families account for a further 1,608 languages. A total 136
language isolates7 are claimed, making up 32% of all the c.
420 language families known (figure 1). 8 The term ‘isolate’
is somewhat subjective. Sister languages in different regions
of the world may exist, but may not have been identified.
Furthermore, sister languages may have once existed, but
are no longer spoken.
What is clear is that the vast majority of the world’s
languages are part of clearly definable language families.
Behind each language family a proto language is posited,
such as proto-Semitic and proto-Indo-European, but it needs
to be stated that these are theoretical reconstructions, there
are no texts of protolanguages, and linguists do not always
agree on the forms that they posit.
It is noteworthy that although languages within a language
family have many common features, surprisingly few of these
features are shared with languages from another language
family, suggesting that the protolanguages and progenitors of
modern isolates arose at the original confusion of languages
that the Book of Genesis records as happening at the Tower
of Babel. 9
The Semitic language family
We should briefly note the main languages that are in some
way relevant to the study of the Old Testament. Hebrew, the
language in which the vast majority of the Old Testament
is written, belongs to what is called the ‘Semitic language
family’. This was so named by late 18th century linguists10,
after Noah’s son Shem (Genesis 5: 32), and was represented
in the ancient world by:
1) Akkadian, a language spoken in Mesopotamia (modern
Iraq) by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
2) Ugaritic, the language of a Syrian seaport.
3) Phoenician, spoken along the Mediterranean coast of
Lebanon and Syria.
4) Aramaic, a language spoken in Syria (which became the
official language of the Persian empire in which portions of
the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel were written11)
and the languages of Israel’s neighbours—Ammon, Moab,
In the modern world Arabic, Amharic, the language of
Ethiopia, and Maltese are also part of the Semitic language
family. All these languages seem to have originally stemmed
from a single tongue, which scholars have termed ‘
proto-Semitic’, but of which no texts have survived. Modern-day
linguists would place the 74 languages of the Semitic family
within a wider family12 termed Afro-Asiatic, which has 372
The word plays evident in the early chapters of Genesis
may have also worked in proto-Semitic (perhaps even in
proto-Afro-Asiatic), but almost certainly would not have
worked in another language family.
The Indo-European language family
Ancient languages such as Greek and its predecessor
Mycenaean Greek, Latin, Old Persian, plus Hittite and
several other languages of ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey)
such as Luvian and Lycian, belong to the so-called ‘
Indo-European language family’. Such diverse ancient tongues
as Armenian and Gaulish were also Indo-European. Avestan
(spoken in Iran), Sanskrit (the ancient classical language of
India), and Tocharian (once spoken in Chinese Turkestan and
attested in manuscripts dating from the 6th–8th centuries AD)
are other examples of what is now the most widespread
language family in the world. It is of course the family that
includes such widely spoken languages as English, French,
German, Russian, and Spanish.
Approximately 45% of the world’s population speaks an
Indo-European language. 13 It would seem that all the 443
Indo-European languages from Portuguese to Punjabi and
from Swedish to Sanskrit ultimately derive from the same
source that scholars term ‘proto-Indo-European’, but of
which, once again, no texts have survived.
Other language families within
the wider biblical world
Sumerian, spoken in southern Mesopotamia (modern
Iraq) and arguably the world’s oldest attested language, has
no relatives, either ancient or modern. It can thus rightly be
classed as an ‘isolate’.
Ancient Egyptian can be classed in the wider Afro-Asiatic
language family, which was traditionally termed ‘
Other language families, peripheral to the world of
the Bible, include the Kartvelian (or southern Caucasian)
language family, exemplified by modern Georgian, Svan, and
Laz; the northern Caucasian language family, exemplified
Families of the
Sepik-Ramu (PNG) 104
Austro - Asiatic 168
Oto-Manguean (Mex) 172
Sino- Tibetan 365
includes Semitic 74 Indo-European 443
Other language families of
2-100 languages, 1608
Figure 1. The main language families of the world