Posted by: janecronin | June 5, 2016

Language families

Nearly all the languages in the world belong to families.  Many hundreds or even thousands of years ago it seems that there were some original languages common to mankind which gradually altered as human communities moved around and inhabited geographical areas that were cut off from each other.  Languages developed in different directions but could still be identified as members of the same language family.  This process has continued throughout the ages and in fact, even the languages we speak today are not static things but are constantly changing.

A relatively recent branch of this huge family tree is the group of languages derived from Latin.  In this group are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, Italian and Rumanian along with other smaller languages or dialects. If we see any of these languages written down we can often identify words with similar roots, although when we hear them spoken these common elements are harder to recognise.  As well as individual words, the basic structure of these languages is also similar as they all derive from their Latin parent language.

In the north of Europe there is another large language family group described as Germanic.  Many of the languages in this group were spoken by the northern tribes such as the Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others, who were the ancestors of present day Danes, Norwegians, Germans and Dutch.

The English language is an interesting mixture of both of these language families.  What we call Old English was a Germanic language brought to us by our Viking, Angle and Saxon invaders.   However, although we don’t like to be reminded, we were conquered by the French in 1066 and for about three hundred years society on the British Isles was bilingual, with the ruling classes speaking French and the peasant classes speaking Old English.  Over the centuries these two languages merged into a single tongue and became the basis of modern English.  One of the strange results of this merger is that we often have two words for the same idea, the old English word being considered more basic and the French word being considered more elitist, academic, technical or courteous.

There are scores of examples of this two-tiered word system in modern English: smell/odour; give/donate; way/manner; first/primary; work/labour; child/infant to name but a few.  The first word of each pair is Germanic in origin and the second comes from Latin.

An interesting result of this mixture in English is that we often understand bits of written Spanish because we identify similar words with Latin roots in English.  For example, when you are driving along the road and see the sign “Modere su velocidad” you understand it perfectly, as you understand “Moderate your velocity”.  However, this is not what you say to your partner who’s driving too fast.  Your language in that situation will almost certainly be much more Anglo-Saxon.



  1. very well witten and very interesting. Thanks

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