The Linguistic History of Europe

The original migrations of Indo-European peoples from the Caucasus. Note that Italians and Germans were once confined to the far south and north, respectively, while most of Latin Europe was once Celtic.

As far as continents go, Europe is not terribly large. But her many mountains, rivers, and other geographic divisions have shaped the history of Europe’s native peoples, and ultimately the entire world.

Because of her divided geography, Europe has always been linguistically diverse. Not so much as New Guinea, where each jungle valley has its own language family, but certainly more so than other civilised regions.

Before the arrival of the Aryans from the Caucasus into Europe in the 2nd Millennium BC, we do not know much about what languages people spoke. Some postulate some ancient language family related to Basque, but there really is no way to know for sure. Of course, the language we know most about from the Classical period is Greek. The Greeks dominated their region and set up colonies throughout the Mediterranean, spreading their language with them.

When the Romans began their expansion in earnest, the Italian peninsula was divided between Greek city-states in the south, Etruscans to the north who spoke a language distantly related to their Latin, and in the far north the Gauls, who spoke a Celtic language. From the Pyrenees east, Celtic languages dominated Western Europe.

As Romans conquered Europe, they imposed Latin as the language of administration and trade. It caught on rather quickly in Spain, more slowly in Gaul, and little if at all in Britannia outside of Londinium. Greek continued to thrive: south of the modern Balkans, and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, it continued to be the main language until the Islamic conquests.

Barbarian Völkerwanderung during the late empire. The darker, Greek-speaking region stayed together and is now known as the Byzantine Empire

By the 3rd Century, Latin had solidly supplanted local languages. To be more precise, the masses spoke Vulgar Latin, which would have horrified Cicero if he could even understand it. As the empire fell apart, trade dried up, cities emptied, and in small, isolated villages, local dialects rapidly drifted apart.

The fall of the Roman Empire was caused in large part by a new player on scene: Germans. Germanic warlords conquered and ruled Europe, but their linguistic impact varied widely. Latin virtually disappeared from England and Germany, while in Italy the new rulers assimilated into Latin society. The Frankish warlords who conquered Gaul tried to learn Latin, but apparently found it very difficult. Modern French has Latin vocabulary, but with a bizarre pronunciation scheme that omits most consonants because the Franks found them hard to pronounce. Only by grace of its conservative writing system is French a truly Romance language.

Language was further confused during the Dark Ages due to the acute isolation in which most people lived. Deep in the countryside, peasants could not understand their neighbours living only ten miles away. Even priests were rarely literate, and by the 8th Century the Church ran into serious trouble with the realisation that nobody understood the prayers they recited.

Western Europe was mainly divided between Romance and Germanic languages, but two other groups emerged at the extremes. In southern Spain, Arab conquerors founded an Islamic emirate. The previously-Romance population slowly adopted Arabic (and Islam). Arabic left some impact on Spanish and Sicilian (where the Arabs ruled as well). But it left its strongest legacy in Malta- modern Maltese is a heavily Italianized daughter language of Arabic whose Catholic speakers call their God Allah. In the east, Slavic tribes conquered Europe as far west as the Elbe. But the Germans pushed back, and German remained the dominant language of Central Europe into the 20th Century.

When the Slavs settled down they gravitated not toward Rome, but Constantinople. The Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius converted Slavic tribes to Orthodox Christianity and developed a new alphabet for them, named for the former brother. Meanwhile, Catholic Poles and Croats adopted the Latin alphabet.

Eastern Europe was not entirely Slavic. Some Latins held out and preserved their language and culture, becoming modern Romanians. Magyars, a tribe from east of the Urals, terrorised Europe before settling down in Hungary. They are distantly related to the Finns, but Hungarian’s closest linguistic relatives are minor tribal languages in Siberia.

The language in which I write has its origins with that of the Anglo-Saxons, who sailed from Germany to conquer England in the 6th Century. Ironically, the Germanic and Celtic people of the British Isles preserved Latin better than their Continental peers because they actually realised that they were not Romans. It was not until the 11th Century that Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen formally acknowledged that the tongues of their people were irreconcilably distinct from that of their forebears.

While European scholars and rulers wrote (or at least tried to write) in Latin, Old English has a rich literary and legal tradition. This was upended by the Norman conquest of 1066, which imposed French as the prestige language of England. French faded in England over the centuries, but left a formidable legacy- the bulk of English vocabulary, including almost all technical and cultural terms, are Latinate rather than native English.

Latin remained the language of learning throughout the Middle Ages. A major focus of Renaissance men like Petrarch and Erasmus was to restore it to its Classical glory. However, starting as early as the 14th Century with the Tuscan poet Dante, many finally accepted that they were speaking new languages and decided to develop those instead.

By 1500, the map of Europe started to settle out.

Interest in the vernacular was further fuelled by the Protestant Reformation. Protestant Germans embraced Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible as a means of extirpating Catholic (and Italian) influence from their kingdoms. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English as early as the 1520s, but England was not solidly Protestant until the reign of Queen Elizabeth decades later. The translation compiled under her successor James I in 1611 remains in common use today.

Martin Luther’s German Bible

As Spain finally forced the Moors out, a new Mohamedan invader threw Eastern Europe into disarray. After sacking Constantinope in 1453 the Ottoman Turks drove north, conquering most of Europe right to the gates of Vienna. The Turks were relatively hands-off imperialists, however, and beyond some loan words in South Slavic languages, Turkish left relatively little linguistic footprint.

The importance of vernacular languages grew with the establishment of Europe’s worldwide empires after 1492. Administrating territories from Castile to Peru to the Philippines was difficult enough, and the hard men who conquered for the king had little time for Latin. Europeans also finally started to see themselves as great nations, worthy of cultivating their own national identities rather than just nostalgia for Rome.

Latin continued to flourish, but the early modern period marks the coming of age of Europe’s modern languages. Dante, Luther, and Shakespeare are widely acknowledged as the fathers of their respective languages. By the time of the Enlightenment beginning in the 17th Century, serious philosophers were writing in English, French, and German.

French finally ended Latin’s millennia-long reign as Europe’s prestige register as princes aspired to the glory of Versailles and the high ideals of the French Enlightenment. Foreign princes like Frederick the Great of Prussia and Peter the Great of Russia forced courtiers to speak only in French. The latter country grew so Francophilic that peasants complained that the nobles they served could no longer speak their language.

Versailles: birthplace of French, German, and English hegemony

Louis XIV’s chief minister Cardinal Richelieu set the tone for other centralising states by forcing standard Parisian French upon the whole country, including the long-distinct Occitan south. Britain followed suit, rooting out the Gaelic dialects of the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, and later standardising Received Pronunciation based on the early 19th Century London accent. These efforts were partly successful- today most people can speak the official language of their country, and many minority dialects disappeared altogether. In the past century some, like Catalan and the Celtic languages of the British Isles, have been revived as part of regionalist (or nationalist, depends whom you ask) projects.

As Britain and Germany eclipsed France as Europe’s foremost powers, their languages grew in importance. Versailles, the birthplace of French ascendance, also proved to be its grave- that the Treaty of Versailles was penned in English as well as French is often taken as the end of the hegemony of the latter.

As the fever of self-determination swept the continent after World War I, new states sought to develop their own languages, which had been overshadowed by German or Russian. They have succeeded to some degree (e.g., the University of Prague now teaches in Czech), but the cataclysm of the 1940s changed things quite a bit.

Over the course of the 20th Century, the entire world learned English. The Germans made a final herculean effort to impose their language as the lingua franca of the continent, but World War II only hastened the rise of English. During the Cold War, the Eastern Bloc was dominated by Russian, but Moscow was fighting the tide of history.

Historically, European nations exported their languages and people across the world, but in recent decades the trend has reversed. Western Europe now has sizeable communities of non-European language speakers, especially, after long spells offstage, Arabic and Turkish.

Even without the UK, English is still the primary language of the EU. Also, as a side note, the share of Irishmen who actually cannot speak English is probably closer to 6 than 6%.

Today, English is the de facto language of Europe. In many capitals it is difficult for a student of the native language to practice (Berlin is a great place, but look elsewhere if you want to speak German). It would make sense for Europe to move inexorably to homogeneity, but history can be tricky. Seventeen hundred years ago we would have said the same thing of Latin, and politically we live in interesting times. Only time will tell whether future histories will be written in English, or some other tongue.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets