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Languages of Europe


History and language families

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What is a language?

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A language is fundamentally a means of communication, organised according to rules and conventions. The rules are often flexible - languages contain many irregularities and exceptions - and languages consequently go through a constant process of change.

Languages change for a variety of reasons. In the modern world, new words are needed to describe new technologies. Computers, e-mail, the Internet, wireless technology, nanoscience - the use of such words is a relatively recent phenomenon.

 

Europe’s linguistic roots

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Languages have also developed alongside historical events. Movements of peoples have brought successive waves of language to Europe. Languages have evolved following historical shifts. For example, the collapse of the Roman Empire generated a process that saw the development of distinct Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish.

Most modern European languages developed from common central Asian or Anatolian roots - the Proto-Indo-European language, the precise evolution of which is still a matter for debate.

Consequently, the majority of European languages belong to one or other Indo-European family:

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  1. Baltic - Eastern Baltic (Latvian and Lithuanian) and Western Baltic (e.g. Old Prussian)
  2. Celtic - Britonic (e.g. Welsh) and Gaelic (e.g. Irish)
  3. Germanic - North Germanic (e.g. Danish and Swedish) and West Germanic (e.g. Dutch, English and German)
  4. Romance - Daco-Romance (e.g. Romanian), Gallo-Romance (e.g. French), Ibero-Romance (e.g. Portuguese and Spanish), Italo-Romance (e.g. Italian) and Rhaeto-Romance (e.g. Swiss Romance)
  5. Slavonic - East Slavonic (e.g. Russian), South Slavonic (e.g. Bulgarian and Slovene) and West Slavonic (e.g. Czech and Polish)

Albanian and Greek are also Indo-European languages, though not related to other sub-Indo-European languages.

Other European languages, however, have completely separate roots. Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian belong to the Finno-Ugrian sub-family of Uralic languages, which are believed to have evolved in the area to the west of the Ural Mountains in modern Russia.

Maltese, meanwhile, is a Semitic language with Arabic roots, while Basque, which is spoken by around 800,000 people, has no proven links with any other language family.