As with most families, there is always an odd one out. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t one in the largest language family in the world, as close to half of the world speaks a language from the Indo-European language family. However, despite its size, there are actually many similarities between these languages, some more than others. That said, there are some outliers to this pattern. The biggest one is arguably German. With some of the longest words in the world, and some without clear origin, German sticks out like a sore thumb in the family. But before we dive into all of its twists and turns, let’s first cover the basics of the language family.
A language family is a group of languages connected by a shared ancestral language, called a proto-language. These groups of languages evolve and branch out from the proto-language, and within the groups are the distinct languages we know today. A language family as large as the Indo-European family has a seemingly countless number of languages, but to be exact, there are almost 450. That being said we can’t go over every language, but we can cover the major subgroups of the family.
Indo-European Language Family
There are eight major subgroups of the language family.
- Balto-Slavic: Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Silesian, Kashubian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, Sorbian, Slovenian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Rusyn Lithuanian and Latvian
- Celtic: Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx.
- Germanic: English, Frisian, German, Dutch, Scots, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Yiddish and Icelandic
- Hellenic (Greek)
- Indo-Iranian: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Odia, Assamese, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Marathi, Sindhi, Nepali, Persian, Pashto, Kurdish, Balochi, Luri and Ossetian
- Italic/Romance: Italian, Venetian, Galician, Sardinian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan
Languages should be the most similar to those in their respective subgroups, right? Well, some languages share surprising similarities to languages not in their group. Others also share surprising differences with languages in their own group. Let’s compare a few Romance languages to Germanic languages as examples of these differences and similarities.
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Germanic Languages vs Romance Languages
English vs Romance Languages
Despite being in the Germanic language group, English vocabulary resembles Romance languages in a lot of ways. This is because almost a third of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. Another almost third of English is borrowed from Latin. That means more than half of the English language is akin to the vocabulary of Romance languages. Many Romance languages also borrowed words from English, which accounts for some of their similarities in vocabulary.
So, you may ask, how can English be in the Germanic language group and yet bare that much resemblance to another group? Well, there are a couple reasons. While English shares similar vocabulary to many Romance languages, it’s not a completely rogue language. It still shares high lexical similarity to the other Germanic languages, the highest being Dutch. Additionally, as we covered previously, the languages within the Indo-European family are more similar than not, so it’s not a huge surprise that there is crossover between the two groups.
German vs Romance Languages & English
While English may share astonishing similarities to the vocabulary of some Romance languages, this is not a precedent for all Germanic languages, and especially not for German. Unlike most Romance languages, German actually has words that don’t exist in any other language except its own. A lot of these words are used to convey very specific emotions and are considered “untranslatable” into English. Additionally, German uses compound words, meaning multiple words formed into one word, whereas most Romance languages use multiple words to iterate the same idea. This explains German’s infamously super long words.
German may seem like the odd one out compared to Romance languages, but this isn’t super surprising considering they are from two different language groups. The surprise really sets in when comparing German to its own Germanic mate, English, as many words aren’t even remotely similar to one another. Well, there is a reason for this. Lexically speaking, German is actually one of the farthest languages in the Germanic group from English. It is most similar to Dutch and shares more than 80 percent lexical similarity to it, with Danish, Swedish and Norwegian following as close seconds.
Well, we’ve covered the main differences and similarities between Romance languages and Germanic languages, so is German still the odd one out? While German has untranslatable words and linguistic qualities unlike other Indo-European languages, German is most similar to its respective language group. English, on the other hand, is equally similar to a group that is not its own, the Romance languages. So, does that make English the odd one out? Well, all languages are odd in some way or another, and they’re also all relative to the speaker itself. So, at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide which language is the odd one out.