It is generally assumed that semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic are similar because the speakers of those languages are ethnically related and share a common ancestry. In other words, A Hebrew speaker is ethnically more closely related to the Arab than he is to the speaker of English or French. And so it goes for the Indo-european languages, it is assumed that they are similar because the people share some kind of common ancestry.

My question is, is this rule set in stone? Might there an exception to this rule? Can anyone give an example of two languages that are very similar to each other, yet their DNA shows that the people are ethnically unrelated to each other? I can easily imagine a scenario of an Asian people (speaking an Asiatic language) wandering into the European continent and settling there, eventually they assimilate with the Europeans (yet still retain their distinct identity and culture) and learn the Indo-european language and end up adopting it. Eventually their languages may end up sounding very similar, yet the speakers are ethnically unrelated. I would appreciate if anyone can share any examples or new research on this.

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    Where is that generally assumed? I’ve never heard of such a thing. To my knowledge, it’s generally assumed that Hebrew and Arabic are similar is that they’re genetically related – not because their speakers are. Apart from people originating in the British Isles, English is now spoken as the first language of entire groups of people who are ethnically as diverse as Inuit, Sioux, Zulu, Māori, etc. No one would argue there’s any any ethnic affinity between those that isn’t also there with Finns or Turks or Basques, who speak unrelated languages. Commented May 3, 2020 at 16:39
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    Yiddish? But I think your premise is flawed, or rather: just an effect of correlation. People(s) living closer together tend to speak a common language, and more likely have common ancestors, but independently so. Commented May 3, 2020 at 16:52
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    I think the contrary is assumed. Alec Speers spoke Klingon as a native language, but he has no genetic similarity with them.
    – Nyos
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 14:49

3 Answers 3



this is not generally assumed. In fact, it is assumed that any human (of any ethnic background) can learn any language as first language or second language. Large language families often cross ethnic boundaries, the speakers of Semitic languages comprise both light-skinned Causasians and African people from Ethiopia, the Austronesian languages are spoken from Hawaii to Madagascar, and modern languages like English or French have native speakers of almost any ethnic background possible due to their recent colonial empires.

When we say that languages are "genetically related" we borrow a metaphor from biology, but in fact languages aren't inherited but learned. Second generation immigrants learn the languages of their living places, not the inherited language of their parents.

  • All you say is correct, but in practice languages spread by migration (Finnish/Hungarian) or occupation (Roman languages, the Romance part of modern English). Both processes imply some degree of "genetic mingling", to put it politely. It is probably rare that a tribe or people adapt an unrelated language without occupation or assimilation of an immigrated minority. Commented May 5, 2020 at 7:41
  • I'm not an expert in human genetics, but at first sight I don't see a big genetic difference between speakers of Finnish and Swedish despite the very large linguistic distance between their languages. Commented May 6, 2020 at 8:23
  • Sure. But my point was that there must also be genetic relations between Finns and Hungarians, since they speak related languages, deriving from some split migration. A cursory google search seems to support that. It is also evident that there are Swedish (or rather, Nordic) influences in the Finnish language, which have likely been passed through the same contact between the two peoples which transferred the genes. Commented May 6, 2020 at 9:08
  • Oh, and also interesting is the apparent genetic difference between the Swedish speaking minority in Finland and the other Finns who genetically differ from the rest "of the Europeans". Commented May 6, 2020 at 9:19

It does not, it only establishes that there was some communicative contact between the ancestoral populations (which before the interwebs was invented meant "living in proximity"). However, the notion of "ethnic relatedness" is itself vague enough that it may well be the case that "ethnic relatedness" exists in all such cases.

As an example, we would say that the language spoken by Puget Salish people is a West Germanic language, and yet the people are not "ethnically Germanic", although there are no doubt detectable "West Germanic" genes floating about in the population. The explanation is simple: they originally spoke a completely unrelated language, but learned the language of the new ruling population and eventually lost Lushootseed. We know this because it happened in the historical period (also it's not that all records of the language have been lost, but there are no living native speakers and I'm not optimistic that it will revive). This is the basic model of how "unrelated people" can speak related languages – they used to speak the same language, then the dialects languages diverged. It is unlikely that there would be the level of social intermixture that results in language shift without there also being some level of genetic mixture.

This kind of divergence between genetics and language is so well known that it isn't even a question in linguistics, but yet people in the modern DNA era often point to "genetic similarity" as evidence for linguistic similarity. This is not entirely insane: claiming that Ket and Navaho are linguistically related is on the face of it a ridiculous claim given where Ket is spoken... and yet is it a linguistically well-supported claim, which lend credence to the idea that people can walk a really long distance, over some number of generations.

  • As with any occupation/immigration you can bet that there are "West Germanic" genes floating about in the population. The OP's idea that languages "migrate" together with their speakers, or, as Richard Dawkins might say, "gene vessels", is probably largely correct. Commented May 5, 2020 at 7:55
  • If by "West Germanic" you mean British Isles, probably. If you mean the Anglo-Saxons, to what degree the British Isles descend from the bringers of Old English is highly disputed. By this point, there could be way more North Germanic and Celtic genes in the population.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 8:18

"Language is a virus", a meme. Memes need carriers. Today there is written and recorded speech; but at the time when the the outlines of the present languages evolved most people could not read. Memes only propagated through physical contact; the meme carriers had to talk to each other. Meme carriers back then were therefore also gene carriers. Because the drive to spread one's genes is at least as strong as the drive to spread one's memes they were almost always spread together.

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