Learnings from a language tree

septembre 1, 2022

When studying linguistics, you’ll often come across the use of trees and branches as metaphors for how languages have developed and what their links are. This idea was beautifully captured in a language tree infographic by Swedish illustrator Minna Sundberg and became highly regarded in the linguistics world. We explore what we can learn about languages from this intelligent representation.

 

Take a look at Minna Sundberg’s language tree here.

Europe map

Why did Minna Sundberg create a language tree?

Minna Sundberg’s career started as a webcomic artist. And it was while creating ‘Stand Still, Stay Silent,’ her project portraying a post-apocalyptic world set 90 years into the future in 2013, she became recognised for her contribution to linguistics. As part of this project, she produced an infographic illustrating how all major European and many Eastern languages are related.

 

Minna used research data from Ethnologue, a resource that aims to profile every language and country on Earth. Then with her clever illustrative skills, she portrayed this information in the form of a tree. Minna’s goal was to illustrate why some of the characters in her project could communicate, despite not speaking the same language. However, her illustration extended beyond the reach of readers of fiction, capturing linguists’ attention and gaining praise from this field of study.

 

What can we learn from Minna Sundberg’s language tree illustration?

Using a tree with its branches and leaves, Minna created an illustration that demonstrates how all major European languages and many Eastern languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Persian, have developed from Indo-European and Uralic roots.

 

As the languages evolve, they ‘branch’ out into different language families. For example, the main European branch splits into Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. These then divide further; for example, the Germanic branch splits into North Germanic and West Germanic. This subset also includes English, portraying the shared history of the English and German languages.

 

Other points of interest include the distinctiveness of Finnish from its other Scandinavian relatives. While Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic were all formed from the North Germanic branch, Finnish origins from a totally different Uralic root.

 

We can also clearly see the close link between the Indian languages of Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. Meanwhile, Bengali, Sylheti and Assamese split after the Indic branch, developing via the separate Eastern Zone branch.

Norway Trondheim

Other clever aspects of Minna Sundberg’s language tree

This language tree illustration not only represents the roots of different languages and how they have evolved, but it also depicts the popularity of the languages. Those with more native speakers have larger ‘leaves’ in the illustration.

 

Of course, including all known languages in these regions on one infographic would be almost impossible. Therefore, Minna Sundberg drew the line at 1 million speakers, and languages with fewer native speakers had to be left out.

 

Take a look at Minna Sundberg’s language tree here.

branches, leaves

Other language families

Minna Sundberg’s language tree focused on the Indo-European and Uralic language families. However, across the world, there are other highly prominent language families. Two of the largest are Niger-Congo and Austronesian, both comprising over 1,000 different languages.

 

Niger-Congo languages mainly originate from Africa and include Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, Zulu and Shona and the most widely spoken language in this family, Swahili.

 

Meanwhile, the Austronesian languages are spoken throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, islands of the Pacific Ocean and Madagascar. Malay, Javanese, Tagalog and Sundanese are three examples of major languages in this group.

 

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