Maps, Languages, and the Reformation


I like to look at maps. I also like to pretend that I’m a polyglot. And so, some time ago, I found myself looking at a map of the different language families in Europe. In the midst of examining said map, I formulated a linguistic-religious hypothesis. Now, with the firm knowledge that correlation does not imply causation in mind, I realized that in many respects, the breakdown of Christianity in Europe reflects linguistic realities:

-The Eastern Orthodox Church (the most disparate of the churches in ethnic membership) numbers among its adherents the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.), some Semitic languages (Syriac), Coptic, Armenian, and Greek (a language with a long antipathy to Latin).

-The Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation had its deepest stronghold in countries which spoke the Romance/Italic languages, languages closely allied to Latin: Spanish, Portugese, Italian, and French.

-The Lutheran Church took strongest root in countries with strong Germanic languages: German, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

-Likewise, the Reformed Churches blossomed in the Germanic speaking Low Countries.

-Even the Anglican Church, like the English language presents difficulties. English is a Germanic language, but through its history (especially its Norman period), it has absorbed heavy elements of Latin and French. Fittingly then, the Anglican Church became Protestant, but maintained a strongly Roman tinge.

Some immediate exceptions are:

-The Slovaks, who speak a Slavic language, but are Lutheran.

– The Romanians, who speak a Romance language, but are Orthodox.

– The Poles, who speak a Slavic language, but are Catholic.

-The Irish, who speak English and a Celtic language, but are Catholic.

-The Swiss who spoke French or Italian, but became Protestant.

500 years post-Reformation, with Europe at a religious nadir, this breakdown is mostly just academically interesting, and probably not worth further research. But if I had to hazard at a guess as to how the linguistic differences influenced the religious changes, I would say something like this: As English speakers, with such a large portion of our vocabulary drawn from the Romance languages, Latin seems strange to us, but not entirely alien. However, my experience working with the early liturgies in the Danish language, highlighted for me a different reality. For the peoples of northern Europe who spoke a Germanic tongue, the Latin language isolated them from the church. The cognates which we English speakers recognize, do not occur in much of Danish or Norwegian or German, and especially not in the more primitive forms of the language. Thus, for the vernacular reforms of Reformation worship produced a much greater effect in Germanic countries than Romantic ones. For a church whose major emphasis was on the spoken, proclaimed Word (not the written, as is sometimes asserted), such a change may have been the tipping point for breaking away from Rome. Now, again, this is all merely speculation, but an interesting angle to consider as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation inches closer.