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LINGUISTICS

A CLASSIFICATION OF LANGUAGES

A RATIONALE






I present here a scheme for the classification of languages.

I have excluded:

  • "contact" languages (pidgins and creoles), as their classification requires a different kind of logic;
  • artificial languages, whether meant as an "easy" way for communication (e.g. Esperanto), or used for public (e.g. Klingon) or private (e.g. my own Tundrian) entertainment.

The classification of languages, like that of living things, is a complex, and rather arbitrary, matter.

Just as in the case of biological classification, the classification of languages relies heavily on the idea of common descent. Languages that are thought to derive from a common ancestor are placed together in a set that may be called a language branch, family, or phylum, depending on the degree of commonality.

There is a problem with this, however. Usually, classification serves a purpose: cataloguing books and/or articles, listing Internet pages, etc. Without some classification scheme, it becomes impossible to have an overview of a complex set of data.

Now, if we follow a strictly genetic classification in a practical scheme, we can easily contradict this other  purpose of the classification exercise: simplicity.

Let us use an example, that of the Austronesian languages. If we stick to a strictly hierarchical, descent-based approach, we would need two steps to categorize the rather obscure Formosan language Tsou:

Austronesian > Tsouic > Tsou

On the other hand, we would need eight steps to get to Maori, one of the national languages of New Zealand:

Austronesian > Malayo-Polynesian > Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian > Eastern Malayo-Polynesian > Oceanic > Remote Oceanic > Central Pacific > Polynesian > Maori

(See Ruhlen (1991:296-297) in the Bibliography)

The classification I propose to establish here shuffles subcategories in some cases in order to even out the number of steps needed to locate a particular language. As a result, this classification scheme, without being unscientific, becomes usable for any practical cataloguing scheme.

As an example, the classifications of the two languages used in the example above become:

Austronesian > Formosan > Tsou

Austronesian > Oceanic > Maori

A CLASSIFICATION SCHEME FOR THE LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD

SOME EXPLANATIONS

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