The Truly Eastern Roots of the Central European Languages

The formation process of the world’s languages is one of the most fascinating stories humanity has ever written. At least for language geeks. Or can you get sucked in too?

Language family tree
Language family tree

The fate of Central European countries is intertwined both culturally and historically. But how does it look from the linguistic point of view? At first glance, it’s obvious – the languages are different. But do they have something in common?

Language families and groups

When the first tribes of people reached Europe, they migrated from the East. However, their journey did not simply end. You can just see that – groups of humans wandering the lands in search of better living conditions. Some groups adapted to a particular area, while others moved on. They needed to communicate effectively, and so languages started forming. They were similar between the tribes that lived nearby each-others and were growing apart from the ones who moved further away. Central Europe represent Indo-European languages, with just two exceptions (we will get to those in a little while). The ten Indo-European languages can be further divided: eight belong to the Balto-Slavic subdivision, one to the Italic subdivision, and one to the Germanic. These can still be divided further and more specifically, but let’s stop here for a second, as what the heck does it mean anyway?!

The Indo-European family

This family of languages is prevalent in Europe. The tribes speaking this type of language varieties came from the Iranian plateau and the Indian subcontinent (its northern part). Some languages which belonged to this group are now extinct, like Liburnian (used in the lands that are present-day Croatia), Dacian (Carpathian region), and Latin (spoken in the Roman Empire). Eight branches of the Indo-European language family are still alive and spoken today. The family gathers languages that all descend from one common language – Proto-Indo-European. Just let it sink in – dozens of languages can be traced to one common ancestor. That must count for something! Of course, just like in families, each relative lives their own life and writes their own story, and at first glance, they can show no similarities but are still connected. The topic is complicated and has been the center of many expert debates as we travel far back in time to find this common ancestor, namely sometime in the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age periods.

As for the absolute linguistic basics, we will just look at the vowels (without vowels, it would be impossible to speak, so they constitute a vital part of any linguistic study). What is similar between the languages of this family is that their vowel system is based on five main vowels (a, e, I, o, u), which were present in the parent language, Proto-Indo-European. Of course, pronunciation may vary from language to language, as basic sounds can be short or long, but you get the gist. We can trace the earliest vowel system that is common and still present.

The Balto-Slavic Branch

So now for the largest representative in the Three Seas Region – the Balto-Slavic branch. As the name suggests, it includes Baltic and Slavic languages. Both subdivisions (Baltic and Slavic) share common features, and this means that, at some point, it is likely that they have been developing together as one Proto-Balto-Slavic language. It then probably got split, giving way to the Proto-Slavic, but let’s leave the details to the experts.

But which languages are these, you ask? The Slavic subdivision is represented by Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Croatian, and Bulgarian, while the Baltic subdivision includes Lithuanian and Latvian. It is interesting to note that Bulgarian is the only language in the Three Seas Region that uses the Cyrillic script.

Two Indo-European Exceptions

Austrian and Romanian are two exceptions to the Indo-European family of languages within the Three Seas States.

Austrian is often thrown into the same bag as German, which should give you a clue as to which branch they belong to. You’ve guessed it! Germanic. All Germanic languages have a common parent language, which was spoken in Scandinavia during the Iron Age. You probably would have no problems guessing the name of that common ancestor, but I will tell you anyway – it’s Proto-Germanic. Austrians will most likely insist that they do not speak German. At best, they might admit to speaking Austrian German, so a variety of Standard German. And Austrians do take care of their language. Austrian German is the only pluricentric language (meaning a language with several standard forms that may often be present in different countries) recognized by the European Union.

On the other hand, Romanian belongs to the Italic branch of languages and is a Romance language. This cute name is probably supposed to be nostalgic, as it depicts languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin – the once-upon-a-time lingua franca. It is believed to have evolved during Classical Antiquity (8th century BC – 6th century AD) in the Roman provinces in the area of the Balkans influenced by Latin. The southern part of the Balkans was, in comparison, strongly influenced by Greek. Romanian used to be written in Cyrillic script. However, in the 1860s, it converted to Latin script. The change involved the development of a Romanian transitional alphabet, which was in use from the 1830s until the Cyrillic script was completely phased out.

A whole other story – the Uralic Languages

Among the prevailing Indo-European family languages, two counties of the Three Seas States are anything but the chip off the old, Indo-European block. What then do two countries, separated by hundreds of miles of road, share? Hungary and Estonia have a common ancestor – the Proto-Uralic language. And still, they both belong to completely different subdivisions, despite being counted as members of the Finno-Ugric branch.

When we look at the vowel system to compare it to the Indo-European one mentioned earlier in the text, we might be surprised to learn there is virtually nothing known about the original vowel system of the Proto-Uralic. However, it is suspected there must have been several possible vowel sounds (some experts point to as many as eleven). Other theories suggest the vowels must have been similar to the Khanty language, which uses seven full vowels and three reduced vowels. Ok, so it is clear that the vowel systems between the languages are different just by the sheer number of sounds (and the vowels make the sound of a language).

Estonian belongs to the Finno-Permic (of Finnic) subdivision of languages. It is, therefore, connected to languages spoken by peoples of northern Scandinavia and those spoken among tribes northeast of the Ural Mountains. One of its close relatives among the contemporary spoken languages is, naturally, Finnish. It is not widely spoken and can show a modest number of circa 1.1 million speakers.

On the other hand, Hungarian is a language pretty much unlike any other. A member of the Ugric subdivision, it is a lonely island surrounded by Indo-European languages. For this reason, its contemporary form has many borrowings from the surrounding countries. Nonetheless, the language is still more closely related to Khanty and Mansi languages, which are spoken by people living in the Urals district of today’s Russia. You heard it! The Hungarian tribes traveled to Europe from the region of Siberia, northern lands, East  of the Ural Mountains. They loved Europe so much that they finally decided to stay, bringing their language with them.

Living organisms

The fact that the great migration of tribes has long come and gone does not mean the languages are set in stone. Languages of Central Europe are constantly evolving, as are all the other languages spoken in the world. Knowing where languages originated from gives us an idea of how much the Three Seas Countries share. And since language is an important vessel of culture – it also gives us a sense of shared heritage, which is expressed especially in borrowings. Borrowings are another fascinating topic to follow, which shows us how certain items or ideas were shared and traveled through the lands of the Three Seas States. But that’s another story.

Weronika Edmunds

Holder of a DPSI in English Law and an MBA, she believes in lifelong learning. Her passion for theatre shaped her sensitivity to the spoken and written word, leading her to become a creative copywriter. She lives for words and knows how to pour life into otherwise lifeless wording. She likes to repeat after M. Ondaatje: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

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