The term language family is used to describe a number of related languages that are believed to share a same common ancestor, or proto-language. Linguists call each descendant of the same language family a daughter language, and all speakers within a language family are part of a common speech community. Linguists have identified at least 135 living language families, and an additional 12 that are now extinct. This article examines which of these living language families have the largest common speech community, or the number of speakers.
Largest Language Families By Number of Speakers
1. Indo-European - 2.910 Billion
The Indo-European language family is the largest in the world. It consists of 437 daughter languages and has an estimated 2.91 billion speakers across Europe and Asia. This number of speakers represents nearly half of the total global population. many languages in the Indo-European family are widely used, including English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Punjabi, Bengali, and Hindustani. All of these modern languages descend from Proto-Indo-European, which developed during the Neolithic age. As the human population dispersed throughout the region, distance and geographic barriers created isolated pockets of civilizations. Over time, new languages and dialects formed. Some of the most important of these early languages include Latin, Mycenaean Greek, and Vedic Sanskrit.
2. Sino-Tibetan Languages - 1.268 Billion
The Sino-Tibetan language family is the second largest in the world. It consists of 453 daughter languages and has around 1.268 billion speakers throughout Asia. Some of these languages are spoken only by small populations that live in remote locations. This isolation means that linguists have been unable to thoroughly research and document these languages. The most widely spoken of the Sino-Tibetan daughter languages are Tibetan, Burmese, and Chinese. Of these, Chinese and all of its variants and dialects have 1.3 billion speakers, more than any other language in the world. All modern-day Sino-Tibetan languages have evolved from the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language.
3. Niger-Congo Languages - 437 Million
The third largest language family in the world and the largest in Africa is the Niger-Congo. It consists of 1,524 daughter languages and has around 437 million speakers throughout Africa. This language family is further divided into 6 subgroups: Katla, Atlantic-Congo, Ijo, Dogon, Mande, and Rashad. Of the Niger-Congo languages, Swahili is the most widely used, with between 2 and 15 million native speakers and between 50 and 100 million second language speakers. It is the official language of Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other languages, however, have a larger number of native speakers, including Igbo, Shona, Yoruba, and Fula.
4. Austronesian Languages - 386 Million
The Austronesian language family is the fourth largest in the world in terms of the number of speakers. It is made up of 1,224 daughter languages and has approximately 386 million speakers spread throughout Oceania, Maritime Southeast Asia, and a few regions of mainland Asia. In terms of the number of languages, it is the second largest language family in the world and represents 20% of the tongues spoken in the world today. Some of the most widespread Austronesian languages include Javanese, Tagalog, and Malay. This language family once covered the largest area on earth, until it was surpassed by the Euro-Indonesian family during the era of European colonization.
Interestingly, there are select languages in the world that do not belong to any single language family. With this happens, it is called a language isolate. Examples of languages that are language isolates include Korean, Sumerian, and Elamite. Many of the world's language isolates are found in Papua New Guinea, which is the most linguistically diverse country in the world. The language isolate phenomenon is also often seen in sign languages, as many sign languages evolve naturally on their own within smaller communities.