I have heard that languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French are classified as Romance languages. Languages like Dutch, German, and English are classified as Germanic languages. All of the Scandinavian languages except for Finnish are classified as Germanic languages. The Finnish language is classified as a Uralic language. So, what is the historical origin of this language classification?

  • 2
    Just to be sure I understand, you're asking about the origin of that terminology, how linguists came up with it over time? Or are you asking about why linguists now make those distinctions, based on the history of the languages?
    – Draconis
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 20:59
  • 1
    I am asking for both.
    – Arunabh
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 20:59

1 Answer 1


"Romance" is based on the historically-known fact that the languages descended from the language of the Romans, who spoke Latin. The classification "Germanic" is also ancient, dating back to Graeco-Roman times: see here for an overview of Germania in the BC and later years. Historical linguistic classification in that era was not sophisticated: it was simply known that there were such people (and there wasn't a clear distinction between "Germans" and "Dutch", but there was some recognition of tribes within the Germani). There was some understanding that Gauls and Germani spoke a different language. The contemporary name derives from the Latin name (Tacitus wrote a book Germania, which may reveal more details of the origin of the term, but it is unclear where the term came from). The contemporary unity of the people and languages is thus preservation of older knowledge.

Language similarities resulting from Uralic unity was discovered at the end of the 17th century, but the specific details took a few hundred more years to hammer out. There is an article by Bo Wickman in Sinor (ed) The Uralic Languages which traces the history of the study. However, it is not clear when the term "Uralic" was first used (the alternative term, Finno-Ugric, is now taken to refer to a sub-branch of Uralic). The terms apparently dates from the 19th century, and refers to the presumed homeland of the original population. Of the three, families, the discovery of "Uralic" is the one discovery, whereas "Romance" and "Germanic" is based on preserved historical knowledge.

  • 2
    The three great branches of Germanic – North (Scandinavian), East (Gothic) and West – may have existed in Roman times, but I would assume that any finer divisions do not correspond to any modern division. Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 5:11
  • 1
    East split and split and died out. North mixed itself up completely. West split into High and Low, but later than this time frame.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 2:33
  • 1
    So much eurocentrism. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_language_families I don't understand all those upvotes.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 17:50
  • 4
    @Lambie Eurocentrism? Half of the Uralic branch is not spoken in Europe, but in Asia, and the three branches dealt with in this answer are the three branches asked about in the question. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 18:22
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet My apologies. I meant the question is posed in the title one way and the body of the question another way. Also, I see no effort on the part of the OP to show he has done any research at all on this.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 19:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.