The Romance Languages in Brief

Despite their name, the Romance languages have nothing to do with romance.

The Romance Languages in Brief

The Romance languages have grown to become one of the most prominent language families in the world. Despite being just a subgroup of the Indo-European language family, the Romance languages are still the most famous language family there is. Although having (almost) nothing to do with love, we all love them. In fact, they are some of the most popular foreign languages that English speakers want to learn. Still, one question remains: what are the Romance languages exactly?

What are the Romance languages?

The Romance languages are a group of related languages that gradually evolved from Vulgar Latin in the first ten centuries CE. Bound together by the common ancestor, they form a subgroup of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. The most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and Catalan.

If you are having trouble understanding that, imagine that the modern Romance languages are all siblings. This is basically the definition of a language family: a group of languages related through their descent from a common parental language or ancestral language. In the case of this language family, Vulgar Latin is the mother and the other influences represent the father.

Spoken mainly in the Americas, Europe, and parts of Africa, Romance languages have roughly 1 billion native speakers worldwide. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian are also national languages and the top 5 most important Romance languages. These five languages combined account for over 90 percent of those who speak a Romance language.

Romance languages complete list

According to Ethnologue, there are 43 Romance languages: Aragonese, Aromanian, Arpitan, Asturian, Cajun French, Campidanese Sardinian, Catalan, Charapa Spanish, Corsican, Emilian, Extremaduran, Fala, French, Friulian, Galician, Gallurese Sardinian, Guernésiais, Istriot, Istro Romanian, Italian, Judeo-Italian, Ladin, Ladino, Ligurian, Logudorese Sardinian, Lombard, Megleno Romanian, Minderico, Mirandese, Napoletano-Calabrese, Occitan, Picard, Piedmontese, Portuguese, Romagnol, Romanian, Romansh, Sassarese Sardinian, Shuadit, Sicilian, Spanish, Venetian and Walloon.

However, you should know that categorizing languages is fairly difficult because of their existence on a continuum. Therefore, the exact number of languages in this family may vary depending on the source you are looking at.

Why are they called Romance languages?

It’s true that their name has nothing to do with ‘romance’, but why are they called Romance languages?

Well, the answer goes back to the first centuries of the Common Era. They’re called ‘Romance languages’ because, as we mentioned before, they all evolved from Latin and Latin was the language of the Romans and the Roman Empire.

To be more precise, the term ‘romance’ comes from the Vulgar Latin adverb rōmānicē (’in Roman’) which, in turn, derived from the adjective rōmānicus (meaning ‘Roman’).

Now back to ‘romance’. While there is no proof to support the connection to what we call ‘romance’ nowadays, three of the most popular Romance languages are considered to be very ‘romantic’ languages. We are talking, of course, about Spanish, French and Italian which have a reputation as ‘languages of love’.

what are the romance languages
“Mont Saint-Michel, France” by Fab Lentz©

Latin-based languages – where do they come from?

The origin story of the Romance languages was (and in some cases still is) highly disputed between historians and linguists. Less commonly known as Latin-based languages or simply Latin languages, they share Latin as the common ancestor. That you already know. But how did this happen?

As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, the local population in most of those areas adopted two forms of Latin. One of them was Classical Latin, which was the formal language used by the upper classes. The other one was Vulgar Latin.

What does ‘Vulgar Latin’ mean?

Like ‘romance’, the word ‘vulgar’ in ‘Vulgar Latin’ doesn’t mean what you think it means. People didn’t use a special kind of Latin to be rude to one another.

‘Vulgar’ comes from the Latin word vulgus which translates to ‘common people’. Thus, Vulgar Latin refers to the common or vernacular dialects of Latin spoken by common people across the Roman Empire. To bring this example to present times, think about British English. Not everyone in The UK speaks the Queen’s English, do they?

italian
“Manarola, Italy” by Robert Aniței©

Back to our origin story, as you might have guessed, Vulgar Latin is the Latin that spread amongst the local populations of the Roman Empire. Then, over time, it evolved separately into different varieties of spoken Latin all over the empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, these Latin varieties started to diverge even more and eventually evolved into separate languages. Unlike today, back in those days, there was no TV, radio or universal education to keep people up-to-date with the standard form of Latin. Consequently, the spoken forms of Latin diverged quite easily into the Romance languages we all know and love today.

How similar are Romance languages?

Let’s put it this way: if you learn one Romance language, you’ll certainly ease your way into the next. The most mutually intelligible are Spanish and Portuguese which people mistake one for another more often than you’d think. Then, there’s also a degree of intelligibility between Spanish and Italian and Italian and Romanian.

However, that intelligibility mostly goes in one direction. For example, Portuguese speakers can often understand Spanish very well, but Spanish speakers can’t understand Portuguese because of its complex phonology.

latin based languages
Romanian is always the odd one out.

Although all the modern Romance languages are definitely closer to each other than to Latin, if you really are passionate about languages, it might prove fun to learn Latin (which, by the way, you can do with Mondly). Discovering the origin of these languages will surely help you make connections and learn faster.

Is English a Romance language?

This is probably one of the most common language-related misconceptions. Although English has borrowed a lot of words from Latin, it is not a Romance language. Having developed from the mix between the dialects and vocabulary of Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who settled in Britain in the 5th century CE, English is considered a West Germanic language.


From 0 to conversational in any Romance language

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