European Languages

Family Tree & Branches

The Indo-European family of languages include (please note that not every language is included):

You may have noticed that a few languages spoken on the European continent are not included in the Indo-European family of languages.  Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian belong to the Uralic (also called Finno-Ugric) family, and Basque (spoken in the Pyrenees region) has no genetic relation to any other language.   Two branches, Anatolian and Tocharian, are also not included in this diagram because they are considered extinct.  Anatolian languages include Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Lydian and Lycian.  Tocharian is classified as two dialects, East Tocharian or Turfan and West Tocharian or Kuchean.  There are other extinct languages related to the above languages as well, such as Gothic of the East Germanic group, Old Prussian of the Baltic group, and Manx Gaelic of the Goidelic group.


So far I have only studied languages in the Romance, Germanic and Slavic branches so that is what the following summaries will include.


Romance Languages

The Romance languages are spoken by about 600 million people across the globe.  All of these languages derive from Latin, and the five national standard languages that are recognized include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian.  There are other languages as well, such as Catalan, Occitan, Romansh, Galician, Corsican, Sicilian and Rhaeto-Romance, but unfortunately, these are not recognized as national languages (except Romansh, which is the fourth official language of Switzerland). 

The modern Romance languages have a high number of lexical overlap.  French and Italian share 89% lexical similarity, as do Spanish and Portuguese.  (It should be noted that Sicilian is as different from standard Italian as Portuguese is from Spanish.)  However, Spanish and Portuguese have borrowed from Arabic, French from Germanic, and Romanian from Slavic because of historical and geographical reasons.

Phonemic nasal sounds are found in French and Portuguese, and the palatalization and affrication of velar and dental consonants before front vowels is a departure from Latin.  The western languages generally use /s/ as a plural marker, though it is silent in spoken French, while the eastern languages such as Italian and Romanian use vowels.  All languages recognize two genders, masculine and feminine, and use articles before the noun (except in Romanian, where they follow the noun).  Word order is generally subject-verb-object except when the object is a pronoun, then the pronoun precedes the verb.  Most adjectives follow the noun they describe as well as agree with it in gender and number.

Because of its geographic isolation from the other four main languages, Romanian is a unique Romance language.  Although attempts to write the language in the Cyrillic alphabet failed, the Slavic languages still contribute to the lexicon, pronunciation and morphology.  Romanian still uses three distinct cases: nominative/accusative, genitive/dative and vocative.  Occasionally, object-verb-subject word order is used as in other Balkan languages.

More people learn French as a second language than any other language in the world except English, although there are several other languages spoken by more people (Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Russian, Spanish, Japanese, German, Indonesian and Portuguese.)  The grammar and pronunciation can be difficult at times, and there is a great difference between the spoken and written forms, but it is not too hard to learn.  French used to be the lingua franca of the world, and is still respected as the language of great literature and diplomacy.

Spanish is the other obvious choice for learning a Romance language.  The Hispanic influence on the United States continually grows, and more people are finding Spanish a necessity.  Spanish pronunciation is closer to English, but the grammar is similar to French.  Once you've learned Spanish, Portuguese will be simple.  Portuguese is one of those languages that is spoken by many, many people, yet no one seems to learn it as a second language.  The grammar is slightly harder than Spanish, but the pronunciation is easier than French.

In my opinion, Italian is the easiest language to learn.  The pronunciation is very clear compared to French, and the grammar is slightly easier than Spanish.  If you're interested in opera, cuisine, history, archaeology, or art then Italian is a good choice.


Germanic Languages

The Germanic languages are spoken on every continent by about 450 million people.  Most people speak English, but German, Dutch and even the Scandinavian languages remain spoken in former colonies all over the world.  Afrikaans is actually a daughter language of Dutch spoken in South Africa, and Flemish is the form of Dutch spoken in Belgium.  Faroese is spoken in the Faroes Islands, and Frisian (spoken in the Netherlands) is the language that is often said to be the most closely related to English.  However, Scots is actually closest to English.

One third of the vocabulary of the Germanic languages is not of Indo-European origin.  The stress of words is primarily on the first syllable, and several vowel shifts separate the Germanic languages from other Indo-European languages.  Originally, there were three numbers (singular, plural, dual), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and four noun cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) but these only remain in German (minus the dual) and Icelandic.  Word order in German is less strict because of the cases, but it is also much more complicated because of the verb final position in subordinate clauses.  Dutch has combined the three genders into common and neuter, common being the former masculine and feminine.  English has no genders or noun cases except for changes among a few personal pronouns.  As well as strong and weak verbs, there are also strong and weak adjectives that decline before nouns.

German retains most of the Proto-Germanic language, but is least like the other languages in its group.  Consequently, it is the most difficult to learn.  The noun cases are easier than those of the Slavic languages, but they still give English speakers several problems. German is the most used language among the eastern countries of Europe, so it can be used a lingua franca in Slavic-speaking areas.

Dutch is much easier to learn than German, but many people dismiss this language because The Netherlands is no longer a world power.  The verbs are less complicated, as well as word order, and the vocabulary sounds more like English.  When you learn Dutch, you will also be able to communicate with those who speak Afrikaans in South Africa, Flemish speakers in northern Belgium and even some Indonesians who have learned Dutch as a result of centuries of colonial rule.

Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are also very easy for English speakers to learn.  Like Dutch, there are two genders (some dialects of Norwegian have three), but verbs only change for tense (and not person) and word order is much like English.  Definite articles attach to the end of the noun (as in Romanian).  Swedish and Norwegian are tonal lanugages, meaning the accent on a syllable can distinguish meaning between words, though tones in Norwegian are easier to master. These differing accents make Swedes sound as if they are singing, and also make it harder for English speakers to learn pronunciation correctly. These three languages are said to be mutually intelligible, meaning they may be considered dialects of one Scandinavian language.  However, it is often hard for Swedes and Danes to communicate with each other, but rather easy for Danes to talk to Norwegians.  It is usually recommended to learn Norwegian first if you plan to learn all three; however, Swedish is spoken by more people.


Slavic Languages

The Slavic languages are spoken in Eastern Europe and Russia and are the harder of the three language groups analyzed to learn.  They are most closely related to the Baltic languages of Lithuania and Latvia.  In terms of geography, Austria, Hungary and Romania separate Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian from the other languages, but Bulgarian and Macedonian are the only two that are somewhat different from the northern languages.  The Western languages in the chart above use the Latin alphabet, while the Eastern languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. 

These languages are characterized by palatalizations (sounds such as ch, sh, zh) and a few palatal consonants (the sounds nj, lj, rj).  All languages recognize the numbers singular and plural, as well as three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.  There are at least six noun cases, sometimes seven: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, locative, and vocative.  Russian does not have the vocative case and sometimes calls the locative case "prepositional."  Because of the extensive case system and declensions of nouns, word order is relatively free. 

None of the languages make use of any articles (except Bulgarian and Macedonian), but all use the imperfective and perfective aspects of verbs.  Bulgarian and Macedonian are the most closely related languages to Old Slavonic, although all morphological case has been lost in these two languages.  The dual number is only retained in Slovenian and Sorbian, while the aorist and imperfect verb forms only survive in Bulgarian, Macedonian, Sorbian and literary Serbo-Croatian.

If you're interested in learning Slavic languages, Polish, Serbian, Croatian and Russian are the most useful.  It will probably be easier to begin with the Western languages as they use the Latin alphabet.  Russian will seem very easy if you've learned Croatian first, even easier if you've learned Serbian.  Polish isn't as closely related to Russian though - Serbian would be a better choice to lead into Russian.


A Romanian translation of this page is now, thanks to Alexander.

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