonesian (essentially the same language) account for about 140 million.  Other examples include Madagascar in Africa, Tagalog in the Philippines, the aboriginal languages of Formosa (Taiwan) -- now almost displaced by Chinese -- and the many languages of the Pacific Islands, from Hawaiian in the north Pacific to Maori in New Zealand.

The Indo-Pacific and Australian Families

There are about 700 languages in the Indo-Pacific family, most of them in the island of New Guinea, with about 3 million speakers. Many linguists are not at all convinced that all these languages are related.  In fact, a number of them have yet to be studied!  On the other hand, some believe that the family may include Tasmanian, now extinct.

Possibly related are the 170 languages of the Australian aborigines.  Sadly, there are only about 30,000 native speakers left.

The Eskimo-Aleut Family

The Eskimo-Aleut family consists of nine languages, spoken by about 85,000 people.  The Inuit today play an important role in the governing of Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) and the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

The Na-Dene Family

This family includes 34 languages spoken by about 200,000 people.  Best known examples are Tlingit, Haida, Navaho, and Apache.

The Amerind Family (North America)

Although many linguists do not accept the idea that all North and South American Indian languages (other than the Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut) can be classified into one family, it is often accepted for convenience sake.  Amerind includes nearly 600 languages, with more than 20 million speakers.  In North America, some of the best known names are Ojibwa and Cree, Dakota (or Sioux), Cherokee and Iroquois, Hopi and Nahuatl (or Aztec), and the Mayan languages.

The Amerind Family (South America)

The language map of South America includes some of the North American sub-families, and adds a few more.  Well known languages include Quechua (Inca), Guarani, and Carib.  The Andean language sub-family (which includes Quechua) numbers nearly nine million speakers!

Posted on July 15, 2000; revisions posted Nov. 25, 2003

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