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A language family is a group of related languages said to have descended from a common proto-language. Most languages are known to belong to language families. An accurately identified family is a phylogenetic unit; that isĦBall its members derive from a common ancestor. The concept of language families thus entails the concept of a historical genetic ancestor of a languageĦBimplying a gradual evolution over time of one language into another language (as opposed to sudden replacement of a language). The concept of linguistic ancestry is less clear-cut than the concept of biological ancestryĦBas in cases of extreme historical language contactĦBin particular the formation of creole languages and other types of mixed languages; it may be unclear which language should be considered the ancestor of a given language. HoweverĦBthese types of cases are relatively rare and most languages can be unambiguously classified into families.
The common ancestor of a language family is seldom known directlyĦBsince most languages have a relatively short recorded history. HoweverĦBit is possible to recover many features of a proto-language by applying the comparative method ĦX 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 unitsĦBconventionally referred to as branches of the familyĦBbecause the history of a language family is often represented as a tree diagram. HoweverĦBthe term family is not restricted to any one level of this "tree"; the Germanic familyĦBfor exampleĦBis a branch of the Indo-European family. Some taxonomists restrict the term family to a certain levelĦBbut there is little consensus in how to do so. Those who affix such labels also subdivide branches into groupsĦBand groups into complexes. The terms superfamilyĦBphylumĦBand 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 proto-language. For exampleĦBthe reconstructible proto-language of the Indo-European language family is called Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Indo-European is not attested by written recordsĦBsince it was spoken before the invention of writingĦBbut sometimes a proto-language can be identified with a historically known language. ThusĦBprovincial dialects of Latin ("Vulgar Latin") gave rise to the modern Romance languagesĦBso the Proto-Romance language is more or less identical with Latin (if not exactly with the literary Latin of the Classical writers)ĦBand dialects of Old Norse are the proto-language of NorwegianĦBSwedishĦBDanishĦBFaroese 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 familyĦBsuch as Greek within Indo-EuropeanĦBis often also called an isolateĦBbut such cases are usually clarified. For instanceĦBGreek might be referred to as an Indo-European isolate. This modern isolate however is not reflected in its own historyĦBbecause Greek results from the evolution from within the larger Indo-European language. On the oppositeĦBthe Basque language is a living modern language and a near perfect isolateĦBwhose history and lexical/phonetic/syntaxic structure and history is not known and not easily associated to other languages (even if it has been influenced by Romance languages in the nearby regionĦBlike Castillian SpanishĦBCatalanĦBOccitanĦBand French).
Connections among and between language families are often used by anthropologistsĦBin combination with DNA evidence and fossil evidenceĦBto help reconstruct pre-historic migrations of peoplesĦBand other pre-historic eventsĦBsuch as the spread of agriculture.