eli5 How do languages have the same alphabet (like Spanish and English) but are so different with their words?
TLDR: The Roman Empire
Most Western languages share the Latin Alphabet, and many of them had Latin as their root language.
The influence of the Roman Empire on Europe is still very much felt today almost 2000 years later. Their language, alphabet, calendar, some roman customs and festivals, and even trivial things like the standard width of a road were all defined in Roman times.
Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian are referred to as the Romance languages because they all derived from Latin. The local languages mixed with Latin becoming local Latin dialects, and over 2000 years in relative isolation evolved into their own unique but still similar languages.
German and English are derived from West Germanic but still use a lot of words derived from Latin. This is the result of various conquests, trade, and knowledge sharing throughout 2000 years of European day-to-day life.
In the medieval era literacy overall was very low and Church Latin became a de-facto universal language for Europe. The Latin alphabet was therefore kept alive and while some European languages had their own script they were all eventually converted over to the Latin alphabet.
Many languages do have their own unique characters and accents like the French éèê but the basic character set is the same.
All languages are spoken before they are written. Writing has only been independently invented a handful of times in human history, usually an existing writing system is adapted or modified to be used in a new language.
Latin was a written language (although its alphabet ultimately derives from the Greek alphabet, itself derived from Phoenician, etc.) which directly evolved into Spanish, Italian, French, and other Romance languages. English is a Germanic language and not closely related to Latin, and like other Germanic languages was originally written in a runic alphabet. This alphabet was itself probably derived from an Italic script similar to Latin, or perhaps Latin itself. Regardless, the runic alphabet was eventually supplanted by Latin scripts from Ireland and France during the Middle Ages, probably because most English people who were literate were also writing in Latin which was still the language of the church..
They aren’t *exactly* the same but I get what you are saying.
In short, it’s because spoken language changes a lot faster than written language. Like, think about learning how to read. Most people probably remember having to like…learn how to do that. It’s a skill that’s very difficult and not exactly “natural.”
But speaking? Humans pick that up naturally and we each add our own little quirks to it, often without even realizing it, and over time quirks from a specific place add up and you end up with a new language.
But nobody is out there adding little quirks to the written language without even realizing it. so it’s more rigid and unchanging in general. Like think about right now, you can easily create a new word. but you can’t easily just add a new letter to your keyboard can you?
As for why almost all European languages use the same alphabet? Well, we all inherited it from the Romans and just kinda stuck with it. So the alphabet stayed the same, or changed very little, while the languages diverged. They Cyrillic Alphabet used by Russia and several countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is the same situation, only that alphabet is more Greek, rather than Roman. (this gets complicated and weird because the Roman alphabet is itself derived from the Greek one)
Great answers by others below:
Western Europe tended to use Latin based alphabet, while Eastern Europe used a Greek based alphabet: modified by monks Cyrill & Methodius.
In regions on the border, like in the former Yugoslavia, you have basically the same spoken language: Serbo-Croat, but different alphabets were used. The Croats used Latin letters and the Serbs used Cyrillic.
Compare: *Dobar Dan* to *Добар Дан*.
It gets even more interesting when you look at Turkish. Older Turkish used the Arabic alphabet (from year 900 to 1928), but switched to Latin letters after 1928.
They had to adjust writing from right to left, to left to right!!
The alphabets aren’t exactly the same. For example English does not use accented letters at all outside of a few loan words from languages that do have those in their alphabet.
That comment aside, it’s because they are descended from a common root with a specific alphabet. The romance languages are all localizations of Latin. French, Spanish, Italian Portuguese, a few others.
English is the result of french from norman conquerors mixing with the local languages of the British Isles. The french were the ruling, educated class so their writing system and alphabet took over during the merge, so the English alphabet has the same root as the Spanish one even if the spoken language and vocabulary is of more mixed descent
Look outside the romance language family to say, Arabic or Mandarin and you get a whole different setup much as you’d expect. Or to one that was more strongly mixed with other influences and you get things like Cyrillic which shares a number of characters but diverges much more strongly than the Spanish and English example you gave.
Edits for a couple unfortunate autocorrects. As much as I love the vision of barbarians wandering through Tesco “British aisles” was not correct lol.