Related languages VS influence sphere: a comparison between Europe and East Asia

5 Giu

Welcome back to my blog.

I’m a student of East Asian languages and cultures at the university of Naples L’Orientale. Most specifically, I study everything about Japan and China, with standard Japanese and Mandarin Chinese as the center.

However, I am also an Italian who has been studying English since preschool and, during high school, got to learn more and more about Latin and Greek, which got me into my passion for languages.

In fact, Europe and East Asia are basically my biggest points of focus when it comes to language history, development and influence, and I love how we can see different aspects of these points.

For instance, what do we find in those regions, when it comes to languages?


Risultati immagini per indo-european languages

The majority of Europe speaks a language from the Indo-European family. As you can see in the picture, the only European countries where the main language does not belong in this family are Turkey and Azerbaijan (both languages are Turkic), Georgia (because Georgian is a Kartvelian language), Malta (their language derives from Arabic, and it’s the only Afro-Asiatic language among the official ones in the EU), Finland, Estonia and Hungary (their languages are Ugro-Finnic) and the Basque countries between Spain and France.

Excluding the Indo-Arian branch (where Persian, Hindi, Urdu and so on come from), the Indo-European languages are divided into:

  • Romance languages, the ones deriving from Latin. Main examples include Portugues, Spanish, Catalan, French, Occitan, Italian and Romanian;
  • Celtic languages, once spread throughout the continent, but now confined to the British Isles and the French region of Brittany. Gaelic Irish is even an official language in the European Union;
  • Albanian, Greek and Armenian form three branches on their own. Studies have tried to pair at least two of them together, but with little to no results;
  • Latvian and Lithuanian are Baltic languages, often paired with the next ones;
  • Slavic languages, spread throughout the majority of Eastern Europe. We can find Russian, Polish, Ukranian, Serbian, Bulgarian and many others here;
  • Germanic languages, the branch English belongs to. Other important languages in this branch are German, Dutch and the languages from the Nordic countries (except for Finnish);

Europe has had a common history and culture, even though there has always been some division between East and West, ever since the Roman empire, where you could divide it into Latin culture and Greek culture.

Therefore, it should not come off as a surprise that languages from different branches went on to influence eachother. The Balkan sprachbund is often used as a modern example, with Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian and other languages sharing common aspects that aren’t found in other languages of their branches.

Another example is found with Germanic and Romance languages. Ever since the Barbarian invasions of Rome, those two branches have come in touch and started sharing vocabulary, features and similar aspects.

For instance, the word bank derives from the Italian banca, which in turn derives from banka, the Longobardian word for bench.

Also, before English was considered the “lingua franca” of the World, this role was filled by French, which inherited it from Latin (kinda like a father passing the torch to his son). As other idioms have now plenty of anglophone words, it makes sense that, back in the day, Romance vocabulary made its way to Great Britain.

Okay, now let’s see the situation in East Asia.


East Asian Cultural Sphere.png

For millennia, China has been the central power of this region, which is why the East Asian Cultural Sphere is often called Sinic world.

As the map shows, said sphere includes China, the Korean peninsula, the Japanese archipelago and Vietnam. And that’s where we can see the main difference with Europe, as those languages aren’t probably even related to eachother!

All varieties of Chinese, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, belong to the Sino-Tibetan family. Then, we have Vietnamese, which is an Austroasiatic language. Said family can be found scattered throughout South-East Asia.

As for Korean and Japanese, those two languages derive from the Koreanic and Japonic families respectively, even though there have been theories that may suggest that these two are related. One believes that Japanese descended from Korea, but the other sees those two groups as belonging to the huge Altaic family, which includes other groups and languages such as Turkish and Mongolian.

However, as for now, we don’t know yet if those theories can be proved right.

Now, despite that, those languages all shared the same writing system at some point.

Chinese characters are still used in Chinese-speaking countries, with the sole distinction of those using Traditional ones and those using the Simplified.

Korea did use them, but switched to the hangul alphabet. Characters can still be found in South Korea, but are completely removed in the North.

Vietnam still used them until about a century ago, but the huge rate of analphabetization meant a switch to the current variation of the latin alphabet they still use today.

Japan is the only other country that still uses characters, albeit alongside their two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana.

Chinese culture unified those countries to the point that a Westener could see them in a similar situation as Europe.

Now, let’s compare them.


When you compare English to a Romance language like Spanish, French or Italian, you may meet words that look and/or sound quite similar. However, there are two differences:

  • Some words are cognates, meaning that they originate from the same root. For instance, the Italian word for mother is madre;
  • Others are actually words that “jumped” from a branch to another. As I said earlier, English has plenty of Romance vocabulary, but the other way around is as usual;

In fact, you may compare Indo-European branches to relatives. Imagine you and a brother or a cousin of yours, and those traits you may share: how many of them derive from you two being from the same family? And how many are a consequence of the two of you constantly interacting with eachother?

Meanwhile, the Chinese cultural sphere makes China look like a master. For instance, Japan didn’t have a written system until the VII century, when Chinese (and Korean) buddhist monks came to the archipelago.

Therefore, when you see similar words in Chinese and Japanese, it’s usually because the second one is actually the first one but adapted to fit the local pronounciation.

As such, it comes clear how different the relationship between languages from those two regions of the World are, and I hope you can see why I love them.

Now, it is time for me to finish my article. I enjoyed doing this one, so it definitely won’t be the last.

See you, next time, here, on the Empty Blog!


2 Risposte to “Related languages VS influence sphere: a comparison between Europe and East Asia”


  1. Language families represented in the Sinic world | Il blog vuoto - 17 giugno 2017

    […] Less than a week ago, I talked about the branches of the Indo-European family as a follow-up to my post about the difference between the linguistic influence of a region within a family (Europe) and a region with an influence spehere… […]

  2. Il mondo sinico: sfera d’influenza, non famiglia | Il blog vuoto - 29 luglio 2017

    […] un paio di mesi fa, scrissi questo articolo in inglese in cui mostro la principale differenza tra l’Estremo Oriente e […]


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