What Are the Romance Languages?

Information on the Modern Romance Languages

Marble plates with inscriptions in ancient Latin
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The word romance connotes love and wooing, but when it has a capital R, as in Romance languages, it probably refers to a set of languages based on Latin, the language of the ancient Romans. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, but the classical Latin that was written by literati like Cicero was not the language of daily life. It was certainly not the language soldiers and traders took with them to the edges of Empire, like Dacia (modern Romania), on the northern and eastern frontier.

What Was Vulgar Latin?

Romans spoke and wrote graffiti in a less polished language than they used in their literature. Even Cicero wrote plainly in personal correspondence. The simplified Latin language of the common (Roman) people is called Vulgar Latin because Vulgar is an adjectival form of the Latin for "the crowd." This makes Vulgar Latin the people's language. It was this language that the soldiers took with them and that interacted with native languages and the language of later invaders, particularly the Moors and Germanic invasions, to produce the Romance languages throughout the area that had once been the Roman Empire.

Fabulare Romanice

By the 6th century, to speak in the Latin-derived language was to fabulare romanice, according to Milton Mariano Azevedo (from the Spanish and Portuguese Department at the University of California at Berkeley). Romanice was an adverb suggesting "in the Roman manner" that was shortened to "romance"; whence, Romance languages.

Simplifications of Latin

Some of the general changes to Latin were the loss of terminal consonants, diphthongs tended to be reduced to simple vowels, the distinctions between long and short versions of the same vowels were losing significance, and, together with the decline in terminal consonants that provided case endings, led to a loss of inflection. The Romance languages, therefore, needed another way to show the roles of words in sentences, so the relaxed word order of Latin was replaced with a fairly fixed order.

  • Romanian: One of the changes to Vulgar Latin made in Romania was that an unstressed "o" became "'u," so you may see Rumania (the country) and Rumanian (the language), instead of Romania and Romanian. (Moldova-)Romania is the only country in the Eastern European area that speaks a Romance language. At the time of the Romans, the Dacians may have spoken a Thracian language. The Romans fought the Dacians during the reigns of Trajan who defeated their king, Decebalus. Men from the Roman Province of Dacia became Roman soldiers who learned the language of their commanders⁠—Latin⁠—and brought it home with them when they settled in Dacia upon retirement. Missionaries also brought Latin to Romania. Later influences on Romanian came from Slavic immigrants.
  • Italian: Italian emerged from further simplification of Vulgar Latin in the Italic peninsula. The language is also spoken in San Marino as the official language, and in Switzerland, as one of the official languages. In the 12th to 13th century, the vernacular spoken in Tuscany (formerly the area of the Etruscans) became the standard written language, now known as Italian. A spoken language based on the written version became standard in Italy in the 19th century.
  • Portuguese: The language of the Romans practically wiped out the earlier language of the Iberian peninsula when the Romans conquered the area in the third century B.C.E. Latin was a prestige language, so it was in the interest of the population of the Roman province of Lusitania to learn it. Over time the language spoken on the west coast of the peninsula came to be Galician-Portuguese, but when Galicia became part of Spain, the two language groups split.
  • Galician: The area of Galicia was inhabited by Celts when the Romans conquered the area and made it a Roman province also known as Gallaecia, so the native Celtic language mixed with Vulgar Latin from the second century B.C.E. Germanic invaders also had an impact on the language.
  • Spanish (Castilian): The Vulgar Latin in Spain from the third century B.C.E. was simplified in various ways, including the reduction of cases to just the subject and object. In 711, Arabic came to Spain, whose latin term was Hispania, via the Moors. As a result, there are Arabic borrowings in the modern language. Castilian Spanish comes from the ninth century when Basques influenced the speech. Steps towards its standardization took place in the 13th century, and it became the official language in the 15th century. An archaic form called Ladino was preserved among Jewish populations forced to leave in the 15th century.
  • Catalan: Catalan is spoken in Catalonia, Valencia, Andorra, the Balearic Isles, and other small regions. The area of Catalonia, known approximately as Hispania Citerior, spoke Vulgar Latin but was influenced heavily by the southern Gauls in the eighth century, becoming a distinct language by the 10th century.
  • French: French is spoken in France, Switzerland, and Belgium, in Europe. The Romans in the Gallic Wars, under Julius Caesar, brought Latin to Gaul in the first century B.C.E. At the time they were speaking a Celtic language known as Gaulish the Roman Province, Gallia Transalpina. Germanic Franks invaded in the early fifth century C.E. By the time of Charlemagne (742 to 814 C.E.), the language of the French was already sufficiently removed from Vulgar Latin to be called Old French.

Today's Romance Languages and Locations

Linguists may prefer a list of the Romance languages with more detail and more thoroughness. This comprehensive list gathers the the names, geographic divisions, and national locations of major divisions of some modern Romance languages around the world. Certain romance languages are dead or dying.

Eastern

  • Aromanian (Greece)
  • Romanian (Romania)
  • Romanian, Istro (Croatia)
  • Romanian, Megleno (Greece)

Italo-Western

  • Italo-Dalmatian
  • Istriot (Croatia)
  • Italian (Italy)
  • Judeo-Italian (Italy)
  • Napoletano-Calabrese (Italy)
  • Sicilian (Italy)
  • Western
  • Gallo-Iberian
  • Gallo-Romance
  • Gallo-Italian
  • Emiliano-Romagnolo (Italy)
  • Ligurian (Italy)
  • Lombard (Italy)
  • Piemontese (Italy)
  • Venetian (Italy)
  • Gallo-Rhaetian
  • O'il
  • French
  • Southeastern
  • France-Provencal
  • Rhaetian
  • Friulian (Italy)
  • Ladin (Italy)
  • Romansch (Switzerland)
  • Ibero-Romance
  • East Iberian
  • Catalan-Valencian Balear (Spain)
  • Oc
  • Occitan (France)
  • Shuadit (France)
  • West Iberian
  • Austro-Leonese
  • Asturian (Spain)
  • Mirandese (Portugal)
  • Castilian
  • Extremaduran (Spain)
  • Ladino (Israel)
  • Spanish
  • Portuguese-Galician
  • Fala (Spain)
  • Galician (Spain)
  • Portuguese
  • Pyrenean-Mozarabic
  • Pyrenean

Southern

  • Corsican
  • Corsican (France)
  • Sardinian
  • Sardinian, Campidanese (Italy)
  • Sardinian, Gallurese (Italy)
  • Sardinian, Logudorese (Italy)
  • Sardinian, Sassarese (Italy)

Resources and Further Reading

  • Azevedo, Milton M. Portuguese: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University, 2005.
  • Lewis, M. Paul, editor. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 16th ed., SIL International, 2009.
  • Ostler, Nicholas. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. HarperCollins, 2007.