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Language facts: Languages in Europe

Europe has fifty states with all together about 730 million inhabitants. In these countries, the Summer Institute of Linguistics registered in 2015 a total of 626 languages in use. 

Nine out of ten Europeans speak an Indo-European language. With its 437 registered languages this is far from being the largest language family, but almost half of everyone in the world spoke such a language in 2015.

With 155 million first language users, Russia was the largest language in Europe in 2015. On average, the largest language in each country was spoken by nine out of every ten of its inhabitants. The linguistic diversity is greater in the east than in the west, and greater in the south than in the north.

47 of 50 countries were members of the Council of Europe. In 2015, 25 of these countries had adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from 1992, covering a total of 93 languages used by over 200 national minorities or language groups.

The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the largest song competitions in the world. In the period 1956–2015 English was used in 48% of all the songs in the final, and by almost all of them after 1997.

In the Nordic countries and independent areas, the inhabitants in 2015 used about 45 languages including the Sami indigenous languages and the historical minority languages. Six Scandinavian languages were among the 100 most vital in the world, but 14 languages were facing difficulties or in the process of dying out.  

Vitality and social position

It was during the 1900s that some of the European languages became huge world languages, but even so, they have only become the first languages for little more than two out of every ten inhabitants around the world.

Biggest of them all, after Chinese, was Spanish. This was the first language for 399 million people in 2015, but for only 43 million in 1890 and 26 million in 1801. Up until the latter part of the 20th century, English was the largest of the European languages. 23 per cent of the world’s inhabitants spoke one of the seven largest European languages in 1801. This figure has shown little change in the period up to 2015, when 21 per cent spoke one of these languages. 

Language barometer for Europe

The compete edition of Språkfakta 2015 presents the very first language barometer for Europe. The barometer is a combination of data from Ethnologue that makes it possible to illustrate how important the largest language in each country is. The criterion is the percentage of inhabitants who use this language. The lower the percentage, the greater may be the linguistic diversity in the country.

On average, the largest language is the first language for 89 per cent of the inhabitants. This shows that the European idea of ‘one nation – one language’ has a strong position, especially in Europe. In just nine nations and regions the largest first language is used by fewer than 70 per cent of the inhabitants, and fewest of all in Bosnia & Herzegovina, with 29 per cent.

Many of the European languages cross national borders. The countries with the most languages in 2015 were Russia (107), Turkey (36), Italy (35), Germany (27) and France (25). No nation is fully a one-language state any longer, but one state had just one living language. In the Vatican City State they use Italian, but also Latin.

The six largest languages Russian, German, French, English, Italian and Spanish were the first languages of six out of ten Europeans around 2012, but just for close on eight per cent of all the world’s inhabitants. Russian is the largest language in Europe and the first language for almost 155 million people, 137 million of whom lived in Russia. Both German and French were larger languages than English, and only in Russia did less than 90 per cent of the first-language users live in the country of origin of the language.

For the year 2015, Ethnologue registered 629 languages in use in Europe, as against 537 in 2009. The figures for that latter year did not include all the new immigrant languages. Ten per cent of these languages were in difficulty or in the process of passing out of use. This means that at best the languages are now used only by the grandparent generation.

The basis of the European language barometer is a documentation of linguistic dominance. Here all the major languages in each nation state are documented as far as possible. Not all the information about the next languages in each country  is equally precise

Formal status

36 of the European countries had one official language nationwide in 2009. In many countries, one or two languages are official within a region. In the Russian republics alone there were 27 such official languages. The language diversity is greater in Eastern than in Western Europe. Under the centrally administered politics of the Soviet Union, there was room for other language than Russian, as long as these languages did not pose a threat to the position of Russian in the federation.

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949, and in 2015, 47 of 50 European states were members. Only Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Vatican state remain outside the organisation. In spite of there being many dominant first languages, there are still many regional and minority languages. With its 47 members and two official languages, this transnational body leaves a historic footprint, illustrating the line of thought behind language policy that prevailed prior to the 1990s. The Council itself uses few languages, but promotes the linguistic diversity of its member countries.

The European Union was founded in 1957 and right from the start had six official languages, one for each of its member countries. It was politically necessary to organise things in that way at that time. Ever since 2007 the EU has had 24 official languages, and in addition from autumn 2008 it has been possible to use Welsh in the EU bodies of The European Council and The Regional Committee.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Since 1989 the Council of Europe has been working to draw up a charter for regional and minority languages. As early as 1981 the parliamentary assemblies of the Council and the European Parliament concluded that such a charter was necessary. The Council of Ministers in the Council of Europe approved the charter in 1992, and as the very first country, Norway ratified the charter the following year with effect from 1998.

In 2015, 25 countries – 12 western and 13 eastern – had ratified the charter to apply to 79 languages that were used by 203 national minorities or language groups.1

Many of these languages are in use in several countries. Beneath the surface of the official languages there are then very many lesser used tongues in the form of regional or minority languages.

Regional and minority languages refers in the context of the charter to languages that are traditionally used within an area of the country by a group of citizens who are less in number than the rest of the inhabitants, but does not apply to official languages, immigrant languages or dialects.

The charter is intended to protect and promote regional or minority languages in Europe. The signing member states are “realising that the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages in the different countries and regions of Europe represents an important contribution to the building of a Europe based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity within the framework of national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The charter is divided into three sections. Part I defines the terms involved, while Parts II and III establish protection at two levels. The countries undertake to adopt the provisions in Part II for all the regional and minority languages within its territory. On the basis of certain objectives and principles, each state must establish a language policy. In addition, in Part III the countries can commit themselves to protect specified languages and must then choose a minimum of protective measures from a menu in this section. 

In the foreword to the charter, three arguments for linguistic diversity are put forward, and a majority of the states in Europe support these viewpoints by way of their ratification of the charter. The cultural argument is that language is an important part of the European heterogeneousness and tradition.  The individual argument concerns the language rights and the personal identity that are associated with language. The functional argument states that linguistic diversity contributes to the building of a democratic Europe.

In most of the countries in the former Eastern Europe, the protection of minorities and languages is a matter for the state, while the western countries adopt a more individual approach and rather provide state funding to independent institutions.2 The result is that there are more languages that are protected according to level III in the East than in the West, but this protection is roughly the same for all the languages in a country.

In the East, several languages cross a number of borders, while fewer languages cross borders in the West. For example, German is a majority language in five countries in the West, and a minority language in just one, but it is a minority language in nine countries in Eastern Europe.   

The Eastern European countries place less emphasis on nation building than countries in the West and are perhaps more systematically administered by rule of law, as opposed to a more random language protection policy in the Western European countries.  


Officially, almost all inhabitants in Europe can read and write. Of 50 countries from which statistics exist, only Malta and Turkey have a literacy percentage below 90 per cent.

The actual level of literacy is probably lower. Therefore, a number of European countries are working together on two different programmes for comprehensive studies of literacy. One project is The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) under the auspices of OECD. The other is Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) under the supervision of The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). IEA was established in the late 1950s precisely with the aim of developing international comparative studies of education, and has throughout this lengthy period of time carried out a number of different international studies of pupils and students.

The findings of these investigations are controversial, but the authorities in many countries use them as a guideline for changes in their own educational policy.

The Nordic region

The historical language community that has existed in Scandinavia is facing a strong threat from English, which is fast becoming lingua franca in this part of northern Europe. Young inhabitants in particular use far more English in their contact across Nordic national borders.

Swedish is the largest language

The Nordic countries have a weak tradition when it comes to language statistics. While there are now a good deal of statistics to be found in Norway, probably as a consequence of the lengthy language conflict from 1850, there are very few figures available in both Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. By combining a variety of sources it has nevertheless been possible to draw up a reasonably informative picture of the situation.

Altogether, the nation states and independent areas in the Nordic region have over 30 historical languages, including more recent sign languages. This figure includes the different main Sami dialects being counted as separate languages. Swedish is spoken by roughly 9.4 million people and is thus the largest language in the Nordic region. Fewest users have been registered for the Pite Sami and Ume Sami languages, each of which we assume is used today by approximately ten speakers. The linguistic diversity is greatest in the north and east. To some extent the figures from 2014 can be compared with those from around 1995.

The greatest geographical range is represented by Danish, which is used in five states and independent areas outside Denmark. Almost 80 per cent of the inhabitants in the Nordic region have Swedish, Danish or Norwegian as their mother tongue. Most of the languages in Scandinavia belong to three language families. Many are Indo-European languages, some are Finno-Ugric, and Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) belongs to the Eskimon-Aleut languages.

In 2015, Ethnologue documented 45 languages in use in the Nordic countries. Six of these were considered to be national languages, while the Nordic countries all in all had 14 languages that were in difficulties or in the process of becoming extinct. In other words, Nordic language policy has left a lot to be desired, in spite of binding conventions and agreements.

Language declarations for the Nordic region

The Nordic Council was founded in 1952, and has 87 members: Denmark 16, Finland 18, The Faeroe Islands 2, Greenland 2, Iceland 7, Norway 20, Sweden 20 and Åland 2. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are the working languages in all official Nordic cooperation. Interpreters are used between Finnish, Icelandic and the three Scandinavian languages, but not between the Scandinavian languages.

The Nordic countries have approved two joint language declarations in the space of a few decades.

In 1981, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland signed a language convention that applied from 1987 for Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish. This convention stipulated the linguistic rights of the inhabitants in the five countries in their oral and written contact with public administration.

In 2006, The Nordic Council approved the Nordic language declaration with effect from 1 March 2007. Its aim is to promote a democratic language policy in a multi-language Nordic region where all the inhabitants of these countries can read and write the language or languages that are considered as vital to the community in which they live, can communicate with each other in a Scandinavian language, have a basic knowledge of their linguistic rights and the language situation in the Nordic region, have very good skills in at least one language with an international scope and good knowledge of at least one other language.

Sense of language community under pressure

Despite the existence of these formal rights, the sense of language community in Scandinavia is under pressure.

Language researchers Lars-Olof Delsing and Katarina Lundin have indicated three advantages of the Scandinavian sense of language community: The languages are fairly similar in size (if Norwegian is considered as one language), there is a joint political will to promote this sense of community, and the languages are so similar that a very high level of skills in another language is necessary if it is to replace this mutual understanding between neighbouring languages.3

In 2005, 1800 pupils in upper secondary school in the whole of the Nordic area were tested in their understanding of neighbouring languages. The Faroese came out best, with Norwegians close behind, and far ahead of the Swedes and Danes. Immigrants in Norway had a far poorer understanding of the neighbouring languages than ethnic Norwegians, but rather better than immigrants to Sweden and Denmark.4

The first major study of the understanding of neighbouring languages in the Nordic region was carried out by Øyvind Maurud in 1972.5 His cohort consisted of 500 recruits in the three Scandinavian countries. From then up until 2005 the level of understanding of neighbouring languages remained good among Norwegians, but deteriorated markedly among Swedes and Danes, in particular the latter.

In the 2010s, English was in the process of taking over as the language of communication both in private and in a number of public contexts in Scandinavia as well as the rest of the Nordic region. None struggled to understand the other Nordic languages in 2005 more than the Finns, and neither Swedes nor Danes understood Norwegian Bokmål very much better than Norwegian Nynorsk.

Most of the Nordic countries have more than one official language.

Only Iceland and Greenland have just one official language. In 2009, Greenland passed a local law that makes no demands that Danish can be used in public administration nor that children shall be taught Danish. On the Faroe Islands, Faroese is the main language, but Danish can be used in the public sector and Danish is to be taught in schools. In Finland, 5.5 per cent of the inhabitants use Swedish, which is a compulsory language in school, but its position is under threat.

Both Danish, Swedish and Finnish are official languages in the EU. Danish is a minority language in the German federal state of Schleswig-Holstein, Swedish is a minority language in the Estonian municipality Noarootsi      , and Finnish is also used in the Republic of Karelia in Russia.

Literature and art

The Eurovision Song Contest and Index Translationum are two relevant indicators of the development of linguistic diversity in Europe.

Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest has become the largest international song contest, which also makes it interesting in the context of a language policy perspective. For the first time, both the winning songs and all the finalists since the beginning in 1956 have been organised according to language. A development in three distinct phases becomes apparent.  

Up to and including 2015, 30 of 63 winner songs were in English. 14 of the songs were in French, and the rest were divided among ten languages. The dominance achieved by English in the international music industry from the 1960s also gradually makes itself felt in this competition.

English dominates more among the winner songs than among the finalists. Of 1268 finalists, 414 have been entirely or partly in English. While 48 per cent of the winners were in English, only 33 per cent of all the finalists were in English. All in all, 47 languages were used in the finals, and 41 of these were European. Ethnologue has documented 286 European languages in everyday use, and 86 per cent of these have thus never been used in a Eurovision final.

The six languages English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish are represented in two thirds of all the songs. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Austria that first used a dialect in a final song, as early as in 1971.

The Eurovision Song Contest has never been a project with a strong element of linguistic diversity. In an overall perspective there appears to be a development in three phases. French was the most widely used language in the finals until well into the 1990s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, the language variety of the finals increased noticeably. This also has a formal reason; the participating countries at that time had to use an official language.

Ever since 1997, the participating countries have been free to choose, and almost overnight English became the most dominant language, far more than French had been during the initial period.

Index Translationum

The database Index Translationum in UNESCO can also be used to illustrate the relationship between translation into and from the various Nordic languages. In the period 1979–2009, Finnish and Danish were the two languages with fewest translations to other Nordic languages, while Danish, Swedish and Finnish were the languages with fewest translations from other Nordic languages.   

These figures are one of a number of indicators that illustrate how the Nordic, and in particular the Scandinavian, sense of language community came under destructive pressure towards the end of the 1990s.


1 Council of Europe, www.coe.int/en, retrieved 8.7.2015.

2 Sigve Gramstad: «Språk opnar murar. Languages in Europe 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall». Lecture at Ivar Aasen Centre for Language and Written Culture 8.11.2009.

3 Lars-Olof Delsing & Katarina Lundin: Håller språket i hop Norden?, Tema Nord 2005:573, København 2005, p. 6 f.

4 Lars-Olof Delsing & Katarina Lundin, ibid., p. 57, 61 & 139.

5 Øyvind Maurud: Nabospråkforståelse i Skandinavia, Nordisk utredningsserie 13, Stockholm 1976.

English translation Howard Medland 

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About the article

Extracts from Ottar Grepstad: Språkfakta 2015. Ørsta 2015. Digital and interactive version by Allkunne 2019. 

The complete edition of Språkfakta 2015 (in Norwegian) with tables is available at aasentunet.no

Sources to Ottar Grepstad: Språkfakta 2015. Ørsta 2015.

Først publisert: 11.12.2019
Sist oppdatert: 24.12.2019