Languages of Europe: Wikis


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Most languages of Europe belong to the Indo-European language family; another major family is the Finno-Ugric. The Turkic family also has several European members. The North and South Caucasian families are important in the southeastern extremity of geographical Europe. Basque is a language isolate directly related to ancient Aquitanian, while Maltese is the only national language in Europe, but not the only language in Europe, that is Semitic.

In addition to current languages, there are many languages once used in Europe which are now extinct; see List of extinct languages of Europe. Other languages are nearly extinct; see List of endangered languages in Europe. This article also does not include languages spoken by relatively recently-arrived migrant communities.

Main alphabets used in Europe, Cyprus and Turkey:      Latin alphabet      Cyrillic alphabet      Greek alphabet      Latin and Cyrillic alphabet      Greek and Latin alphabet
Main alphabets used in Europe around 1900:      Latin alphabet: Fraktur variant      Latin alphabet: Antiqua variant      Cyrillic alphabet      Greek alphabet      Arabic alphabet      KalmykMongolian script


Indo-European languages

The Indo-European language family descended from Proto-Indo-European, spoken thousands of years ago. Indo-European languages are spoken throughout Europe, but particularly dominate Western Europe.



Albanian has two major dialects, Gheg and Tosk, which are spoken in Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, and parts of Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, southern Italy, and northern Greece. Emigrants speak it in many other countries.


Armenian is the majority language in Armenia, which is at the juncture of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It is also spoken in the widespread Armenian diaspora in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. It became an official language when the Armenian alphabet was created by Saint Mesrop Mashtots during the 4th century AD. It is a diverse language including words from some surrounding nations but mainly Ancient Greek and Pahlavi (Medieval Persian).

Baltic languages

Distribution of the Baltic languages in the Baltic (simplified).

The Baltic languages are spoken in Lithuania (Lithuanian) and Latvia (Latvian, Curonian, Latgalian, and Samogitian). Curonian is also spoken in a part of Russia. There are also several extinct Baltic languages.


The Celtic nations where most Celtic speakers are now concentrated

The Celtic languages include the Brythonic family, which includes Welsh, spoken primarily in Wales, Breton (Brittany, in northwestern France), and Cornish (Cornwall, in southwest England).

The other main Celtic language family is the Goidelic (Gaelic), including Irish (spoken primarily in Ireland and Northern Ireland), Scottish Gaelic (Scotland), and Manx (Isle of Man, a small island surrounded by Scotland, Ireland, North Ireland, Wales, and England).


West Germanic languages      Low Franconian (Dutch)      Low German      High German: Central German (incl. Luxembourgish)      High German: Upper German (incl. Austro-Bavarian)      Anglo-Frisian (English, Scots)      Anglo-Frisian (Frisian) North Germanic languages      East Scandinavian (Danish, Elfdalian, Swedish)      West Scandinavian (Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian)                      Line dividing the North and West Germanic languages

The Germanic languages are the predominant languages in northwestern Europe, reaching from Iceland to Sweden and from England and Ireland to Austria. Two major families currently exist in modern Europe, West Germanic and North Germanic. A third family, East Germanic, is now extinct; the only known surviving East Germanic texts are written in the Gothic language.

West Germanic

There are three major groupings of West Germanic languages: Anglo-Frisian, German, and Low Franconian (now primarily modern Dutch).


The Anglo-Frisian language family has two major groups:


German is spoken throughout Germany, Austria, and much of Switzerland (especially the northeast areas bordering on Germany and Austria).

There are several groups of German dialects:

North Germanic

The North Germanic languages are spoken in Scandinavian countries and include Danish (Denmark and Greenland), Norwegian (Norway), Swedish (Sweden), Elfdalian or Övdalian (in a small part of central Sweden), Faroese (Faroe Islands), and Icelandic (Iceland).


Indo-Iranian languages

The Indo-Iranian languages have two major groupings, Indo-Aryan languages including Romany (or Gypsy), and Iranian languages, which include Kurdish and Ossetian.

Romance languages

Romance languages, 20th c.

The Romance languages descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken across most of the lands of the Roman Empire. Some of the Romance languages are official in the European Union and the Latin Union and the more prominent ones are studied in many educational institutions worldwide. Three of the Romance languages (Spanish, French, and Portuguese) are spoken by a combined roughly one billion speakers worldwide. Many other Romance languages and their local varieties are spoken throughout Europe, and some are recognized as regional languages.

The list below is a brief summary of the Romance languages commonly encountered in Europe.


Slavic languages

Slavic languages are spoken in large areas of Eastern Europe and Russia.

East Slavic

East Slavic languages include Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Rusyn, Carpatho-Rusyn (Ruthenian), and Pannonian-Rusyn (Rusnak).

West Slavic

West Slavic languages include Czech, Kashubian, Silesian, Polish, Slovak, and Sorbian.

South Slavic

South Slavic languages include Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Old Church Slavonic (a liturgical language), Romano-Serbian (a mixed language), Serbian, and Slovene.


The Basque language is a language isolate and the ancestral language of the Basque people who inhabit the Basque Country, a region in the western Pyrenees mountains mostly in northeastern Spain and partly in southwestern France. Basque is directly related to ancient Aquitanian, and it is likely that an early form of the Basque language was present in Western Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European languages to the area. The language may have been spoken since Paleolithic times. Basque is also spoken by immigrants in Australia, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States.[1]


Ethno-Linguistic groups in the Caucasus region

South Caucasian

The South Caucasian languages group consists of Kartvelian languages including Georgian and the related languages of Svan, Mingrelian, and Laz. Proto-Kartvelian is believed to be a common ancestor language of all South Caucasian languages, with the earliest split occurring in the second millennium BC or earlier when Svan was separated. Megrelian and Laz split from Georgian roughly a thousand years later, roughly at the beginning of the first millennium BC (e.g. Klimov, T. Gamkrelidze, G. Machavariani).

The group is considered as isolated, and although for simplicity it is often grouped with Northern Caucasian languages, so far no linguistic relativity between South and North Caucasian languages has been observed.

North Caucasian

North Caucasian languages (sometimes called simply Caucasic as opposed to Kartvelian, and to avoid confusion with the concept of the "Caucasian race") is a blanket term for two language phyla spoken chiefly in the north Caucasus and Turkey: the Northwest Caucasian family (including Abkhaz, spoken in Abkhazia) and the Northeast Caucasian family spoken mainly in the border area of the southern Russian Federation (including Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia).

Many linguists, notably Sergei Starostin and Sergei Nikolayev, believe that the two groups sprang from a common ancestor about five thousand years ago.[2] However, due to the nature of the languages in question, this proposal is difficult to evaluate, and remains controversial.


Distribution of Uralic languages

The Finno-Ugric languages are a subfamily of the Uralic language family. Europe has a large number of Finno-Ugric languages and language families, including Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. See this classification for a detailed list.


Turkic language groups

Distribution of the proposed Altaic languages across Eurasia

The proposed but controversial Altaic language family is claimed to consist of five branches (Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus, Korean and Japanese) that show similarities in vocabulary, morphological and syntactic structure, and certain phonological features. On the basis of systematic sound correspondences, they are generally considered to be genetically related.


There are many Turkic languages and language families. The most prominent Turkic language in Europe is Turkish. See this classification for a detailed list.


The Mongolic languages originated in Asia, and most did not proliferate west to Europe. Kalmyk is spoken in the Republic of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation, in western Asia near the eastern edge of Europe.


Cypriot Maronite Arabic

Cypriot Maronite Arabic (also known as Cypriot Arabic) is a variety of Arabic spoken by Maronites in Cyprus. Most speakers live in Nicosia, but others are in the communities of Kormakiti and Lemesos. Brought to the island by Maronites fleeing Lebanon over 700 years ago, this variety of Arabic has been influenced by Greek in both phonology and vocabulary, while retaining certain unusually archaic features in other respects.


Hebrew has been written and spoken by the Jewish communities of all of Europe in liturgical, educational and often conversational contexts since the entry of the Jews into Europe at some uncertainly known time in late antiquity. Its restoration as the official language of Israel has accelerated its secular use. It also has been used in educational and liturgical contexts by some segments of the Christian population. Hebrew has its own consonantal alphabet, in which the vowels may be marked by diacritical marks termed pointing in English and dagesh and mappiq in Hebrew.


Maltese is a Semitic language with Romance and Germanic influences, spoken in Malta.[3][4][5][6] It is based on Sicilian Arabic, with influences from Italian (particularly Sicilian), French, and more recently, English. It is unique in being the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet in its standard form. It is the smallest official language of the EU in terms of speakers, and the only official Semitic language within the EU.

General issues

Lingua Francas—past and present

Europe has had a number of languages that were considered lingua francas over some ranges for some periods according to some historians. Typically in the rise of a national language the new language becomes a lingua franca to peoples in the range of the future nation until the consolidation and unification phases. If the nation becomes internationally influential, its language may become a lingua franca among nations that speak their own national languages. Europe has had no lingua franca ranging over its entire territory spoken by all or most of its populations during any historical period. Some lingua francas of past and present over some of its regions for some of its populations are:

First dictionaries and grammars

The first type of dictionaries are glossaries, i.e. more or less structured lists of lexical pairs (in alphabetical order or according to conceptual fields). The Latin-German (Latin-Bavarian) Abrogans is among the first. A new wave of lexicography can be seen from the late 15th century onwards (after the introduction of the printing press, with the growing interest for standardizing languages).

Language and identity, standardization processes

In the Middle Ages the two most important definitory elements of Europe were Christianitas and Latinitas. Thus language—at least the supranational language—played an elementary role. This changed with the spread of the national languages in official contexts and the rise of a national feeling. Among other things, this led to projects of standardizing national language and gave birth to a number of language academies (e.g. 1582 Accademia della Crusca in Florence, 1617 Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, 1635 Académie française, 1713 Real Academia de la Lengua in Madrid). “Language” was then (and still is today) more connected with “nation” than with “civilization” (particularly in France). “Language” was also used to create a feeling of “religious/ethnic identity” (e.g. different Bible translations by Catholics and Protestants of the same language).

Among the first standardization discussions and processes are the ones for Italian (“questione della lingua”: Modern Tuscan/Florentine vs. Old Tuscan/Florentine vs. Venetian > Modern Florentine + archaic Tuscan + Upper Italian), French (standard is based on Parisian), English (standard is based on the London dialect) and (High) German (based on: chancellery of Meißen/Saxony + Middle German + chancellery of Prague/Bohemia [“Common German”]). But also a number of other nations have begun to look for and develop a standard variety in the 16th century.

Language and the Council of Europe

The most ancient historical social structure of Europe is that of politically independent tribes, each sharing a common ethnic identity based among other cultural factors on the language they spoke. For example, the Latini speaking Latina resided under a king in Latium. A number of tribes might combine into a nation still speaking the same language; for example, the Galli living in Gallia comprised many loosely confederated tribes, such as the Parisii, whose settlement became Paris, but they all spoke the Gallic language. In the course of social evolution multi-ethnic political states formed, such as Roma, in which one language (here Latina) dominated and was official or quasi-official. Over the centuries these formerly tribal states acquired different ethnic groups because the political borders were drawn through their states, splitting the former united populations, or because of immigrant populations seeking a better life or because groups were involuntarily settled there by the power of the state.

Ethnic conflict over the issues of rights and borders has been a major cause of European history. Historical attitudes towards linguistic diversity are illustrated by two French laws: the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts (1539), which says that every document in France should be written in French (meaning not in Latin nor Occitan) and the Loi Toubon (1994), which aims to eliminate Anglicisms from official documents. States and populations within a state have often resorted to war to settle their differences. As these conflagrations grew more deadly assisted by modern technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, various elements of post-World War II society looked for ways to mitigate the conflict and insure peace and harmony.

One such attempt is the Council of Europe, a 1949-founded organization to which European nations may affirm voluntary membership. It offers quasi-constitutional policies and institutions designed to intervene in ethnic conflict in favor of basic human rights. Its European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages defines "regional or minority languages" as those spoken by "numerically smaller" populations of nationals and which are "different from the official language(s) of the state." Dialects of official languages and the "language of migrants" are excluded. The document affirms the right of minority-language speakers to use their language fully and freely.[12] The Council of Europe is committed to protecting linguistic diversity. Currently all European countries except France, Andorra and Turkey have signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, while Greece, Iceland and Luxembourg have signed it, but have not ratified it. This framework entered into force in 1998.

Language and the European Union

Official status

The European Union (EU) designates one or more languages as "official and working" with regard to any member state if they are the official languages of that state. The decision as to whether they are and their use by the EU as such is entirely up to the laws and policies of the member states. In the case of multiple official languages the member state must designate which one is to be the working language.[13]

As the EU is an entirely voluntary association established by treaty — a member state may withdraw at any time — each member retains its sovereignty in deciding what use to make of its own languages; it must agree to legislate any EU acceptance criteria before membership. The EU designation as official and working is only an agreement concerning the languages to be used in transacting official business between the member state and the EU, especially in the translation of documents passed between the EU and the member state. The EU does not attempt in any way to govern language use in a member state.

Currently the EU has designated by agreement with the member states 23 languages as "official and working:" Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish.[13] This designation provides member states with two "entitlements:" the member state may communicate with the EU in the designated one of those languages and view "EU regulations and other legislative documents" in that language.[14]


The European Union and the Council of Europe have been collaborating in a number of tasks, among which is the education of member populations in languages for "the promotion of plurilingualism" among EU member states,[15] The joint document, "Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR)," is an educational standard defining "the competencies necessary for communication" and related knowledge for the benefit of educators in setting up educational programs. That document defines three general levels of knowledge: A Basic User, B Independent User and C Proficient User.[16] The ability to speak the language falls under competencies B and C ranging from "can keep going comprehensibly" to "can express him/herself at length with a natural, effortless, unhesitating flow."[17]

These distinctions were simplified in a 2005 independent survey requested by the Directorate General for Education and Culture of the EU of the extent to which the major languages of Europe were spoken in the member states of the EU. The results were published in a 2006 document, "Europeans and Their Languages", or "Eurobarometer 243," which is disavowed as official by the European Commission, but does supply some scientific data concerning language use in the EU. In this study statistically relevant samples of the population in each country were asked to fill out a survey form concerning the languages that they spoke with sufficient competency "to be able to have a conversation."[18] Some of the results showing the distribution of major languages are shown in the maps below. The darkest colors report the highest proportion of speakers. Only EU members were studied. Thus data on Russian speakers were gathered, but Russia is not an EU member and so Russian does not appear in Russia on the maps. It does appear as spoken to the greatest extent in the Baltic countries, which are EU members.


  1. ^ "Basque". UCLA Language Materials Project, UCLA International Institute. Retrieved 2 November 2009. 
  2. ^ Nikolayev, S., and S. Starostin. 1994 North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary. Moscow: Asterisk Press. Available online.
  3. ^ Marie Alexander and others (2009). "2nd International Conference of Maltese Linguistics: Saturday, September 19 – Monday, September 21, 2009". International Association of Maltese Linguistics. Retrieved 2 November 2009. 
  4. ^ Aquilina, J. (1958). "Maltese as a Mixed Language". Journal of Semitic Studies 3 (1): 58–79. doi:10.1093/jss/3.1.58. 
  5. ^ Aquilina, Joseph (July–September, 1960). "The Structure of Maltese". Journal of the American Oriental Society 80 (3): 267–68. 
  6. ^ Werner, Louis; Calleja, Alan (November/December 2004). "Europe's New Arabic Connection". Saudi Aramco World. 
  7. ^ Counelis, James Steve (March 1976). "Review [untitled] of Ariadna Camariano-Cioran, Les Academies Princieres de Bucarest et de Jassy et leur Professeurs". Church History 45 (1): 115–16. "...Greek, the lingua franca of commerce and religion, provided a cultural unity to the Balkans... Greek penetrated Moldavian and Wallachian territories as early as the fourteenth century.... The heavy influence of Greek culture upon the intellectual and academic life of Bucharest and Jassy was longer termed than historians once believed.". 
  8. ^ Wansbrough, John E. (1996). "Chapter 3: Lingua Franca". Lingua Franca in the Mediterranean. Routledge. 
  9. ^ Jones, Branwen Gruffydd (2006). Decolonizing international relations. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 98. 
  10. ^ a b Calvet, Louis Jean (1998). Language wars and linguistic politics. Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 175–76. 
  11. ^ Darquennes, Jeroen; Nelde, Peter (2006). "German as a Lingua Franca". Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 26: 61–77. 
  12. ^ "European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages: Strasbourg, 5.XI.1992". Council of Europe. 1992. 
  13. ^ a b "Regulation No 1 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community" (pdf). European Commission, European Union. 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009. 
  14. ^ "Languages of Europe: Official EU languages". European Commission, European Union. 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009. 
  15. ^ "Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR)". Council of Europe. Retrieved 5 November 2009. 
  16. ^ Page 23.
  17. ^ Page 29.
  18. ^ "Europeans and Their Languages" (pdf). European Commission. 2006. p. 8. Retrieved November 5 2009. 

See also

External links


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