► A Romanian translation of this page is now available, thanks to Alexander.
Family Tree & Branches
The Indo-European family of languages (please note that not every language
- Occitan (Provençal)
- Scots (Lallans)
- Hellenic (Greek)
- Farsi (Persian)
- Pashto (Afghan)
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 analyses will include.
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 nasals 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.
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 variety 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 the most closely related to English. However, out
of the five major languages in this branch, Dutch is 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, Swedish and Danish use two genders (Norwegian,
except for the Bergen dialect, uses 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 can be considered dialects of one 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 recommended to learn Norwegian first if you plan to learn all three; however, Swedish
is spoken by more people.
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 Roman alphabet, while the Eastern languages use the Cyrillic
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
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 Roman 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.