If you speak any one of Europe’s many languages, then today’s your chance to celebrate! As many may know, today marks European Day of Languages. Now a regular fixture in our calendars, European Day of Languages – now in its 17th year – was first established by the European Union to encourage and promote language learning. It’s since developed into an annual opportunity to reflect on the diversity of cultures, languages, and people featuring across our colorful continent.
There are 24 official European languages spoken across the continent. So, in honor of this annual celebration, we’ve collected 24 of the very best – and worst – facts about European languages.
- Around 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. Europe’s 28 member countries account for 200 unofficial languages.
- European languages belong to three distinct groups: Germanic, Romance and Slavic. Basque is the only European language that doesn’t belong to any of these three.
- Basque, the oldest European language, is considered the “ultimate linguistic mystery.” It is spoken natively by some of the Basque people who live in Spain and France, but its heritage is completely unrelated to any other language in the world.
- German contains the longest word of all European languages: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. It roughly translates to “the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labeling of beef.” Not surprisingly the word was recently dropped from the German Dictionary for being impractical and way too long. So currently, the longest word in the German Dictionary is: Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung – meaning “automobile liability insurance.”
- Most people have heard of Wales’ famous Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a village in the North West of this small country. It boasts the longest town name in Great Britain – but did you know it means “St Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of Llandysilio of the red cave”? If you’d like to hear how it rolls off the tongue, check out this weather reporter nailing it.
- The UK is considered the top monolingual country in Europe. Studies show that little more than a third of Brits can manage a conversation in a second language. Compare that with the Netherlands – considered the most multilingual in Europe – where only 0.5% of the population can’t speak a second language.
- German has the most native speakers in Europe being an official language in Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein as well as, of course, Germany.
- French is also an official language of Luxembourg, Haiti and more than 20 other African countries. The second largest French-speaking city in the world isn’t in France, it is Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Around 45-50% of English words come from French.
- The French and English languages are both littered with Faux amis (or ‘false friends’). These are words that appear to be the same or similar in two languages but actually have very different meanings. Take the word “sensible” (in English) and sensitive (in French). The French meaning of “sensible” actually means “sensitive” in English. And to make things even more confusing the French “sensitive” translates to “sensible” in English.
- British political economist, traveler, writer, and governor of Hong Kong Sir John Bowring, was perhaps best known for his love of languages. He claimed to know 200 languages and was able to speak 100 from across Russia, Eastern Europe, and Spain.
- You probably know that Latin is still spoken in the Vatican City. But did you know you can also use Latin when taking out cash at an ATM in the city?
- Italian didn’t become an official language until 1861. Back then only 2.5% of Italy’s population could speak what is now known as standard Italian.
- Italian is also the second-most spoken language in Argentina – about 60% of Argentinians claim Italian ancestry.
- Nearly 8,000 miles away from Wales, in the Chubut province of Patagonia in southern Argentina, around 5,000 people speak Welsh.
- Greek (and Traditional Chinese) are the oldest written languages still in use today.
- Only 5% of all Portuguese speakers live in Portugal – the majority live in Brazil.
- International Civil Aviation Organisation, which oversees passport standards, recommends that passports be issued in the national language of the issuing country, and in either English or French. That’s why you’ll most likely see French or English language on your passport.
- Hungarian is considered one of the hardest languages – in fact, it makes the top four most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. But it’s also considered the most creative language – you can play with the order and the cases of sentences, and with the suffixes and prefixes too.
- Esperento is considered the easiest European language to learn. And although it’s not an officially recognized language, it’s one of Europe’s youngest (invented in 1890s) and spoken by more than 2 million people from Eastern Europe to Spain. There are no irregular verbs, its pronunciation is logical and its writing system phonetic. ‘I would love to visit Oxford one day’ in Esperanto is ‘Mi amus viziti Oksfordo unu tago’ – not exactly difficult to figure out.
- Roughly three-quarters (77%) of primary school students in Europe learn English as a foreign language, according to data from Eurostat.
- It seems that Europeans are big fans of tongue twisters. Most English speakers will be familiar with the popular “She sells sea shells on the seashore, etc.” But fiddly sentences like these feature across all European languages. Like in Holland – perhaps the trickiest one of all: Kapper Knap, de knappe kapper, knipt en kapt heel knap, maar de knecht van kapper Knap, de knappe kapper, knipt en kapt nog knapper dan kapper Knap, de knappe kapper.” Here’s a full list of tongue twisters from across Europe. Enjoy.
- Did you know that Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock speak German? Or that Bradley Cooper and Jonny Depp are fluent in French? There are a few more that might surprise you in this round-up of famous speakers of European languages.
- And finally… In Spain, there’s a language made up entirely of whistling called Silbo Gomero. It’s still being taught in local schools – here’s what it sounds like.
And that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and managed to pick up a fact or two along the way about the wealth of culture and diversity our European languages offer.