BACKGROUND: It is generally accepted that most people have left-hemispheric language dominance, though the actual incidence of atypical language distribution in non-right-handed subjects has not been extensively studied. The authors examined language distribution in these subjects and evaluated the relationships between personal handedness, family history of sinistrality, and a language laterality index (LI) measured with fMRI. METHODS: The authors used whole-brain fMRI to examine 50 healthy, non-right-handed subjects (Edinburgh Handedness Inventory quotient between -100 and 52) while they performed language activation and nonlinguistic control tasks. Counts of active voxels (p < 0.001) were computed in 22 regions of interest (ROI) covering both hemispheres and the cerebellum. LI were calculated for each ROI and each entire hemisphere using the formula [L - R]/[L + R]. RESULTS: Activation was predominantly right hemispheric in 8% (4/50), symmetric in 14% (7/50), and predominantly left hemispheric in 78% (39/50) of the subjects. Lateralization patterns were similar for all hemispheric ROI. Associations were observed between personal handedness and LI (r = 0.28, p = 0.046), family history of sinistrality and LI (p = 0.031), and age and LI (r = -0.49, p < 0.001). CONCLUSIONS: The incidence of atypical language lateralization in normal left-handed and ambidextrous subjects is higher than in normal right-handed subjects (22% vs 4-6%). These whole-brain results confirm previous findings in a left-handed cohort studied with fMRI of the lateral frontal lobe. Associations observed between personal handedness and LI and family history of handedness and LI may indicate a common genetic factor underlying the inheritance of handedness and language lateralization.