The English language is a fickle thing. It rejects its own rules, makes exceptions for others and still experiences a great deal of infighting (looking at you, Oxford comma). Part of this is to blame on English’s complicated history — but it’s also a greedy language that likes to pluck words from other languages to use as its own.
All of these factors make it difficult to determine the languages closest to English. It would be easy to think that English is closest to French, because of all the shared vocabulary, or German, since English is a Germanic language. However, figuring out which language is closest is a little more complicated than you might think. Let’s see why.
1. Closest Language: Scots
The closest language to English is arguably Scots. We say arguably as the language is often regarded more as a dialect of English than an actual language. In fact, according to a 2010 study by the Scottish government, 64% of Scottish citizens don’t consider it a distinct language.
Before we discard Scots entirely from the top of our list, it’s worth seeing for yourself if you think Scots is mutually intelligible with English. Try reading this Scots Wikipedia entry. (It’s trickier than you would have thought, right?)
We can definitively say that English and Scots are very similar because they both developed from Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Because of the political divide, Scots was the primary language of Scotland until the union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707. From here, English became the language of government and religion, and slowly also overtook common speech. In spite of that, Scots has not disappeared but remains a vital part of Scottish identity.
2. Closest (Definitely Distinct) Language: Frisian
If you’re looking for the closest relative to English that is definitely a distinct language, the answer is Frisian. Frisian is a group of three languages spoken in parts of the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. It’s a West Germanic language that shares 80% lexical similarity with English. Take a look at how its dialects compare with English:
While there are only around 480,000 Frisian native speakers today, Frisian was a popular language in the middle ages. The Kingdom of Frisia was an independent territory for several hundred years until bad flooding crippled the population. Starting around 1500, Dutch became the official language of the region and Frisian has been in decline since then.
3. Closest Major Language: Dutch
Speaking of Dutch, the next closest relative on our list is none other than this lowlands language. Like Frisian and English, Dutch is another West Germanic language that developed from Proto-Germanic. Because of this, Dutch possesses many words and phrases similar to English and has a similar grammatical structure.
Take a look at the Dutch phrase: “Ik heb een probleem.” It translates directly to “I have a problem,” in English — and you probably figured that out anyway based on how similar they are. It’s easy to see how the grammatical structure mimics what comes naturally to English speakers.
It’s no wonder then that Dutch considered one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn — and that Dutch speakers are typically the most fluent non-native English speakers around. As a bonus, English is also quite similar to Afrikaans, a South African language that’s based on Dutch but includes more indigenous vocabulary.
4. Close Language: German
Anyone who’s tried learning German can attest that it’s a pretty difficult language to learn, but like all the previous languages on this list, it descended from the same root language: Proto-Germanic. This is why English and German share a great deal of vocabulary.
For an example of just how much vocabulary Germanic languages share, take a look at a couple of examples between German, Dutch and English:
All of this overlap in pronunciation and meaning means that despite German’s complicated grammar, English and German are still considered 60% lexically similar.
5. Close Language: Norwegian
For the next closest language to English on our list, we finally have a language that’s not from the West Germanic family: Norwegian. Don’t get too excited though, because Norwegian is still a Germanic language — it’s just a Northern Germanic language.
So besides the same language family background as the previous languages, what makes English so similar to Norwegian? Well, from the 8th to the 11th centuries, the British Isles experienced countless Viking invasions. These Vikings brought their language, Old Norse, along with them during their pillaging, and a sizable amount of Norse vocabulary ended up in modern English.
6. Close Language: French
Sacre bleu! The language that English speakers appear to find the chicest is not actually our closest relative! That said, linguists have found that English and French are 27% lexical similar, and there are many words of French origin that English speakers use every day. That’s even excluding the French phrases that have been so normalized in English it’s almost a faux pas not to know them.
For any budding linguists out there, you might be wondering why English is so close to French when French is from another language family, the Romance languages. While there certainly are many differences between English and French, most of this borrowed vocabulary came from another invasion of Britain, the Norman Invasion.
In 1066, the Duke of Normandy conquered much of modern-day England and switched the language of the elite to Old French. If you ever decide to learn French, you can thank him for the 1,500+ shared cognates that you won’t need to relearn.