The Romance languages, despite comprising only one branch in the Indo-European language family, include some of the most influential languages in the Western world. They’re spoken both in a large part of Europe and throughout North and South America. What are the Romance languages, though? Here, we provide a breakdown of this illustrious language family and where it comes from.
What Are The Romance Languages?
Deciding what’s a “language” and what’s a “dialect” is a tricky business, because languages really exist on a spectrum, rather than in separate boxes. Therefore, there isn’t full agreement as to exactly how many Romance languages there are. Ethnologue breaks the Romance languages down into 44 different languages.
The most spoken Romance languages are Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian, which combined are spoken by over 90 percent of those who speak a Romance language.
The full list of Romance languages is pretty long: Aragonese, Aromanian, Asturian, Arpitan, Catalan, Corsican, Emilian, Extremaduran, Fala, French, Cajun French, Friulian, Galician, Istriot, Italian, Jèrriais, Judeo-Italian, Ladin, Ladino, Ligurian, Lombard, Minderico, Mirandese, Napoletano-Calabrese, Occitan, Picard, Piedmontese, Portuguese, Romagnol, Romanian, Istro Romanian, Megleno Romanian, Romansh, Campidanese Sardinian, Gallurese Sardinian, Logudorese Sardinian, Sassarese Sardinian, Shuadit, Sicilian, Spanish, Charapa Spanish, Venetian, Walloon and Zarphatic. And those are just the languages that are still around today.
How Many People Speak A Romance Language?
Getting an exact count of how many people speak a Romance language is a tad difficult. If you tally together the population of every Romance language, you get 1.2 billion speakers in the world. This doesn’t take into account that there’s overlap in these populations, however. There are many, many multilingual people in Europe, so this inflates the numbers a bit.
If you only count the top five languages by user, however, the number is still over 1.1 billion, so it’s a pretty safe bet that about one-seventh of the population alive today speaks a Romance language.
Why Are They Called Romance Languages?
The word “romance” — with both a capital and a lower-case “r” — has a lot of meanings in English. Like me, you might have thought at one point that they were called Romance languages because they’re the most romantic languages.
The root of the word “romance,” however, goes back to the Latin rōmānicus, which meant “Roman.” The language of Rome was Latin, and all of the Romance languages are descended from Vulgar Latin, so the name fits.
Where Do The Romance Languages Come From?
The one factor that unites all of the Romance languages is that they’re all evolved from Vulgar Latin. Like “Romance,” the word “Vulgar” here doesn’t mean what you’d normally think when you hear “vulgar.” It comes from the Latin vulgus, meaning “common people,” and so Vulgar Latin refers to the many dialects of Latin spoken by regular people. This contrasts with Classical Latin, which was the standardized version of the language that is still used in certain religious and scientific contexts today (though arguably, it’s a dead language).
Because of the expansiveness of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin was spoken all across Europe in the first few centuries CE. While the governmental empire began to collapse in the 5th century, the language was still spread all around the continent. As the communities started to close off from each other and individual kingdoms sprang up, the languages drifted apart and started sounding more distinct.
The languages spread even further apart with the various colonial empires, bringing French, Spanish and Portuguese to North and South America. All the branches of the Romance language tree split off according to the shifting geopolitical order.
How Similar Are The Romance Languages?
It can be tempting to hope that if you know one Romance language, you’ll basically be able to understand any of the others. But can Romance language speakers really understand each other more easily than other languages? The answer is yes — but a conditional yes.
Depending on which Romance language you learn, you may have an easier or harder time understanding other Romance languages. Part of that has to do with the linguistic “distance” between various languages. Learning Brazilian Portuguese, for example, will prepare you to understand the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, despite there being some differences between the two. French and Spanish are more clearly different, but there’s still enough mutual intelligibility that a French speaker and a Spanish speaker could probably have a rudimentary conversation.
We won’t go into exactly how mutually intelligible each Romance language pair is here, but it’s very likely that learning one of them will at the very least make learning other Romance languages easier. Thanks to similarities in grammar and cognates (words that sound alike), it’s not too hard to jump from one to the other — at least compared to going from, say, a Romance language to Arabic or Mandarin. So if you ever want to learn more than one language, it might be worthwhile to consider staying within the same language group.