A Brief Guide to Western European Languages

If you’re looking for a helpful introduction to Western European languages this article is a great beginner’s read.

Within Europe, hundreds of languages exist, some of which are widely spoken worldwide. In this article, we’ve created a brief overview of Western European languages and their history and prevalence within Europe and worldwide.

Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating language group.

Europe’s Languages

Within Europe, there are only 24 official languages despite there being hundreds of additional languages actually spoken. That number, of course, is low compared to other continents where sometimes thousands of languages are spoken. However, the languages of Europe are incredibly diverse and influential, many with very interesting roots.

Looking back, the majority of European languages that continue to exist today came from Proto-Indo-European which is the language that the Indo-European language family came from. The Indo-European language family is large, containing the Romance, Germanic, Armenian, Celtic, Hellenic, Slavic and Baltic languages. The area from which these languages originated is the subject of much debate.
In addition to Indo-European, Uralic and Basque language families exist in Europe and within those families are the majority of European languages.

Romance Languages

Romance languages include a wide range of different languages such as Catalan, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

Germanic

English is part of the Germanic group of European languages and has 1.35 billion speakers worldwide including those who speak it as a first or second language fluently. Germanic also includes languages such as Norwegian, Swedish, Bavarian, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Slavic

The Slavic group of languages includes Slovak, Polish, Russian, Czech and Bulgarian, to name a few. Multiple Slavic languages are spoken worldwide, especially Russian which has over 250 million speakers across the globe.

Baltic

Baltic languages include Lithuanian and Latvian (Lettish) as well as multiple ancient extinct languages including Prussian, Selonian and Selonion.

Celtic

Celtic languages include Cornish, Gaelic, Breton and Welsh. They are incredibly old languages that come from one Brittonic language that existed in the Iron Age. Despite these languages being so old, some are still used commonly today, including Welsh which is still spoken by nearly 30% of the population of Wales.

Hellenic

Hellenic includes Greek, the only language of this group within the Indo-European group of languages.

Albanian

Albanian is alone in its group within the Indo-European group of languages.

Armenian

Armenian is spoken by a high proportion of people living in Armenia, as well as people who live in Russia and Iran.

It’s also important to acknowledge the two other language groups of Europe – Basque and Uralic. Uralic includes Finnic languages and Urgic languages, whilst Basque is a language in its own right spoken in specific areas, such as Northern Spain.

Western European Languages

Western European languages contain a wide variety of languages which are mostly Romance languages from South Western and Central Europe, and Germanic languages from Northern Europe, the British Isles and Central Europe.

Various languages are classed as Western European languages including:

  • Irish
  • Scots
  • Gaelic
  • Manx
  • Welsh
  • Breton
  • Greek
  • Cornish
  • Finnish
  • Hungarian
  • Maltese
  • Basque
  • French
  • Portuguese
  • Italian
  • Spanish
  • Dutch

Some of the most commonly spoken Western European languages are Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch and Portuguese. These are the languages you may have considered learning if you want to travel around Western Europe, and you may have studied one or more of them at school.

Let’s take a closer look at these common Western European languages:

Spanish

Around 460 million people speak Spanish as their native language. Aside from Spain itself, America has the highest population of Spanish speakers in the world.

The language has been around for over 1,500 years and has its origins in Latin. Unlike Classical Latin which we still see in the written word, the Spanish we see today is called Castilian Spanish. This type of Spanish has an authoritative source called the Royal Spanish Academy which was founded in 1713 to standardise this type of Spanish, produce reference dictionaries and keep official Spanish language dictionaries updated.

Italian

Italian has around 67 million native speakers and it is spoken in Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, Switzerland, San Marino and Vatican City. The Italian language comes from Latin and developed over a long period of time following the Roman Empire falling in the 5th century. While there are Italian documents dating as far back as 960 CE, the first real evidence appeared at the beginning of the 13th century. Many poems and pieces of writing appeared during this time.

Modern Italian is formed from the Tuscan dialect, although multiple other influences exist and contributed to the Italian we know today.

French

Around 88% of the population of France speak French as their native language. French is also widely spoken across many countries including 29 with it as their official language.

The French language we know today has origins in a part of Western Europe that no longer exists, called Gaul. The language of that region has little impact on the actual French language we speak today, but over 100 words from that language went into the Latin language; those then words came into the French language and 70 are still used today. More complex historical events have influenced the development of French, but its Latin roots are the reason many English speakers feel that it is easier to learn French than other languages. The same could be said for other Romance languages, which all descend from Latin.

Dutch

There are over 23 million speakers of Dutch worldwide. It is also spoken in various other countries, including Aruba, Curacao and St Maarten, where it is an official language.

The Dutch language spoken today was part of Old Franconian during medieval times. Old Dutch then started to develop and branch off from Old Franconian, eventually becoming the main language in areas of Europe that we now know as Northern Belgium and the Southern Netherlands. Old Dutch eventually turned into Middle Dutch which then changed into various different dialects. It was in the 17th Century that the language was standardised by Protestant authority figures within the Dutch Republic as they created a Dutch edition of the Bible.

Portuguese

Portuguese is spoken by over 275 million people in the world with most speakers of the language in Brazil.

The language started from the Western Iberian Peninsula as Latin, which was introduced when Romans took over the area. Once the Roman Empire collapsed, Germanic communities took over the area and Latin developed into Galician-Portuguese because that part of the world was known as Galicia at the time. Once Galicia was merged with Spain, Galician and Portuguese became two separate language branches and Portuguese then developed into the language we know today.

Speak to a professional

If you’re looking to learn more about Western European languages as part of a business expansion, be sure to consult an expert. As we’ve outlined above, there are so many different languages and variations within the broad spectrum of European languages. Therefore, if you’re looking to put together new marketing materials, you’ll need to make sure your videos and voiceovers are accurate and relevant to your target audience. Otherwise, have fun exploring and learning more about the rich culture and history of European languages.