Europe will probably never win the prize for number of languages. With 234, it can claim just 3.4% of all the languages of the world; in fact, it comes in last among the continents. The grand prize goes to Asia with 2,322 languages, or 34% of the total.
Europe’s lingustic diveristy is greater than you may think
Still, anyone who thinks Europe has just one language per country had better think again. That’s not even true of Germany …. after all, we have Danish, Frisian, Sorbian, three Roma (Gypsy) languages (Balkan, Sinte, and Vlax), and a lot more. Allemanisch in the Black Forest can also, like its relative Swiss German, be regarded as a (separate) language. Then there are the languages of the immigrants: Turkish, Kurdish, Aramaic and others, which by now can be considered established language groups. Even tiny Andorra in the Pyrenees has three indigenous spoken languages: French, Spanish, and Catalan. In Austria, one encounters not only German but also Alemannisch, Bavarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, Sinte Romani, and Walser.
One quarter of the languages of Europe are found in Russia (58). Within the Russian Federation, the region richest in languages is the Caucasus, with about 30 languages. Yet another language-rich area is the Balkans, with over 40 languages. Italy comes in next with approximately 33 languages; in the Italian Alps alone there are several small language groups like Cimbrian, Friulian, Ladin and Piemontese. Germany has 27 languages. France comes close with 23 languages, with minority languages like Auvergnat, Breton, Corsican, Provencal, Vlaams; and at least one sign language.
Very small languages
Some of the minority languages are very small, and there is a possibility that they might soon cease to exist. Cimbrian, for example, is spoken by just 2200 people. There are only 1900 speakers of Mocheno left in the Valley of Fersina in the Tretin Alps. In an isolated mountain region on the Greek islands of the Peloponnes, 1200 people speak Tsakonian, which stems from the language of ancient Sparta. And Istriot is spoken by only about 1000 people on the Mediterranean coast of Croatia. Manx on the Isle of Man between England and Ireland is about to die out completely. Even the two Frisian dialects on the German North Sea coast are spoken by a total of only about 12,000 speakers.
Language death and language vitality
There can be various reasons for the demise of a language. Sometimes politics are behind it. Only a few decades ago, for example, Italy and Spain tried to ban the use of minority languages in an attempt to force the exclusive use of the national languages. But often the influence of the “majority language” is simply too strong. That is probably the reason why Frisian is dying out in Germany. In schools and in the media, in business and on the job – High German is dominant everywhere. Under such circumstances there is a strong temptation to stop using the minority language. Thus many young people in Frisia can still understand the Frisian of their parents but no longer use it actively as their mother tongue.
Other minority languages are more robust and are being retained by the younger generation. There is no need to worry about the various Basque dialects in the Pyrenees. Catalan is still widely spoken and written in the eastern coastal areas of Spain and on the vacation islands of Majorca and Ibiza. In Wales great efforts have been made to preserve the old Celtic language of Cymareg (Welsh). It has been reintroduced as a language of instruction in many schools; there are both Welsh literature and Welsh radio programs. It is estimated that about 20% of the Welsh population can speak it.
Curious facts about European languages
There are some interesting curiosities among European languages. In Greece, ancient Greek is still the language of the Orthodox Church. There is even an Eskimo language in the colourful tapestry of European languages. Since Greenland belongs to Denmark, the 57,000 Eskimos who live there count as Europeans.
The number of European languages is augmented by around 40 different sign languages for the deaf. These are definitely not just visual representations of the spoken languages of the respective countries but rather independent systems of communication with their own grammar and vocabulary. Their vocabularies consist not of spoken words but of signs involving hands, arms and facial expressions. Most countries have their own sign languages. For example, the deaf in Germany use a different sign language from that of Austria or Switzerland.
European languages and Bible translation
Europe does hold one record: there are Bible translations in over half of its languages. By comparison, in Asia only a quarter of all the languages have at least one Bible portion. The whole Bible exists in 60 European languages, 29 more have the New Testament, and in a further 60 there are individual portions. Altogether that makes 149 “Bible-languages” for Europe. One more recent Bible translation is the Gospel of Mark in Letzeburgisch, the everyday language of Luxemburg.
Europe has a long tradition of Bible translation. The first formal Bible translation in the world was the Septuagint, a translation of parts of the Old Testament into Greek, about 300 B.C.. Until the 17th century, Bible translation was done almost exclusively in European languages. Nevertheless, there are still more than 70 translation projects in progress in European languages. In several languages it has to be decided whether a translation is needed.
This story, written by Andreas Holzhausen of Wycliffe Germany in 2007, is an adaptation and has been slightly updated from the original which appears on wycliffe.net.
Top photo of family on bike by Zeke du Plessis.
Photo of St Basil’s Church in Moscow and old Russian Bible by Marc Ewell.
Photo of Steve Parkhurst praying in a sign language by Wycliffe Canada.