The Language Groups of Europe

French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are close cousins. German and Dutch are as well, and they count Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and English among their more distant relatives. Languages can be related just like human beings are. In fact the languages of Europe can be organized into families or language groups. The most famous of these are the Romance languages and the Germanic languages; but there are many others which are less well known.

The Romance languages are designated as such because they trace their origins to the Roman Empire and the language imposed within its dominion. The academic Latin spoken in the Senatus Romanus took on a less rigid form in the everyday use of the Vulgus, the people. Vulgar Latin remained long after the Romans were deposed and evolved very differently across the lands which they once had ruled. Today the most widely-spoken children of Vulgar Latin are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian (in order of number of native speakers). In addition, minor languages such as Catalan and Friulian and dozens of dialects- particularly of Italian and Spanish- have a similar heritage.

While the intrepid armies of Rome had their way in Gallia (France), Hispania (Spain and Portugal), and Dacia (Romania), they encountered significant difficulties in the vast area of Northern Europe which they christened Germania. In fact the vast majority of modern day Germany never fell under Roman rule, as is evidenced by the distinctly non-Romance language spoken in Deutschland today. The very word Deutsch, which derives from the Old High German diutisc (“of the people”), was used to distinguish the language spoken by the Germanic tribes from Latin and her children.

Today German is the flag-bearer of the Germanic family of languages, which is grossly-organized into two branches. The principal West Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and English, but the Frisian, Scots, and Yiddish languages are part of this part of the family as well. The North Germanic languages are often known more simply as Nordic languages, and are spoken in Scandinavia —  Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese are the cardinal representatives.

However, just like with any family, relationships between languages don’t stop at the level of first or second cousins; the more distant linguistic relationships become evident as the genealogical tree is expanded. In reality the Romance and Germanic languages are members of a much broader language family known as Indo-European. Their common ancestor, the hypothetical Proto Indo-European language, may have been spoken around 3700 BC, but this is just a hypothesis based on linguistic reconstruction.

Traces of common Indo-European heritage can be found in the modern Romance and Germanic languages. Consider the aforementioned Latin word vulgus, which has a resemblance to the German word Volk, familiar to us under guise of a car brand- Volkswagen means “car of the people.” And just change the “v” to “f” and you have the English word folk.

Simple substitutions of letters can frequently result in interesting linguistic transformations. The English “f” often becomes “v” in German or “p” in the Romance languages. Father turns into vater (German), and pater (Latin). In the other Romance and Germanic languages we have: père (French), pai (Portuguese/Galician), pare (Catalan), padre (Italian/Spanish), vader (Dutch/Afrikaans), far (Swedish/Norwegian/Danish), and faðir (Icelandic).

The Proto Indo-European language left other children as well. The Balto-Slavic branch of the family includes the Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, and Serbian as well as the Baltic languages of Latvia and Lithuania. The Celtic branch includes languages such as Irish and Welsh, while the Hellenic (Greek), Armenian, and Albanian branches contain essentially one language each.

Finally, the largest branch of the Indo-European family, with more than a billion speakers, explains the “Indo” prefix in the family name. The Indo-Iranian branch includes Hindi, Urdu and Bengali as well as Punjabi, Persian and a host of other South Asian languages.

The first speakers of Proto Indo-European brought their language far and wide- from Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula to the Indian Subcontinent. Today the approximately 439 Indo-European languages and dialects are spoken by more than three billion native speakers, making them by far the most represented language group.

However, there are many other language groups out there, and it isn’t necessary to go as far as China to find them. Europe itself is home to some non Indo-European languages. Do you know any?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s