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Language families and languages
Most languages are known to belong to language families (called simply "families" for the rest of this article). An accurately identified family is a phylogenetic unit, i.e., all its members derive from a common ancestor. The ancestor is very seldom known to us directly, since most languages have a very short recorded history. However, it is possible to recover many of the features of the common ancestor of related languages by applying comparative method -- a reconstructive procedure worked out by 19th-century linguists. It can demonstrate the family status of many of the groupings listed below.
Language families can be subdivided into smaller units, conventionally referred to as "branches" (because the history of a language family is often represented as a "tree" diagram).
The common ancestor of a family (or branch) is known as its "protolanguage". For example, the reconstructible protolanguage of the well-known Indo-European family is called Proto-Indo-European (not known from written records, since it was spoken before the invention of writing). Sometimes a protolanguage can be identified with a historically known language. Thus, provincial dialects of Latin ("Vulgar Latin") gave rise to the modern Romance languages, so the Proto-Romance language is more or less identical with Latin (if not exactly with the literary Latin of the Classical writers), and dialects of Old Norse are the protolanguage to Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic.
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