I notice that in English (as well as Spanish, and perhaps other European languages), the name of a language is the same word as the adjective form of the country or region name.

In English, this rule seems to be so strong that there doesn't seem to be a single exception.

(This rule works even if the country or language in question doesn't exist. For instance the languages "Indian" and "Israeli" don't exist, but grammatically speaking they would be the English words to refer to hypothetical languages associated with India and Israel. Similarly the word "Hebrew" can be used as an adjective meaning "related to the Hebrew language".)

What is the origin of this practice?

Do most or all European languages (i.e. languages in the SAE sprachbund) have this feature? Is this feature present in any non-European languages?

Addendum: specific further question to those who know Latin: how are languages referred to in Latin? (what about ancient Greek?)

  • 2
    This isn't about just English, it's on-topic.
    – Nardog
    Nov 20, 2020 at 7:33
  • 3
    I don’t really understand your second and third paragraphs. You say there are no exceptions, then you give two exceptions. The fact that Hebrew can be used as a noun adjunct doesn’t really mean much, because virtually any noun can do that. There are lots of language names which don’t correspond to names of countries or regions: Nahuatl, Kalaallisut, Marathi, kiSwahili, etc. Most are derived from names of peoples (though often not transparently so within English), many being nouns rather than adjectives in the source language as well. Nov 21, 2020 at 14:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet There are factual exceptions, but there are no grammatical exceptions in that (1) the adjectival form of any country or place name can hypothetically refer to a language ("I speak American" as a joke is perfectly valid English), and (2) any language name can be used as an adjective. You mention that (2) is not unusual, since nouns can often be used as adjectives, but (1) certainly is. I think this question is interesting because it may be that this is common across languages in Europe, but not around the world. But I'm not an expert, so I'm asking it here.
    – Aqualone
    Nov 21, 2020 at 17:44
  • In English, for example, there are a variety of different inflections to place names: e.g. "-ese", "-ian", "-an", "-ish", or just the plain noun, and in every case, the same inflection results in both the adjective and the country name. Even if the historical explanation is mundane, I don't think this feature can be considered trivial.
    – Aqualone
    Nov 21, 2020 at 17:51

1 Answer 1


To some extent is is a specific feature of English and other languages you tried. It is not a completely general rule, but it is quite common.

Also, many languages are not named after countries, but after nations that do not always have their country or got their country only relatively late (often in the 20th century).

Of course, in basically all languages, when you use the form:

some_modifier + the word for "language"

Like (Latin): "lingua anglica", "lingua germanica", "lingua hispanica"

the modifier will be an adjective. Hence you will indeed meet many adjectives. And in many languages you can then use these adjectives separately, maybe as an evolution of the older combination (perhaps inspired by the languages of old grammarians, Latin and Greek).

In Czech and Slovak the names of languages or either nouns: angličtina, němčina, španělština or they are and adjective + "jazyk" ("language"): anglický jazyk, německý jazyk, špenělský jazyk. Yhe latter are the formal names and you cannot use the adjectives separately without "jazyk". The everyday words (and even the titles of the Wikipedia articles) are the nouns.

In Russian it is similar: anglijskij jazyk, německij jazyk, ispanskij jazyk, but you can use just the adjective on its own as well.

  • I agree that it is just an abbreviation of "country-adjective + [language]" to simply "country-adjective". I was wondering if there is more to the story. I was also asking about if this exists in non-European languages. In Chinese and Japanese, for example, one most definitely cannot refer to a language by just its adjective. My hunch is that this is only an SAE-sprachbund feature.
    – Aqualone
    Nov 20, 2020 at 21:02
  • @Aqualone And I answered that not all SAE languages share this feature. And actually, I also mentioned the Latin name of languages, it is rith in the middle of my answer. The edit of your answer seems to imply you probably do not read it all. The Greek language would be ελληνική γλώσσα where ελληνικός is an adjective meaning Greek (Hellenic) and γλώσσα means language. Nov 20, 2020 at 21:31
  • I was specifically asking about whether the practice of dropping the word "language" already existed in Latin and Greek, though it seems you do address that point; sorry, I missed it while reading.
    – Aqualone
    Nov 20, 2020 at 23:08
  • @Aqualone If it existed, I have not heard about it. Nov 20, 2020 at 23:49
  • Georgian has different adjectival suffixes for referring to people associated with something (including a country) and for referring to anything (including a language).
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 21, 2020 at 19:49

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