The 26th of September is European Languages Day. It’s a day to celebrate Europe’s rich linguistic diversity and show the importance of language learning.

European languages are all special in their own way but did you know they often borrow words from each other? Perhaps the biggest mongrel of them all is English, which has been borrowing words from its modern European neighbours for centuries – from ‘cafe’ to ‘waltz’ to ‘siesta.’ English is full of loanwords like these!

English also has the same roots as other European languages, so let’s take a look at the history and find out how it became such a melting pot of words.

For a quick summary of English’s linguistic history – take a look at this video:


The history of European languages and their influences on English



We can trace the majority of languages in Europe back to the same root – the Proto-Indo-European language. This was spoken about 6,000 years ago in Russia. Like a tree, Proto-Indo-European divides into different branches. The three biggest branches are Germanic, Romance and Slavic. With Hellenic (Greek), Baltic, Albanian, Indo-Aryan and Celtic making up smaller branches.

Let’s see how this looks in reality: take the word ‘two’, for example. How do you say ‘two’ in your language? Is it completely different to English? Yes? Well, not so fast.

Look at how the word has evolved from Proto-Indo-European to todays’ languages. We can see that all the variations came from the same origin:

Germanic languages and their influence on English

The Germanic languages include the West Germanic languages; English, German, Frisian, Dutch and Yiddish. It also includes the North Germanic languages; Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.

The invasions of Britain from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th and 6th centuries, mean a lot of English words are Germanic. They often refer to everyday common things such as ‘cow’, ‘house’, ‘bread’ and ‘sword’. Britain was also invaded by the Vikings in 800AD who spoke a language which would develop into Norwegian and Danish. They also brought new words such as ‘you’, ‘anger’ and ‘husband’.

Romance Languages and their influence on English

The Romance languages include the five major languages; Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Romanian. They also include Catalan, Galician, Sardinian and Venetian.

The Norman invasion of Britain in the year 1066AD brought over French and Latin words relating to government, aristocracy and royalty. This is when words such as ‘council’, ‘marriage’ and ‘parliament’ entered the English language. There was even a moment in Britain where although the peasants spoke everyday common Anglo-Saxon English, the upper-class spoke French. This was also the language used in law until the beginning of the 18th century.

Check out this video for more about the history of the Norman Conquest and French words in English!


What English and Slavic languages have in common

This is the largest family of languages from the Proto-Indo-European group. They include; Ukranian, Belarusian, Russian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian.

Compared to the Germanic and Romance languages, very few English words come from Russian and other Slavic languages. However, there are some cognates that exist, for example ‘mother’ in English is ‘мать’ in Russian. ‘Cafe’ is ‘Кафе’ and ‘airport’ ‘аэропо́рт’.
Find out more about Russian cognates and learn more about cognates in other European languages.

Non-Proto-Indo-European languages

It’s also worth mentioning that there are some languages in Europe that don’t fit into the Proto-Indo-European family. These include Basque, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.

Basque is particularly interesting as it is one of the world’s oldest living languages and is supposed to be one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. It is not officially related to any other language but there are some recent theories that it has similarities to Armenian and also possibly has neolithic roots!


Modern European languages and English


English has continued to evolve with modern-day Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages. This is thanks to cultural influences of food, science, technology, entertainment and most importantly – loanwords.

Loanwords are words taken from one language and used in another when there is no existing suitable word to describe something. They may sound like they are borrowed but English shows no signs of giving them back. Instead they have adopted them as part of their own rich tapestry!

Take a look at these examples of loanwords from modern European languages.


Modern German words in English are often related to developments and discoveries:


Words with Dutch origin are often related to boats and the navy:

Naval terms such as ‘dock’ often come from Dutch because of their tradition as sailors during the Middle Ages



Modern Scandanavian words sound very comforting:

Feelings of comfort in English can be described as feeling ‘cosy’ or ‘snug’ which are both Scandanavian words



Cooking and fashion words we often take from the French:


Some animal words in English come from Spanish:


Italian words in English are often related to music and performance:

The word ‘ballerina’ comes from Italian and literally means ‘dancing girl’



There aren’t many Russian loanwords, but here are a few:

The word ‘mammoth’ in English comes from Russian ‘mamant’ which was recorded in 1578 in Russian but not used in English until 100 years later.


You might be surprised about these Czech loanwords:

Can you think of any words that English has borrowed from your language? Let us know in the comments!

English may be famous for borrowing words, but it is now lending more words than it is taking. Find out more in this BBC article – Does English still borrow from other languages?

For more facts about the influence of French on English, read our article – The Secret Words Hidden in the English Language.

Want to discover more about the origins of English? Take a look at our articles – 4 Ways English Words are Born and Myths and Mysteries of the English Languages.


Glossary for language learners:


mongrel (n): a dog whose parents are from different breeds.

loanwords (n): a word taken from language and used in another.

melting pot (n): a situation where lots of different ideas come together.

trace (v): to find the origins of something.

not so fast (exp): telling someone to slow down.

branches (n): parts of a tree / parts of something larger.

peasants (n): the farmers and local people from low-income.

cognates (n): words that have the same origin or are related in some way or another.

tapestry (n): a piece of cloth with pictures woven into it.


n = noun

v = verb

exp = expression

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