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Romance languages

    The Romance languages are a group of closely related vernaculars descended from the LATIN LANGUAGE, a member of the Italic branch of INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES.  The designation Romance is derived from the Latin phrase romanica loqui, "to speak in Roman fashion," which attests to the popular, rather than literary, origins of the languages.

    The Romance languages that have acquired national standing as the official tongues of their countries are French, with approximately 98 million speakers living principally in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and parts of Africa;  Italian, with 65 million speakers in Italy, Switzerland, and parts of Africa;  Portuguese, with 137 million speakers in Portugal, Brazil, and parts of Africa and Asia;  Spanish, with 231 million speakers in Spain, Latin America, and parts of the Caribbean;  and Romanian, with 25 million speakers in Romania and other parts of the Balkans.

    In strict geographical terms, these languages are even more widespread, for there are large pockets of Spanish speakers in the United States, Italian speakers in Argentina, Romanian speakers in Yugoslavia, and so on.

 Nonnational Languages

    Several distinct Romance languages function as nonnational, regional vernaculars.  Among these are Rheto-Romance, or Rhaetian, which consists of a group of related languages spoken in Switzerland, where they are called Romansch, and in northern Italy, where they are called Ladin or Friulian.  In southern France, Provencal, or Occitan, is spoken by about 12 million people.  Formerly more unified as a literary language, Provencal now consists of a series of local dialects.

Catalan, with about 5 million speakers, is used alongside Spanish as the language of Catalonia on the Spanish Mediterranean coast from the French border to Valencia.  It is also spoken in Alghero, Sardinia, in the Balearic Islands, and in the Pyrenean valley of Aran, the French region of Rousillon, and the semiprincipality of Andorra.  During the Middle Ages, Catalan was closely related to the southern French dialects.

Sardinian is the collective name for a group of Romance languages spoken on the island of Sardinia by nearly 1 million people.  It is of particular interest to Romance scholars because of the archaic features of its dialects, such as the retention of the Latin sound k that other Romance languages have palatalized (compare Sardinian kelu with French ciel, Italian and Spanish cielo, and Romanian cer).

Ladino, also called Judaeo-Romance or Sephardic, is spoken by Sephardic Jews in Istanbul, Salonika, and elsewhere around the Mediterranean.  It is based on 15th-century Spanish, reflecting the time when the Jews were expelled from Spain by royal edict. The language also contains Turkish, Greek, and Hebrew elements.

Romance creoles, whose origins are found in PIDGINS or simplified trade languages, have also sprung up around the world.  Haitian and Louisiana French are such languages, as are the varieties of Portuguese found in Macao and Goa.

At least one recorded Romance language, Dalmatian, has become extinct.  Formerly spoken along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, Dalmatian consisted of at least two dialects: Ragusan, known only from a few medieval documents, and Veglian, which disappeared in 1898 when its last speaker was blown up by a land mine.

 Vulgar Latin

    From the evidence of Latin grammarians, popular playwrights, and inscriptions, it is apparent that in Republican Rome the spoken language of the lower classes was undergoing modifications in pronunciation and grammar that ultimately were to differentiate it from the written language and the language of the privileged.  During the period of empire and Roman expansion, it was this Latin of the people, so-called Vulgar Latin, that was carried to the far-flung provinces by soldiers, merchants, and colonists.

    Not all provinces were Romanized at the same time, however. Sicily and Sardinia were colonized as early as 238 BC, while Dacia--modern Romania--did not come under Roman occupation until about AD 100.  In the provinces, Vulgar Latin underwent further modification by the subjugated peoples, who brought to it their own speech habits and pronunciation influenced by their own indigenous languages.  The Iberians, for example, pronounced Latin one way, whereas the Gauls pronounced it another.

    The collapse of the empire's frontiers during the 5th century under the thrust of Germanic tribes left Rome cut off from the provinces, and the outer regions drifted apart as each modified its form of spoken Latin in unique ways.  In every region of the former Latin-speaking world, the emerging Romance languages then in turn began to break up among themselves.

 French and Provencal

    In Gallo-Roman France, a split occurred between north and south, assisted by incursions of Germanic-speaking Franks--whence the name "France"--into the north.  Here, too, further dialectalization occurred throughout the Middle Ages, resulting in a multitude of speech forms such as Francien, Picard, Norman, Lorrain, and Walloon.  Southern French, or Provencal, split into Languedocien, Auvergnat, and many other dialects.  The dialect of Paris gradually became the national language, however, because of the political prestige of the capital and today is accepted as the model for the French language.


    Dialectal varieties of the emerging Italian language revolved around Gallo-Italian in the northwest;  a northeastern or Venetian group;  a central dialectal group that included the speech of Tuscany, Umbria, northern Latium (the province of Rome), and Corsica;  and clusters of dialects to the south, including Abruzzese-Neapolitan and Calabrian-Sicilian.  The ultimate predominance of Tuscan as the standard was a result more of the cultural than of any political prestige of Florence.  Although the speech of Tuscany has long been considered the most prestigious form of Italian, however, that of Rome is fast becoming the standard language.

 Spanish and Portuguese

    On the Iberian peninsula, two languages developed, each with its own dialects.  Galician-Portuguese broke into northwestern, central, and southern dialects;  Spanish came to embrace Leonese and Castilian in the center of the peninsula, Aragonese further to the east, and Andalusian in the south.  The dialect of Lisbon vies with that of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as the standard form of Portuguese taught in North American schools and as the model for the language.

    Castilian Spanish, spoken in central Spain, including the capital Madrid, is generally thought of as the most prestigious form of Spanish, although Mexican Spanish is often taught in North American classrooms.


Romanian has broken into several dialects, such as Macedo-Romanian, spoken in southern Macedonia, and Isto-Romanian, the language of a few thousand people in northwestern Croatia.  The dialect of Bucharest serves as the standard language.


    Similarities and differences among the Romance languages and their relation to Latin may be seen in the following sentences, which mean "The poet loves the girl":


Poeta puellam amat


Le poete aime la jeune fille


Il poeta ama la ragazza


O poeta ama a menina


El poeta ama a la muchacha


Poetul iubeste fata

    The word poet was borrowed from Greek by Latin, underscoring the fact that not all Romance words, even when derived from Latin, were originally Italic.  Some vocabulary may differ from one Romance language to another because words were taken from different Latin forms with similar meanings, or were borrowed from the local native languages.  Sometimes words were incorporated into one or the other of the Romance languages from neighboring tongues;  Spanish izquierdo, "left," for example, comes from Basque, and Romanian sticla, "drinking glass," comes from Slavic.  It was also often the case that new words entered Romance languages from the vocabulary of conquering peoples:  Spanish aceite and Portuguese azeite, "oil," come from Arabic, and French danser, "to dance," and gagner, "to harvest," were borrowed from Germanic.

 The Case System

    Broadly speaking, the trend or direction of change in the Romance languages has been to reduce the Latin case system through elimination of the distinctive endings.  The Latin word porta, "door," for instance, had three singular forms: nominative, vocative, and ablative porta;  accusative portam; and genitive and dative portae.  Modern Romance languages, however, use only one singular form:  French porte, Italian and Portuguese porta, Spanish puerta, and Romanian poarta.  Other modern Romance linguistic features include the elimination of neuter gender, the development of the definite article, greater use of prepositions, stricter word order, and the emergence of auxiliary verbs to express tense.

 Verb Paradigms

    French leveled the verb paradigms to such an extent that subject pronouns became mandatory (contrast French je chante, "I sing," with Italian canto);  but in general the Latin paradigm has remained intact.

    Notable in phonology was the loss of opposition between Latin long and short vowels, the voicing of intervocalic voiceless consonants, and in some languages the loss of syllable- and word-final s.  The emergence of accentual patterns led to the reduction or loss of many unstressed vowels in the more heavily accented languages such as Gallo-Roman and Old French, and to the diphthongization of some stressed vowels in most of the Romance languages.  Only in French and Portuguese, however, did vowels before a nasal consonant undergo nasalization--compare French main, "hand," with Portuguese mao and Spanish and Italian mano.


    Latin continued to be the only medium of written expression during the early Middle Ages, and the first extant text of substantial length in Romance--the so-called Oaths of Strasbourg, a treaty of alliance sworn by two of Charlemagne's descendants--dates as late as 842.

    No other group of languages, however, provides such extensive documentation of both the mother tongue, Latin, and the descendant Romance languages.  This invaluable legacy has allowed greater insight into the causes and effects of language change, and offers a unique opportunity for historical linguists to test many of their hypotheses.

James M. Anderson

Bibliography:  Anderson, James M., and Rochet, Bernard, Historical Romance Morphology (1978);  Auerbach, Erich, Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (1961); Elcock, W.  D., The Romance Languages (1960);  Grandgent, C. H., An Introduction to Vulgar Latin (1907);  Hall, Robert, External History of the Romance Languages (1974);  Harris, M., and Vincent N., eds., The Romance Languages (1990);  Heatwole, O.  W., A Comparative Practical Grammar of French, Spanish, and Italian (1956);  Iordan, Iorgu, and Orr, John, An Introduction to Romance Linguistics, Its Schools and Scholars, 2d ed. (1970);  Posner, R., The Romance Languages:  A Linguistic Introduction (1970);  Pountain, C.  J., Structures and Transformations:  The Romance Verb (1983).