The Principles of Language Classification

September 9th, 20117:29 am


The Principles of Language Classification

In the philosophy of language, a natural language (or ordinary language) is a language that is spoken, signed, or written by humans for general-purpose communication, as distinguished from formal languages (such as computer-programming languages) and from constructed languages.

The classification of natural languages can be performed on the basis of different underlying principles:
• paying attention to the historical evolution of languages results in a genetic classification of languages—which is based on genetic relatedness of languages,
• paying attention to the internal structure of languages (grammar) results in a typological classification of languages—which is based on similarity of one or more components of the language’s grammar across languages,
• respecting geographical closeness and contacts between language-speaking communities results in areal groupings of languages.

The different classifications do not match each other and are not expected to, but the correlation between them is an important point for many linguistic research works.

Genetic classification:
A language family is a group of languages related by descent from a common ancestor, called the proto-language of that family.

The concept of language families is based on the assumption that over time languages gradually diverge into dialects and then into new languages. However, linguistic ancestry is less clear-cut than biological ancestry, because there are extreme cases of languages mixing due to language contact in conquest or trade. In the formation of creole languages and other types of mixed languages, there may be no ancestor of a given language. In addition, a number of sign languages have developed in isolation and may have no relatives at all. However, these cases are relatively rare and most languages can be unambiguously classified.

Membership of languages in the same language family is determined by a genetic relationship. Some of the-major families are the Indo-European languages, the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Austro-nesian languages, and the Sino-Tibetan languages. The shared features of languages from one family can be due to shared ancestry.

Typological classification:
Classification based on the similarity of language structural features An example of a typological classification is the classification of languages on the basis of the basic order of the verb, the subject and the object in a sentence.
The shared features of languages of one type (= from one typological class) may have arisen completely independently. Their cooccurence might be due to the universal laws governing the structure of natural languages.

Areal classification:
The following language groupings can serve as some linguistically significant examples of areal linguistic units, or sprachbunds: Balkan linguistic union, or the bigger group of European languages; Caucasian languages; East Asian languages. Although the members of each group are not closely genetically related, there is a reason for them to share similar features, namely: their speakers have been in contact for a long time within a common community and the languages converged in the course of the history. These are called “areal features”.

Sociological classification:
According to Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan, a sociological classification of languages is performed according to their large scale social role for its speakers:
• Central languages: widely spoken languages
• Supercentral languages: very widely spoken languages that serve as connector between speakers of central languages; according to de Swaan, there are twelve of these: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili;
• Hypercentral languages: also connects supercentral languages; de Swaan erects English to be the sole hypercentral language;
• Peripheral languages: the rest – languages that no one consider being worth learning for the sole purpose of improving one’s own communication facilities.

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