The Romance languages are a group of languages that all descended from the form of Latin known as Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin was the language of the common people, and it was primarily a spoken language. Over time, different ways of pronouncing each word developed in different regions, and different vocabulary was used. Eventually, the speech differences were so pronounced that one person from one region could not necessarily understand what another from another region was saying. This is how Vulgar Latin evolved to become the Romance languages we have today. The five major Romance languages are Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.
The most widely spoken Romance language in the world, Spanish is also the most common second language in the United States. Spoken by over half a billion people in over twenty countries, this language originated in the Iberian Peninsula. The majority of the land we now know as Spain was once occupied by the Arabs, and just north of that, in modern-day Catalonia, is where the Spanish language was born. The first text considered to be written in Spanish was Amadís de Gaula, or Amadis of Gaul, a love story between a king and a queen.
But what distinguishes Spanish from Vulgar Latin? A number of changes in vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as some grammar, separate these two languages. Some examples of these include the diphthongization of some vowels, most notably E: dientes vs dentes (teeth), and tiempo vs tempus (time). Also, many words that started with the letter F in Latin start with an H in Spanish: facere vs hacer (to make), and fabulare vs hablar (to talk). The Latin NN and LL sounds turned into Ñ and LL, and their pronunciation shifted: anno vs año (pronounced anyo, year) and illa vs ella (pronounced eya, she). The Latin infinitive verb endings -ĀRE, -ĒRE, and ĪRE changed to -AR, -ER, -IR, and the Latin fourth ending -ĔRE was dropped completely. The words that used them changed to -ER endings in most cases.
French is the second most widely spoken language derived from Vulgar Latin. Spoken by over a quarter billion people, French is an official language in 29 countries, mainly in Europe, Africa, and North America. The Latin spoken in Gaul slowly evolved and morphed into the language we know as French today. French is widely considered as the farthest language from Latin in terms of lexicon and pronunciation. Even the untrained ear can distinguish French from Spanish or Italian, with the strong nasal vowels and unstressed consonants. Les Serments de Strasbourg (The Strasbourg Oaths) is the oldest document written in French.
French consonants are much smoother than the other Romance languages, but this results in many ways of pronouncing one letter depending on the word. Diphthongs such as OI, IE, and EA are extremely common in French. Perhaps the most notable change in terms of vocabulary is that some words in French are much shorter than in Latin: insulam vs île (island), and quinquaginta vs cinquante (fifty). An early Germanic language called Frankish gave much of its vocabulary to French, which is why French today has more vocabulary similar to English than other Romance languages.
Portuguese is a close third by number of overall speakers, but in terms of native speakers, it nearly doubles French’s native population. Portuguese is spoken in ten countries in Africa, as well as in Oceania, Brazil, and Portugal. It originated in Western Iberia, where modern-day Portugal lies, and the first text written in Portuguese was Testamento de Dom Afonso II (Testament of Dom Alfonso II). A fun fact about Portuguese: Many Russian speakers think Portuguese sounds like a Russian speaker making up a language without bothering to change their accent, according to Langfocus, a linguistics YouTube channel. The same holds true for Spanish and Greek. You can look up audio language samples for all four of these languages and test the theory out for yourself.
Portuguese and Spanish share much of the same vocabulary, since they developed so geographically close to each other, but many greetings are completely different! In Spanish, the traditional word for thank you is ¡Gracias!, while in Portuguese the word is ¡Obrigado!. Portuguese has also preserved some of the longer words that Spanish shortened, such as cachorro vs perro (dog), but the converse is also true: maça vs manzana (apple). Additionally, Portuguese has nasal forms of all five vowels, and it uses all the accents that French does and more!
Italian is fourth both based on the number of native speakers and total number of speakers. However, Italian was arguably the most important language in the Renaissance, and many great philosophers and astronomers were Italian, which led to the majority of scientific work being written and published in Italian. This very important lingua franca of the past originated in modern-day Italy, in Florence. The Placiti Cassinesi (no accurate translation found) was the first text written in Italian.
Italian is widely considered to be the closest language to Latin. It has preserved many of the grammar and vocabulary aspects of Vulgar Latin, but the pronunciation has varied over the years. Some cognates include: quattordici vs quattuordecim (fourteen), settimana vs septimana (week), and guadagnare vs guadaniāre (to gain/to earn). The GN sound in Italian is equivalent to the Spanish Ñ and the Portuguese NH, and many letters have varied pronunciations, like in English. The letters C and G make more than more than one sound depending on the word, and it is thought that the concept in English is borrowed from Italian.
Romanian is the forgotten Romance language, as it’s the language that people do not think about when they discuss similarities between the aforementioned languages. This is primarily because Romania is so far away from the rest of the Romance language-speaking world. Romania is surrounded by Slavic languages, and these languages have had a large influence on Romanian. Because of this, the pronunciation of many words has shifted drastically, while the spelling has largely stayed the same. The first text written in Romanian was a letter from Neacşu of Câmpulung to the mayor of Braşov.
As mentioned before, Romanian has been influenced by
Slavic languages because of its geographical location. About 80 percent of Latin vocabulary has been retained, while 20% is from Slavic languages such as Russian, Czech, and Polish. The pronunciation of words is Slavicized, and the grammar is completely different from other Romance languages. Some Romanian vs Latin vocabulary: a merge vs ambulare (to play), sferă vs sphera (sphere), and hârtie vs charta (paper).
Now we will compare a sentence from all five languages plus English. Note that some of these translations may not be entirely accurate.
English: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Spanish: El veloz zorro marrón saltó sobre el perro perezoso.
French: Le renard brun rapide sauté au-dessus du chien paresseux.
Portuguese: A raposa marrom rápida saltou acima de cachorro preguiçoso.
Italian: La veloce volpe marrone salta sopra il cane pigro.
Romanian: Vulpea brună și rapidă sare peste câinele leneș.
Other Interesting Romance Languages
The five languages mentioned above are the five most widely spoken languages that descended from Latin. However, hundreds of other lesser-known languages exist, and this section attempts to highlight some of the interesting ones.
Romansh is a Romance language spoken in Switzerland. It has been influenced heavily by German, specifically High German and Österdeutsch (the German spoken in South Germany and Austria). It is basically a dialect of Italian with a lot of German vocabulary.
Catalan is a minority language of northeast Spain, spoken in the region of Cataluña. It is a combination of Spanish and French, but there are some vocabulary words not found in either of the two languages.
Galician is a hotly debated topic in the world of linguistics. Some linguists consider it a dialect of Portuguese, while others say it is a distinct language. It is another minority language spoken in Western Spain, and it is extremely similar to Portuguese.
Next week, we will be exploring the Germanic languages! Stay tuned, for this is the group that English is in!