The Basque language of the northern Iberian Peninsula is a language isolate, and as such is not closely related to any other language.
The Finno-Ugric languages are a subfamily of the Uralic language family.
A Semitic language spoken in Malta and related to Arabic but written with the Latin script. It is the smallest official language of the EU in terms of speakers.
This is an Altaic language spoken in European Turkey, parts of Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus.
Most European languages are Indo-European languages. This large language-family is descended from a common language that was spoken thousands of years ago, which is referred to as Proto-Indo-European.
(descending from Old Norse)
(descending from Gothic)
The Romance languages decended from the Vulgar Latin spoken across most of the lands of the Roman Empire.
The following findings are based on the cultural-anthropological definition of Europe, i.e. European languages are those languages of the nations characterized by a minor Greek and a major Latin heritage, the (West) Roman variant of Christian religion (and its developments during the Reformation and Counter Reformation), the use of the Latin alphabet, the separation of spiritual and secular power, societal pluralism and individualism, a common history of the arts as well as a common history of education and formation.
The writing system used in Europe is based on the phonographic-alphabetic principle. It originates in North Semitic (2000-1700 BC), was introduced by the Greeks and from there also brought to the Romans (6th century BC). The Latin alphabet was developed into several scripts. In the early years of Europe, the Carolingian minuscles were the most important variety of the Latin script. From this two branches developed, the Gothic/Fracture/German tradition, which Germans used way into the 20th century Germans, and the Italian/Italic/Antiqua/Latin tradition still used. (A special Irish type of the Latin alphabet is still used in a large number of Irish books.)
For some nations the integration into Europe meant giving up older scripts, e.g. the Germanic gave up the runes (futhark) (3rd--17th century), the Irish the Ogham script (4th--7th century).
The sound systems of languages may differ considerably between languages. European languages can thus rather be characterized negatively, e.g. by the absence of click sounds. One could also think of specific prosodic features, such as tonic accents which most Europeans associate with Chinese or Vietnamese. But there are also tonic languages in Europe: Croatian (e.g. léta ‘he flies, is flying’ with long rising accent vs. lêta ‘years’ with long falling accent) and Slovenian (e.g. sûda ‘of the vessel’ with long falling accent vs. súda ‘of the court’ with long rising accent). In Slovenian the use of the musical accent is declining though--but there are hardly any contexts where intelligibility is endangered. In Sweden Swedish (but not in Finland Swedish) there also is a pitch accent in some words, which can be meaningful, e.g. ´anden ‘duck’ vs. ˇanden ‘ghost, spirit’.
As a general introductory remark we can distinguish between three structural types of languages:
European languages are seldom pure representatives of one type. For (a) Modern English is a good example (and in many way the code oral of French verbs); for (c) Old English and Modern High German are good examples (and in many ways the code écrit of French verb forms); classical representatives of type (b) are Finnish and Hungarian. If a language is not isolating, this does not necessarily mean that it has no word-order rules. Latin, Finnish and the Slavic languages have a relatively free word-order, whereas many languages show more restricted rules. German and Dutch, e.g., show verb-second word-order in main clauses and verb-final order in subordinate clauses. English has S-V word-order, which is also preferred by the Romanic languages. Irish has a basic verb-initial word order.
We can also distinguish between analytic constructions (with free grammatical morphemes, i.e. grammatical elements as separate words) and synthetic constructions (with bound grammatical morphemes, i.e. grammatical elements attached to or included in a word), e.g. the house of the man vs. the man's house.
Apart from the points already mentioned, the categories of aspect (not always easy to separate from the tense sytem) and gender are noteworthy. Under the category of aspect linguists basically understand the distinction between perfective actions (activity finished, has led to a result; single event) and imperfective actions (activity not yet finished, w/out information on termination; long duration, repetitive). The Slavic languages have a fine and rigid aspect system; in English there’s the distinction between progressive and non-progressive (simple) and a distinction between present perfect and past; in the Romanic languages the imperfect serves to denote background actions.
The most current gender systems in Europe are twofold (masculine vs. feminine, e.g. in the Romanic languages, or uter vs. neuter, e.g. in the Scandinavian languages); but there are also languages that are three-fold (e.g. German) or lack grammatical gender at all (e.g. English, Hungarian, Finnish). The problem of gender also concerns the system of personal pronouns. We normally distinguish between 3 persons sg. and 3 persons pl., but there are also some languages that have specific words for the dual (e.g. Sorbic). In the 3rd sg. we often have a distinction according to grammatical gender; in English, though, the choice is determined by natural gender; in Hungarian and Finnish we have no differentiation at all, in the Scandinavian languages on the other hand we have a differentation that incoporate both grammatical and natural gender. In some languages the grammatical gender is also relevant in the 2nd pl. (e.g. the Romance languages).
Whereas traditionally we group languages according to historical language families (e.g. Indo-European, Finno-Ugric), a more modern way is to look at grammatical features from a synchronic point of view. A certain number of common structural features would then characterize a sprachbund. For Europe, the most prominent sprachbund that we can determine is referred to as SAE (= Standard Average European) or Charlemagne sprachbund. The most central members of this sprachbund are German, Dutch, French, Occitan, Northern Italian. Important features are:
Latin, French and English not only served or still serve as linguae francae (cf. below), but also influenced the vernacular/national languages due to their high prestige. Due to this prestige, there are not only “necessity loans”, but also “luxury loans” and pseudo-loans. Many loans from these three languages (esp. Neo-Latin with its Greek elements) can be considered internationalisms, although occasionally the meanings vary from one language to another, which might even lead to misunderstandings. Examples:
Three minor source languages for European borrowings are Arabic (esp. in mathematics and science, foreign plants and fruits), Italian (esp. in arts, esp. from the 15th to the 17th c.), German (esp. in arts, education, mining, trading from the 12th to the 20th c. with alternating importance).
As far as the structuring or “wording” of the world is concerned changes occur relatively fast due to progresses in knowledge, sociopolitical changes etc. Lexical items that seem more conservative are proverbs and metaphorical idioms. Many European proverbs and idioms go back to Antiquity and the Bible, some originate in national stories and were spread over other languages via Latin. A typical European proverb to express that there is no profit without working can be paraphrased as “Roasted pigeons/larks/sparrows/geese/chickens/birds don’t fly into one’s mouth”, e.g. Cz. Pečeni ptáci nelítají do huby (birds!) = Dan. Stegte duer flyve ingen i munden (Tauben!) = ndl. De gebraden duiven vliegen je niet in de mond (pigeons!) = E. He thinks that larks will fall into his mouth roasted = Finn. Ei paistetut varpuset suuhun lennä (sparrows!) = Fr. Les alouettes ne vous tombent pas toutes rôties dans le bec (larks!) = G. Gebratene Tauben fliegen einem nicht ins Maul = Hungar. Senkinek nem repül a szájába a sült galamb (pigeon!) = Lith. Keptas karvelis neatlėks pats i burną (pigeon!) = Latv. Cepts zvirbulis no jumta mutē nekrīt (sparrow!) = Norw. Dat kjem inkje steikte fuglar fljugande i munnen (bird!) = Pol. Pieczone gołąbki nie przydą same do gąbki (pigeons!) = Slovak Nech nik nečaká, že mu pečené holuby budú padať do úst (pigeons!) = Slovenian Pečeni golobje ne lete nobenemu v usta [pigeons!] = Swed. Spekta sparvar flyga ingen i munnen (sparrows!). Many other proverbs and idioms, however, can also be found in North America and/or Latin America and/or the Slavic-Orthodox civilization.
In Geert Hofstede's terms Europe can, to a large extend, be considered an individualistic civilization (i.e. a rather direct and analytic style is preferred, important points are mentioned before an explanation or illustration in an argument, decisions are based on compromise or the majority’s vote); in contrast, the Sinic, Japanese, Arabic and Hindu civilizations are collectivistic (i.e. a rather indirect and synthetic style is used, explanations and illustrations are mentioned before the essential point of an argument, decisions are reached through consent). We can further make Edward Hall's distinction between “low context” communication (i.e. direct style, person-oriented, self-projection, loquacity) and “high context” communication (i.e. indirect style, status-oriented, reservation, silence). Most European nations use “low context” communication.
What are some specific features of European communication strategies?
Europe’s history is characterized by three linguae francae:
Linguae francae that were less wide-spread, but still played a comparatively important role in European history are:
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).
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 ist 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.
Despite the tremendous importance of English, Europe is always associated with its linguistic diversity, which also includes the special protection of minority languages, e.g. by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. This underlines that the popular view of “one nation = one language” is mostly false (despite attempts of national linguistic homogeneization in France during the Revolution or in Franco's Spain). A minority language can be defined as a language used by a group that defines itself as an ethnic minority group, whereby the language of this group is typologically different and not a dialect of the standard language. In Europe some languages are in quite a strong position, in the sense that they are given special status, (e.g. Basque, Irish, Welsh/Cymric, Catalan, Rhaeto-Romance/Romansh), whereas others are in a rather weak position (e.g. Frisian, Scottish Gaelic, Turkish)—especially allochtonous minority languages are not given official status in the EU (in part because they are not part of the cultural heritage of a civilization). Some minor languages don’t even have a standard yet, i.e. they have not even reached the level of an ausbausprache yet, which could be changed, e.g., if these languages were given official status. (cf. also next section).
France is the origin of two laws, or decrees, concerning language: the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts (1239), which says that every document in France should be written in French (i.e. not in Latin nor Occitan) and the French Loi Toubon, which aims to eliminate Anglicisms from official documents. But Europe’s essentially characteristic feature is linguistic diversity and tolerance. An illustrative proof of the promotion of linguistic diversity is the translation school in Toledo, founded in the 12th century (in medieval Toledo the Christian, the Jewish and the Arab civilizations lived together remarkably peacefully).
This tolerant linguistic attitude is also the reason why the EU’s general rule is that every official national language is also an official EU language. However, Flemish and Letzebuergish/Luxemburgish are not official EU languages, because there are also other (stronger) official languages with “EU status” in the respective nations. Several concepts for a EU language policy are being debated:
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