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World Maps of Language Families

Submitted by on January 20, 2013 – 5:12 pm 17 Comments |  
Wikipedia Language Families World MapFor teaching a class on the history and geography of the world’s major language families, good linguistic maps are essential. Unfortunately, serviceable maps that depict only language families are difficult to find. Most images available online show a combination of families and sub-families, splitting Indo-European, for example, into its main divisions. Such a portrayal is of little use for demonstrating the significance of the Indo-European family, which encompasses languages spoken by almost half the people of the world.

The best map of language families per se that I have found is a Wikipedia product, found here and posted above. I do have a few quibbles with the map. It portrays “Caucasian,” for example, as a single family, whereas in actuality at least three languages families are found in the Caucasus Mountains and nowhere else. Like most other family-level linguistic maps, it exaggerates the extent of indigenous languages in places such as Canada, Brazil, and Siberia, where English, Portuguese, and Russian respectively are spreading rapidly as many native tongues slowly fade away. Such mapping, however, captures the situation that existed until fairly recently, and therefore has much to recommend it.

But as good as it may be, this map is of limited utility in the classroom. When I lecture on a specific language family, I want it to stand out on the map, rather than hide among a dozen other pastel-colored groupings. I have therefore used this map as a model for creating a series of family-specific depictions. A few of these are posted here, and the others will appear over the next week. I have simplified the mapping to some extent, partly because the simple program that I use (Keynote, Apple’s equivalent of PowerPoint) does not allow fine distinctions. I have generally followed the contours on the Wikipedia prototype closely, even where I know (or suspect) that the depiction is not quite right. I have done so merely for the sake of convenience. After all of the individual maps have been posted, I hope to put up the original Keynote file, which I will also translate onto PowerPoint. This will allow interested users to manipulate the maps as they see fit, moving the borders between language families, for example, or changing the color scheme.

Indo-European Language Family Map

Sino-Tibetan Language Family Map





Niger-Congo Language Family MapAfro-Asiatic Language Family MapAustronesian Language Family Map

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  • Randy McDonald

    It’s my understanding that Indo-European languages have made inroads as vernaculars in two other places in Africa apart from Afrikaans-speaking South Africa: French in Cote d’Ivoire and Portuguese in Angola.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comment, Randy! French in Cote d’Ivoire and Portuguese in Angola are indeed sole official languages (whereas Afrikaans in South Africa is co-official alongside 10 other languages). However, these maps purport to show the spatial distribution of various language families as spoken natively. When it comes to native speakers, only roughly one in 1000 people in Cote d’Ivoire speak French natively. The number of native Portuguese speakers in Angola is a bit higher, but in the same order of magnitude. This is why these languages are not shown on these maps. But it’s a difficult issue for sure as it is not always easy to draw a line between native and non-native speakers…

      • Randy McDonald

        I doubt the accuracy of those statistics. Speaking about Angola, for instance, Portuguese seems to be the dominant language of the country and the main language spoken in cities like Luanda.

        The Lusophonization of Angola is a product of multiple factors, including large-scale migration to Angolan cities by refugees of multiple ethnic backgrounds who adopt Portuguese as a shared language along with a public sphere (education system, mass media, government) that operate in Portuguese. The result is apparently that the rising generation of Angolans, at least in urban areas, now speaks Portuguese natively. Non-Portuguese languages are still widely spoken, but their regular speakers are concentrated in rural and peripheral areas.

        Similar factors seem to have operated in Cote d’Ivoire, with the exception being that most of the migration in Cote d’Ivoire creating a multiethnic French-using population was voluntary migration predating the recent civil war. French language use is concentrated in Abidjan, locus of this migration, and seems to be much more second-language use, even among the first generation of urbanites, than in Angola.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks for sharing this and for the links, Randy! I agree that the use (and even fluency) in French (Cote d’Ivoire) and Portuguese (Angola) are higher than elsewhere in Africa, yet it is often as a second language, even among the fluent speakers. The number of French and Portuguese native speakers is indeed rising, so perhaps the statistics are a bit out of date. I believe a census in Angola later this year is supposed to address this issue… We’ll see.

          • Randy McDonald

            True enough. My impression is that the scale of the language shift in Angola is unprecedented, perhaps bearing a greatest similarity to what happened in Ireland a couple of centuries ago.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Do you mean the shift from Irish to English? Well, yes it’s similar but depopulation, famine and out-migration had a lot to do with it too, didn’t it?

          • Randy McDonald

            It did. The scale of the mass migrations during the Angolan Civil War seems to have played a role comparable to that of mass migration during the Irish Famine in disrupting traditional language communities.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            That’s a good point, Randy!

          • jeronimo constantina

            That was an enlightening article, made even more informative by the comments. Nevertheless, I would also agree with Randy that the maps somehow underestimate the penetration of Indo-European languages in Africa, particularly French in Cote d’Ivoire, and in Gabon.

            In Abidjan, the biggest city and former capital of Cote d’Ivoire,

            (The) “French language is used as the language of communication in the metropolitan area”[]. It is becoming the first language for an increasing number of city residents, and, if present trends continue, with migration from various language areas, is expected to be the mother tongue of the majority of residents in the near future []. While I agree with Asya that “When it comes to native speakers, only roughly one in 1000 people in Cote d’Ivoire speak French natively,” (indeed, Ethnologue puts the number of French speakers at only 17,500 in Côte d’Ivoire and 37,500 in Gabon, although these figures date back to 1988 and 1993, respectively [,

  ] a significant change is foreseeable in the next few years, since the population of the Abidjan metropolitan area, 5,068,858 in 2006 [], is fully a quarter of the Cote d’Ivoire population of (20.15 million in 2011)

            [], and the population in the city is shifting towards French. One might expect the same development in Gabon, where French is the mother tongue of 30% of the population of the capital, Libreville, and its lingua franca, and a third of the country’s 1.5 million people reside in Libreville. [,

  ]. This will have to be reflected in maps, or should be in the near future.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Oh there’s undeniably a change, and it is to be watched, as far as cartography goes, but I don’t think there are reasons to change the map just yet.

            And a clarification: these maps are highlights of the various families from the Wikipedia map posted at the top. Hence if a certain area is colored as family X, it cannot be colored as family Y. In other words, this map is not good at representing bilingualism.

  • Sebastian Pado

    I’ve got a basic question/comment. A fundamental assumption that maps like the original Wikipedia map (have to) make is that each location is assigned to exactly one language family — there is no overlap. I assume that locations are assigned to families by determining the language of native speaker majority (?). Of course that’s an oversimplification.
    An opportunity that individual-family maps offer is that they can overlap in areas where various native languages are spoken. Of course then the question arises what counts as *sufficient* to mark an area as belonging to a language family, but I guess some reasonable criterion can be found.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Excellent point. Some parts of the world, such as Russia’s middle Volga region, cannot be adequately mapped at this scale; in this area, Russian is complexly intermixed with several Uralic and Turkic languages. Such problems as especially vexing for multi-lingual cities. These kinds of maps also assume that everyone has one, single mother tongue, whereas many people grow up in multi-lingual households. As a result, such maps should be regarded as suggestive, not as definitive in any sense.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I am in agreement with the earlier comments made by Martin. There’s one additional issue that makes linguistic cartography even more tricky: if we color each area according to the language of the native speaker majority (as most maps indeed do), many smaller languages or language families would be grossly under-represented and may even disappear from the map entirely. This is a problem we’ve dealt with while mapping languages of the Caucasus:

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Many thanks to all for the insightful comments posted below. These are indeed vexing issues for the making language maps at the global scale. If you look at the bottom left of each map, you will see that I noted “approximate distribution circa 1950 CE” to try to handle such issues. In many parts of the world, language patterns are changing too quickly these days to be captured in rough maps such as these. But I still think that these kinds of maps are useful for general classroom purposes.

  • Teo

    I agree that the extent of indigenous languages in South America is grossly exaggerated in those maps. For example, that “grey” area in central Brazil and eastern Amazonia hasn’t been the case for the last 40 years at least – since the first agricultural boom that saw thousands of migrants from the far south and northeast of the country to flood the region.

    Come to think of it, it was probably not the case before that, either, as the then mostly depopulated areas were punctuated here and there with settlements that very often outnumbered the surrounding indigenous populations. The same thing was true for many areas of Colombia and Peru that are marked as predominantly indigenous.

    Overall, I find it odd that desert and prairie regions in the continental USA where indigenous languages are spoken have the surrounding areas labeled as default to “English”, whereas everywhere else the default label for sparsely populated areas seems to be “indigenous” (SA, Russia, Australia, Canada and even Alaska).

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for sharing this, Teo! As for your comment on sparsely populated areas: which map are you referring to?

      • Teo

        Both the first and second (in this case, of course, “indigenous” = non-Indo-European”).