Polandball: European Language Family Portraits, Explained

I saw this Polandball comic posted on Steve the Vagabond and Silly Linguist’s Facebook page a while ago, and found that it was originally posted by Redditor FlanInACupboard on the Polandball subreddit.

This is pretty amazing work, and a good starting point for understanding the diversity of languages in Europe. It’s also full of delightful little details, which I want to explore further.

In this comic, Polandballs are grouped based on the genealogy of the language they represent. The Scottish flag does double duty, representing both Scots and Scottish Gaelic.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Romance Language Family

The Romance languages can all trace their genealogy back to Latin, who gets pride of place on the wall of the Romance language family home.

From left to right (or West to East), we have:

  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Catalan
  • French
  • Occitan
  • Italian
  • Romani (not a Romance language)
  • Romanian
  • Moldovan

Spanish and Catalan aren’t too happy with each other. The Catalan flag used here is the estelada, which is used to represent Catalan republicanism and separatism, rather than the senyera, which represents Catalonia and Aragon more generally. That’s the political undercurrent. Castile and Catalonia have had a tense relationship going back centuries, and language has been one of the key battlegrounds of the battle between the two regions.

The relationship between French and Occitan is much more one-sided: French is so dominant in most of Occitania that UNESCO considers the French Occitan dialects to be severely endangered.

As the geographic successor of Rome, Italy takes its spot beneath Latin’s portrait. Then there is a gap between Italy and the next nearest Romance language, Romanian. Romanian and Moldovan are Romance languages in a sea of Slavic languages, and it’s questionable whether Moldovan and Romanian are separate languages.

FlanInACupboard added a nice little detail, too: Romania doesn’t like its Roma peoples. Unlike the other Polandballs in the Romance language family portrait, Romani isn’t a Romance language: it belongs in the Indo-Aryan language family, along with Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, and the like. Despite the seeming resemblance between the words “Romance” and “Romani”, they aren’t related, at least as far as we know. The word “Romance” eventually traces back to Romulus, the name of the founder of Rome, while the word Romani can be traced back to the word “Dom” in the Indo-Aryan languages.

Two languages I hoped to find here are missing: Galician and Romansh. Oh well, I guess they didn't make the family reunion this year.

The Germanic Language Family

The Romance languages have a clearly-attested ancestor language: Latin. The Germanic languages (and the other language families discussed here) have no such luck: they know that they are all cousins, but they have no direct proof that they share a single ancestor, only very strong incidental proof. Part of what historical linguists do is language reconstruction: what might the ancestor language have looked like? We know quite a bit about the Germanic language family, and the reconstructed latest common ancestor of the Germanic languages is known as Proto-Germanic.

(With the exception of the Uralic languages and Basque, all the languages in this comic are Indo-European languages. The reconstructed latest common ancestor of these Indo-European languages is known as Proto-Indo-European, or PIE.)

From left to right, the West Germanic languages are:

  • Scots
  • English
  • Frisian
  • Dutch
  • German

From left to right, the North Germanic languages are:

  • Danish
  • Norwegian
  • Swedish
  • Icelandic
  • Faroese

Here’s a nice touch: the Polandballs are arranged based on their linguistic similarities. Each of the West Germanic languages is most similar to the languages on either side of it. I don’t know enough about the North Germanic languages to be sure that that’s also the case, but I’d assume so.

This is not a well-known fact among English speakers, but the language that is most related to English is Frisian (I suppose that does depend on whether you consider Scots a language or a dialect). However, despite their linguistic similarity, they are not mutually intelligible. “Goeie” is Frisian for “good day”.

On the other hand, kamelåså is not a Danish word at all. It is a word a Norwegian TV show made up to make fun of how incomprehensible Danish is to Norwegians and to Swedes. Here’s the clip (no Danish, Norwegian or Swedish knowledge needed):

Written Icelandic has undergone remarkably little change for a millenium, almost since the end of the Viking age, so Icelandic gets a Viking hat.

The Celtic Language Family

From left to right, these languages are:

  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Manx
  • Irish Gaelic
  • Welsh
  • Cornish
  • Breton

Scottish Gaelic and Breton are being squashed by English and French respectively, but Scottish Gaelic isn’t too happy about it while Breton is resigned to its fate. In terms of the number of speakers and language revitalisation, I don’t know how accurate this is, but the French state is pretty merciless when it comes to favouring French over regional languages. That said, Breton is still the third-most spoken Celtic language, behind Irish and Welsh.

Cornish has a good story. Cornish Polandball looks pretty dazed, and that’s because Cornish was more or less considered an extinct language in the 20th century. This is disputed, but what’s not in doubt is that Cornish was under threat from English for a very long time (Wikipedia’s Last speaker of the Cornish language page mentions that the last-known monolingual Cornish speaker died in 1676). However, during the death throes of the Cornish language, the Cornish managed to revive the language, and UNESCO no longer considers the Cornish language to be extinct. I know that sounds like a strange sentence, but it’s true.

The Slavic Language Family

From left to right, these languages are:

  • Czech
  • Slovak
  • Polish
  • Bulgarian
  • Macedonian
  • Slovenian
  • Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian
  • Ukrainian
  • Russian
  • Belarusian

I know relatively little about the Slavic languages, so the things that jump out at me here are arguably more political in nature than linguistic. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are, from the linguistic point of view, dialectal variants of the same language. However, given Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia’s recent histories with one another, everybody insists on calling them different things.

The other obvious thing to point out is that Czech and Slovak have orthographical and phonological differences, and Slovak doesn't seem too happy about that, but I don't know any details about that. I also don't know why Russia has a big Σ above it.

The Slavic languages listed here form three dialect continua: Czech, Slovak and Polish; Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian; Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian and Slovenian.

I really don’t know anything about the Slavic languages so I will stop here before I embarrass myself.

Oh yes: in Polandball, Poland's colours are traditionally reversed. That's not a mistake.

The Baltic Language Family

From left to right, these languages are:

  • Lithuanian
  • Latgalian
  • Latvian

Okay, I didn’t know about Latgalian. I had to look it up. Latgalian is a language spoken in Eastern Latvia, and Latgalian’s lexicon seems more similar to Lithuanian’s than to Latvian’s. I can’t comment on their grammatical similarities, though.

Lithuanian gets a walking stick and saggy eyes because it is the most conservative living Indo-European language. In other words, it is the language that is most similar to Proto-Indo-European that still has native speakers.

Albanian

There is no Kosovan language, and the Albanian language is in a branch of its own within the Indo-European family.

This one isn’t linguistic, it’s political. Kosovo has two official languages, Albanian and Serbian. They do not like each other.

Greek

Greek is in a branch of its own, the Hellenic branch.

Armenian

Armenian, like Greek and Albanian, is in a branch of its own within the Indo-European language family.

The Uralic Language Family

From left to right, these languages are:

  • Hungarian
  • Finnish
  • Estonian

The Uralic languages are not Indo-European, and if you look at the geographic distribution of Uralic languages, one of them looks suspiciously out of place:

  Image taken from Wikipedia , used under a  CC BY-SA 3.0  license

How did Hungarian get there? Nobody really knows. While Finnish and Estonian are part of a dialect continuum, Hungarian is in a different branch of the Uralic language family. I imagine Hungarian meeting Finnish feels like an adoptee meeting his biological cousin by accident, or something.

Basque

Basque is a language isolate spoken by around 700,000 people in the Basque Country, which spans both Spain and France. It has no known relatives, living or dead. It’s thought to be the oldest living language in Western Europe, and the evidence suggests that Basque was spoken in the area before the arrival of Indo-European languages.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that Basque is a complete and total orphan that was simply willed into existence. Most likely, Basque is related to unknown or unattested languages that have long since died. However, short of some groundbreaking archaelogical research and a Rosetta Stone moment, we may never discover what those languages are.

That rounds up this very, very broad introduction to the language families of Europe, according to Polandball.