What is a Romance Language?
The Romance Languages are often described as being the most beautiful in Europe and perhaps the world. What are they and where did they come from?
At the height of the Roman Empire in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, Latin was widely spoken.In the Italian peninsular it was probably the mother tongue in most areas (the far south of Italy and parts of Sicily probably used Greek) and it would have also been so for all formal business around the vast empire. In the eastern provinces, Greek played a prominent international role too. It’s also possible that Latin was fairly extensively spoken as a mother tongue in many of the cities around the Mediterranean world, which had been founded originally as colonies and settled by retired soldiers, their families and perhaps business merchants.
However, it shouldn’t be assumed that everyone in the empire spoke Latin. Very large number of people living within the empire would have continued to speak their normal ancestral languages (e.g. one of the Celtic tongues or Greek etc.).Even amongst those that spoke Latin as a mother tongue, we know that there was a major difference between the language as spoken and used by ordinary people (Vulgar Latin) and that of the relatively small number of members of the ruling classes (Classical Latin). Scholars still argue about the distribution but it seems as if Classical Latin may have been largely restricted to formal documents and events, with Vulgar Latin being the language of everyday use.They were mutually intelligible.
The End of Latin
Rome’s decline and fall, in the west, was relatively rapid. The city was sacked by invaders in 410CE and the Western Empire is formally said to have come to an end in 476CE with the removal of the last emperor.Before these dates though, the empire had already been struggling to maintain any form of cohesion and as a result, two major changes arose for language:
- Greek became increasingly the official language of government in the Eastern Roman Empire – formalising what was largely an existing reality.
- In the West, individual areas of the Empire began to experience large-scale conquest and settlement by new peoples migrating from the east. As the imperial and commercial ties to Roman culture weakened and eventually collapsed, the old Vulgar Latin began to evolve into numerous different individual languages, including merging in some cases with elements of the new incomer (or ‘Barbarian’) languages.
Within as little as 200 years of the Empire’s passing, the Latin once spoken in many of the old ‘heartlands’ of Rome’s domains was no longer intelligible to the people living in them. Some continuity was preserved in Church services and administration, diplomatic levels and literature but broadly speaking, in a very short time, Latin had become a dead language.
New Languages out of the Ashes of Rome
In spite of the incoming populations having their own languages, some parts of what had once been ‘The Empire’, evolved languages that had a significant legacy from Vulgar Latin. Those languages are:
This excludes many smaller language groups such as ‘Dalmatian’, which are also regarded as being descendants of Latin.It is unclear why these areas developed languages with a relatively clear debt to Vulgar Latin whereas other ex-imperial domains, such as Britain, parts of Germany and North Africa, did not. It may reflect the extent to which Roman culture and language was assimilated over the centuries prior to the empire’s fall.
Collectively, the languages that evolved out of Vulgar Latin are called today ‘The Romance Languages’. Contrary to some popular misconception, this terminology is nothing to do with the romantic pre-dispositions of their speakers! In fact, it arises from the Vulgar Latin adverb “Romanice” meaning roughly “in the way of the Romans”.
Today, the Roman language group comprises around 35 living languages, though many of them are spoken by minorities. Technically, they are classified as Italic Languages within the Indo-European language family.The relationship between the languages is complex.For the most part, they are not mutually intelligible though some sounds, phrases and words are so similar that they are understood.
English: How are you?
French: Comment vas-tu?
Catalan: Com estàs?
Castilian : ¿cómoestás?
Portuguese : Como vocêestá?
Italian : come va?
Although a trivial example, from this it can be seen how in sound and spelling terms, the five above Romance languages are much closer to each other than they are to English, which is a Germanic language.
For Language Students
Many students, once they speak one of the main Romance languages, find it relatively easy to then move on to another. Many of the grammatical constructs are very similar, as are some of the words and sound-forms. The relationship between the languages is a big help!