Languages change over time for various reasons, like separation, colonisation and invasion. The meanings, pronounciations and grammar in today's languages may be radically different from those in the 10th century. The article on Old English gives some example of the gradual changes to English. The important thing to remember is that there never will be a perfect language as language change is cyclic.
There are two main language groups found in Europe, and several smaller groups, or isolated languages. The main groups are:
Other languages found in Europe during the Middle Ages include:
- The Western Mediterranean language group.
- The Semitic languages group.
- The Hamitic languages group.
- The Caucasian languages group.
The Indo-European language group, or more properly group of language groups, comprises the following sub-groups:
- Germanic Languages, such as Old Norse, German, English (including Old English, Middle English, etc), Danish, Swedish, etc.
- Celtic Languages, such as Breton, Welsh, Gaelic, etc.
- Italic and Romance languages, such as Italian, French and its dialects (including Waloon, Provencal, etc), Spanish, etc. Most of these languages are derived from Latin or its ancestral Thraco-Phrygian languages. Also included in this group is Romanian -- it's interesting to find an essentially western European language hiding in eastern Europe, but there's a story to that.
- Greek and Illyrian which are also off-shoots of the same Thraco-Phrygian language group that gave birth to Latin and the Romance language group
- Hittite or Anatolian, ancient languages of Asia Minor which are also descendants of the Thraco-Phrygian languages. They were all well and truly extinct by the Middle Ages.
- Baltic languages, such as Lithuanian and Latvian or Lettish (but not Estonian).
- Slavonic languages, the most widespread throughout eastern Europe, including Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croat, Ukrainian, etc. The Baltic and Slavonic languages are distantly related, but distinct enough to form separate language groups.
There are enough similarities between all of the Indo-European languages to tie them together -- for example they are all Inflectional languages, which means that the structure of a word changes form to indicate its grammatical function. e.g. in English who, whose, and whom are inflected nominative, genitive, and accusative forms of the same word (although English is not a highly inflectional language -- most of the Slavonic languages are much more inflectional).
The Finno-Ugric language group is a much smaller group than Indo-European. It evolved from the ancient Finnish languages which have existed from the stone age in the forests of Finland and northern Europe.
The main languages in the Finno-Ugric group are:
Yes, the spread of these languages is interesting. The Magyars were originally a northern steppe tribe descended from the Finns.
The Finno-Ugric languages are all Agglutinative languages, which mean that they use prefixes and suffixes to indicate the grammatical role of the words. Note that the Turkic and other Steppe languages such as Mongolian are also agglutinative and have many similar grammatical structures, which seems to indicate a connection between these language groups, possibly a very ancient connection.
Semitic and Hamitic languages
The common theme amongst these languages is that they all exhibit a pattern of root words consisting of three consonants, with vowel changes, prefixes, and suffixes used to inflect them. For instance, in Hebrew:
- gdl means "big" but is no part of speech and not a word, just a root
- gadol means "big" and is an adjective
- gidel means "he magnified"
- magdelet means "magnifier" (lens)
The languages all have alphabets (eg: the Hebrew alphabet, or alef-bet), which contain a set of consonants, with the vowels written around, under, following, or above the consonants. They are written right-to-left, rather than left-to-right as in English.
Western Mediterranean languages
Probably the most interesting group of languages from a scholar's point of view, but the least widespread, the Western Mediterranean language group arguably includes the following languages:
There are many theories on the relationship between these languages, and many difficulties involved in analysing them (mostly because nobody speaks Etruscan or the Aegean language any more, and we can't read the surviving inscriptions in this language). It is possible that the language group was more widespread in neolithic times, but was pushed out by the arrival of the Indo-Europeans.
Another interesting one to study -- the main surviving language of this group is Georgian. It is also interesting to note that Georgian has very similar language structure to Basque, indicating that Georgian and the other (minor) Caucasian languages were originally part of the Western Mediterranean group -- indicating a further fragment of the ancient tribe that was dispersed by the Indo-Europeans.