Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.

Illustration of the Dear Duolingo logo with Lin and her grandmother Lucy above, looking at each other warmly.

Hello, language learners! We're back this week with a question I love, because this topic simply blew my mind when I was first studying linguistics.

Our question this week:

Dear Duolingo,

Isn't it kind of wild that English has so much French influence, but they aren't considered related? What exactly are the rules for saying languages are related?

Thanks and merci,
It's All Relative

It's true that English and French aren't directly related: English is a Germanic language, and French is a Romance language, but they are both part of a much bigger language family, which I'll tell you all about. When it comes to related languages, it can be helpful to think of a family tree: You came from your parents and probably have more in common with them than you'd like to admit (just me?), but you're also quite different, too. And when it comes to your siblings, there are likely things you all share in common, as well as many elements of your childhood that each of you preserve very differently.

Here's how language families pass on their own linguistic traditions and innovate new ones!

Language families

Language "families" are groups of related languages: One language gives rise to many dialects (probably spoken in different areas), those dialects become increasingly distinct, they become different enough to be called separate languages, each of those languages gives rise to its own dialects, and the cycle continues!

Just like with human families, a language is a part of a small, immediate family and at the same a much larger, extended family, too. So English's closest "living" (still spoken) relative is Scots, and together they form the very tiny Anglic family—which is part of the larger West Germanic family (including German, Dutch, and Frisian), and they all belong to a still larger Germanic family (which includes all of those plus Scandinavian languages and some others), and so on.

The biggest language family that English is a part of is called Indo-European, which includes:

  • all those Germanic languages
  • Slavic languages like Czech and Ukrainian
  • Romance languages that evolved from Latin
  • Hellenic languages like Greek
  • Celtic languages like Irish and Welsh
  • enormous branches like the Indo-Iranian family, which itself includes Romani, Persian (Farsi), Hindi, Urdu, and Sinhala
  • many, many others!

The "closer" that 2 languages are in this family classification system, the more they'll share in common: from grammatical structures, to processes and rules for forming words, to more overlap in kinds of sounds, etc. The further away 2 languages are in the family tree, the less they'll share and the harder it can be to see similarities—just like how you and a distant cousin only share a teeny bit of DNA but are still "related"!

Today's languages were yesterday's dialects: Spanish started as the kind of Latin they were speaking way out on the Iberian Peninsula, English was that funny West Germanic dialect that they used in the southeast of that faraway island, etc.

Little differences in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation can become bigger over time. Sometimes this is because one dialect develops an all-new way of expressing something, and other times a word (or grammatical structure, or pronunciation) that exists in all the dialects becomes more common in one and less common in another. Not to mention that one dialect might borrow from another language, leading to additional changes. In fact, that's what happened to English, which is why English vocabulary has so much more French in it than other Germanic languages!

Let's imagine the future of English. 🔮 Right now, English has many words related to homes and houses: There's home and house, of course, but there's also dwelling and abode and specific words like apartment (or flat!), dormitory, condominium, and McMansion, words related to house things (like domestic), and lots more.

It's not too hard to imagine some dialects developing unique slang, where one of these words gets used more broadly—like maybe apartment becomes the go-to word in New York City English for all homes, McMansion catches on as a sort of funny way to refer to all houses in Texas English, and all those International English speakers in hostels around the world default to dorm. If these become separate languages in a few centuries, it wouldn't be clear on the surface that these very different words—apartment in future New Yorkese, McMansion in Texano, and dorm in Internationalian—all came from the same ancestor language, 21st century English!

And that's just one word… imagine grammar, pronunciation, and other words changing, too!

Examples of language change: Romance languages

After centuries and millennia of these changes, it can be difficult to determine what languages are related to each other—especially in cases where there's not a lot of old written language to help fill in the gaps.

Take a look at a few of today's Romance languages, which are all descended from Latin:

English translation Portuguese Spanish Catalan French Italian
man homem hombre home homme uomo
house casa casa casa maison casa
to speak falar hablar parlar parler parlare
to eat comer comer menjar manger mangiare
to have ter tener tenir avoir avere

One man's journey of language change

Here's what happened in the case of Spanish hombre (man), as an example:

  • omine: The Latin accusative form hominem became the commonly used form in the Iberian dialects of Latin. The "h" wasn't pronounced, and early on the last "-m" was dropped, so the word was more like omine, with stress on the first syllable.
  • omne: The syllable next to the stressed syllable got deleted—just sort of naturally skipped over in pronunciation, since the stressed syllable can be thought of as the "important" one. (This isn't so different from English speakers pronouncing chocolate as choc'late!)
  • omre: Another common kind of change is when 2 similar sounds (like "m" and "n") change slightly to become more different. The Spanish "r" is made in the same part of the mouth as "n" but with a different tongue movement, and it gradually replaced the "n," to make the "mn" combination of sounds more clearly different!
  • ombre: We don't pronounce each sound of a word totally on its own, and instead our mouth "prepares" for the next sound before we've gotten there! In transitioning your mouth and lips from "m" to "r," you nearly pass through a "b" in the process. Soon that became the default pronunciation, leaving modern Spanish with hombre!

Isn't that amazing? 🤩 In the case of Spanish and Latin, it helps also that there are written records of the intermediate stages so modern researchers can be pretty confident of all the changes. In this way, you can also see which changes affected the other Latin dialects, and which ones didn't.

Besides the unique changes that each Latin dialect went through, you might also notice some groups within that Romance language chart: For example, Catalan, French, and Italian all have some version of parlare, while Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan have similar words for "to have." These overlaps give us information about which languages were in contact with each other and which may have their origins in the same dialect.

Feeling at home with language change

The exceptions also tell us a lot about related languages and how they change over time. In 4 of these 5 Romance languages, the word for the house is basically the same: casa. Each language pronounces it differently—the "s" is pronounced as a "z" in Italian and Catalan, the second "a" is pronounced as a schwa in Catalan and something close to it in Portuguese—but French looks totally different.

Just like English has many words for houses (apartment, dwelling, condo, etc), Latin had many, too: Latin casa was pretty common and it's the word that became the default in many of its dialects, but French used a different Latin "house" word, the one that gave rise to maison (and to English mansion, too).

But French didn't totally abandon casa—instead, it went through some very French sound changes and took on a very special use! Can you guess what word it became? French is famous for many deleted sounds at the ends of words, and retaining those letters in spellings. Also, at the beginning of words, the "k" sound in Latin became a "ch" sound, and later "sh." 👀

Casa became chez in French!

Loving languages runs in the family

Languages give us lots of clues about their histories and the stories of their communities, and figuring out their linguistic lineage is both enlightening and a fun (sometimes maddening) puzzle!

For more answers to your language family questions, get in touch with us by emailing dearduolingo@duolingo.com.