Several European languages are among the most commonly spoken languages in the world. English, Spanish, French and Portuguese all make the global top ten. As such, I want to take a deep dive into the languages of Europe today. I’ll answer questions about the most spoken language in Europe, European language families, how some of those languages spread around the globe and more.
To start, let’s take a look back into the history books, to see where some of the languages spoken in Europe today originated from.
A Quick History of European Languages
Europe is home to 24 official languages, while as many as 200 languages are spoken across the continent. That might not seem like many, compared to some continents. Africa, for example, is home to 1,500 to 2,000 languages. However, Europe’s 200 or so languages still encompass a huge amount of variety. We can see why this is by looking back at their origins.
How the Languages of Europe Evolved
Most European language speakers today – 94%, according to Cambridge University Press – speak a language descended from Proto-Indo-European. It is the language that gave birth to the huge Indo-European language family.
Proto-Indo-European, however, was not the oldest of the languages in Europe. The continent’s ancient languages are largely lost due to a lack of recording prior to their extinction. The only exception is Basque, a language isolate descended from Europe’s pre-Indo-European linguistic origins.
In geographic terms, Indo-European languages are believed to have originated somewhere in West Central Asia, though again it is hard to make such statements with any certainty, due to the passage of time!
Major European Language Families
Languages in Europe can be divided into three main sub-groups: Indo-European, Uralic and Basque. Let’s take a look at each of these.
The largest by far of the European language subgroups, Indo-European encompasses the Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Hellenic, Albanian and Armenian languages. Between them, these languages are spoken by the vast majority of Europeans.
Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian are the most widely spoken Romance languages. In terms of native speaker numbers, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world (after Chinese), with 471 million native speakers. The majority of the are located in South and Central America, while Spain is home to 43.3 million Spanish speakers and the USA is home to 41.5 million.
In terms of total speaker numbers (native speakers plus second language speakers), Spanish ranks fourth globally, with 543 million speakers spread around the world. You can read more about Spanish speaking countries via the link below.
Portuguese, meanwhile, has 232 million native speakers globally, which makes it the world’s sixth most natively spoken language. 258 million total speakers means it ranks ninth globally.
While French doesn’t make the top ten in terms of native speaker numbers, a total of 267 million speakers positions it as the seventh most spoken language in the world.
Other examples of Romance languages include Catalan, Occitan and Romanian.
Read more: Spanish Speaking Countries
English is the most widely spoken of the Germanic branch of the European language family tree. Its 370 million native speakers make it the world’s third most spoken languages when viewed in these terms, while 1.338 billion total speakers make it the most spoken language globally when second language speakers are counted.
Other widely spoken Germanic languages include German, Dutch, Bavarian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Flemish and Afrikaans.
The Slavic branch of the Indo-European language group includes Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belarusian, Czech, Bulgarian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovak and more. The most widely spoken of them is Russian, which is the world’s eighth most spoken language by native speakers (154 million people speak Russian as their first language). It is also the eighth most spoken by total speakers, with 258 million of them.
A much small group of Indo-European languages, the Baltic language group includes Lithuanian and Latvian.
The Celtic languages in Europe include Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic and Breton. These languages are descended from the Common Brittonic language, which was spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age. They are thus some of the oldest languages in Europe.
Greek, which has 13.5 million speakers, is the only Hellenic language in the Indo-European family.
Like Greek, Albanian also has its own branch on the language map of Europe. There are around six million native Albanian speakers living in the Balkans.
The final language of Europe within the Indo-European family is Armenian, which has around 6.7 million native speakers.
Uralic Languages in Europe
Another of the important European language families, the Uralic languages include two distinct groups. The Finnic languages group includes Finnish, Estonian, Sami, Mari, Moksha, Erzyz, Komi and Udmurt. The Urgic group, meanwhile, contains Hungarian, Khanty and Mansi. Samoyedic is also classed as one of Europe’s Uralic languages.
The other distinct European language family is Basque. It contains only Basque, as a language isolate, though the language has five main dialects. Basque is spoken in the Basque Country, which includes the westernmost Pyrenees in Northern Spain and Southwestern France.
Basque grammar is notably different from that of most European languages, due to its different origins. However, the language has been heavily influenced by the Romance languages spoken in the surround regions and has borrowed as much as 40% of its vocabulary from them.
The Most Common Languages in Europe
I’ve looked above at some of the European languages which are most widely spoken around the world, but what about within Europe itself?
When considered by the number of native speakers, I think the results may well surprise you…
While it may only come in eighth in global terms, Russian is the most spoken language in Europe when it comes to native speaker numbers. Widely spoken in Eastern Europe, Russian has 150 million native speakers. Unlike most European languages, it uses the Cyrillic rather than the Latin alphabet.
With around 100 million native speakers, German is one of the most common languages in Europe. It is spoken in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. German is also spoken widely as a second language in Europe, including in Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Poland, Finland and Hungary.
Along with English and French, German is one of the EU’s three procedural languages. I wrote a post about countries that speak German recently, if you’re keen to know more about the spread of this particular language – click the link below for details.
Read more: German Speaking Countries
French has around 80 million native speakers, making it another of the most spoken languages in Europe. You can click the link below to discover where else French is spoken around the world.
Like German, French is spoken as a second language by many Europeans; more than 30% of Europe’s population has some knowledge of it. As well as being an official language in France (and a co-official language of Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg), French is one of the procedural languages of the EU, the World Trade Organization and the UN.
Read more: French Speaking Countries and Varieties of the French Language
Europe is home to around 78 million native Turkish speakers. Most reside in Turkey, but Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Germany are also home to sizeable populations of Turkish speakers.
Some 69 million people in Europe speak Italian as their mother tongue. Italian speakers aren’t just located in Italy, but also in Switzerland, the Vatican City, San Marino, Croatia and Slovenia.
Despite being one of the most spoken European languages globally, English has only around 60 million native speakers in Europe – fewer than half the number of native Russian speakers.
Despite this, English is one of the three procedural languages of the EU (a status which the EU has confirmed it will retain, despite the UK’s exit from the bloc). It is also one of the fastest growing languages in global terms.
Spanish is another of the world’s most common languages, as I mentioned above. Within Europe, it has 43 million speakers.
With an estimated 40 million speakers, Ukrainian is another of the major languages in Europe. An official language of the newly independent Ukraine since 1991, the Ukrainian language has a turbulent political history, which continues to this day as it vies for prominence with Russian in Ukraine.
Europe is home to 36 million native Polish speakers. They reside mainly in Poland, Czechia, Hungary, Belarus and Ukraine. Despite being a West Slavic language, Polish has been heavily influenced by Germanic and Italic languages, including German, Latin and French.
Spoken in Romania, Moldova and Transnistria, the Romanian language has around 23 million native speakers. For English-speakers, it is one of the easiest languages to learn.
Each member state of the European Union has an official language for which the EU will provide documentation, translation, interpretation and so forth. The 24 official languages of the EU are:
The Complete List of the Languages Spoken in Europe by Region
If you’re looking for a complete list of official languages in Europe, here it is. I’ve broken it down by region for ease of use. Note that there are plenty of co-official, regional, minority and other languages within Europe, all of which contribute to the continent’s linguistic makeup.
Northern Europe is made up of multiple countries, with official languages as follows:
• Denmark – Danish
• Estonia – Estonian
• Finland – Finnish and Swedish
• Iceland – Icelandic
• Norway – Norwegian and Sami
• Sweden – Swedish
Southern Europe is home to around twice as many countries as Northern Europe. These countries, along with their official languages, include:
• Austria – German
• Andorra – Catalan
• Cyprus – Greek and Turkish
• Gibraltar – English
• Greece – Greek
• Italy – Italian
• Malta – Maltese and English
• Portugal – Portuguese
• San Marino – Italian
• Spain – Spanish (Castilian)
• Turkey – Turkish
• Vatican City – Italian and Latin
Head over to Western Europe and you can find a range of other official languages. These include:
• Belgium – Dutch, German and French
• France – French
• Ireland – Irish and English
• Luxembourg – Luxembourgish, German and French
• Monaco – French
• Netherlands – Dutch
• United Kingdom – English
The official languages of countries in Eastern Europe are many and varied. They include:
• Albania – Albanian
• Belarus – Belarusian and Russian
• Bosnia and Herzegovina – Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian
• Bulgaria – Bulgarian
• Croatia – Croatian
• Czech Republic – Czech
• Estonia – Estonian
• Hungary – Hungarian
• Kosovo – Albanian and Serbian
• Latvia – Latvian
• Lithuania – Lithuanian
• Moldova – Romanian
• Montenegro – Montenegrin
• North Macedonia – Macedonian and Albanian
• Poland – Polish
• Romania – Romanian
• Russia – Russia
• Serbia – Serbian
• Slovakia – Slovak
• Slovenia – Slovenian
• Ukraine – Ukrainian
How Did the Languages of Europe Spread Around the World?
Languages spread mainly through migration, whether as a result of conquest, exploration or, more recently, economic migration patterns. We can see an example of this within Europe with the spread of Latin. As the Romans conquered country after country, their language took hold, displacing and/or altering a host of native tongues along the way. We can see the impact of this in Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Catalan, Romansh and other Romance languages to this day.
In terms of European languages spreading beyond the continent’s borders, we can hold the seafarers of the Age of Discovery largely responsible. As their galleons crossed the oceans, so did their mother tongues. This is why European languages such as Spanish and Portuguese are so widely spoken in locations such as South America (for a full run-down of the languages spoken in South America, you can click the link below).
More recently, the internet has played a role in the spread of European languages beyond Europe as well – particularly English.
Read more: Languages of South America: the Most Spoken and Indigenous South American Languages
The Link Between Cultures and the Languages of Europe
As is the case on any continent, there are strong links between the cultures and the languages of Europe. Language can be a divisive issue, particularly when it becomes politicised. We’ve seen this time and again in Europe, as well as elsewhere around the world.
Understanding a culture means understanding its language and the origins of that language. It also means developing an appreciation of how and why the language is so important. This is particularly the case where people feel their language is under threat or where it is spoken by a minority. In these cases, language-related tensions are common, and issues relating to language and culture may need careful treatment.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this run down of the most common European languages. To recap, I’ve looked at:
• Some of the history of the languages of Europe
• European language families and their sub-groups
• Which is the most spoken language in Europe
• Where languages in Europe are spoken
If you’ve enjoyed these insights and have more to share, please feel free to leave a comment below – I would love to hear your views.