These past few days a fascinating video was circulating on the internet. (No… it wasn’t a cat video this time!)
In the video you could see a couple holding up some signs with Arabic and Spanish words and pronouncing each word one by one wowing viewers with the fact that they were almost the same!
We could see and hear aceite (oil in Spanish) and الزيت (az-zayt, or oil in Arabic), azúcar (sugar in Spanish) and السكر (a-sukar, or sugar in Arabic) and so forth, you get the idea.
The similarities were uncanny.
Does this mean then that Spanish and Arabic are related?
Well, not really. These words are similar merely because of the influence Arabic had on Spanish due to the presence of Moors in the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages and these eerily similar words were borrowed from Arabic by Spanish speakers.
As languages do not exist in isolation, there are many examples of these so-called loanwords in other languages, as well. Think tea in English borrowed from the Hokkien 茶 (tê), robot from the Czech word robot or emoji from the Japanese 絵文字 (emoji).
Despite having these very similar words, we cannot really say that these languages are related to English: they all belong to different language families. Hokkien is Sino-Tibetan, Czech is Balto-Slavic and Japanese is Japonic.
So, if not having similar vocabulary, what means that a language is related to another one?
Just like in the case of human families, the answer is: a common ancestor.
For example, in the case of Germanic languages (such as English, Dutch and well… German) there was once a common ancestor that “sired” these languages: this is now referred to as the Proto-Germanic language. Historical linguists theorise that this language was spoken after 500 BC, so a pretty long time ago.
To determine whether two languages stem from the same proto-language, linguists look at a number of things, such as:
- similarities within the most basic, everyday vocabulary, such as words related to familial connections, agriculture or animal husbandry
- the structure or the grammar of the languages or if the grammatical constructions used by the two languages are in some way similar
- irregularities in a language which often come from older versions of the same language – if they are similar to another language, it might be a good indication that the two languages are related
- systematic differences are also a fairly reliable sign, for example if two languages have similar words that always differ in a specific sound
If we go back to the example of Germanic languages, most people can easily tell that these languages are related, even without a degree in linguistics. There are many similarities amongst words, the grammatical constructions are not unlike and often it’s easy to guess what a sentence in German or Dutch means, even if we don’t speak the language.
However, sometimes it is not so easy to tell which language family a language belongs to or there doesn’t seem to have a good reason for it to belong to the family linguists say it belongs to. Take Hungarian, for example, a Uralic language sitting in a sea of Indo-European languages. How did that come about? And what about Basque that doesn’t fit into any category and so linguists call it a “language isolate”?
These are all very exciting questions for linguists – and we hope you’ve found our article interesting, as well. If you’d like to learn more about how we can decide if two languages are related, watch this video here: How do we determine what languages are related?
And if you’ve had enough of linguistics for today, watch this cute CAT video with Maru and Miri, the world-famous Japanese cats!