Why Do Romance Language Speakers Understand Each Other So Easily? (Or Do They?)

Latin never died, it just mutated into dozens of new languages and dialects — like Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Occitan, Italian and Romanian— and the connection among them tells a fascinating story going back 2000 years.

Speaking recently to a French acquaintance led me to realize how communication between Romance language speakers is persistently fluid. During a business meeting, he managed to understand the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian spoken by his business partners while expressing himself in French. While the occasional sentence failed to cross linguistic boundaries, a clear and articulated speech managed to convey meaning from language to language with great ease.

He holds no magic powers and has no cochlear implant serving as an interpretive aid. While everyone in the room assumed the languages were different, they were one and the same: Latin. But how did Latin morph into numerous dialects or languages?

The Origins Of Latin

The original Latin was the language of Latium, a west-central region of the Italian peninsula in the southern part of modern Lazio. It spread with the growth of the Roman Empire and conquered other competing languages, such as Etruscan and Oscan. Latin was stamped with class from early on: the Latin of Cicero and highly educated Romans was not the common Latin spoken in the streets, called vernacular. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the unifying language, especially in the West, since Greek survived in a lot of areas, particularly in the eastern half of the Empire. Dialects were spoken throughout the territory, but if you wanted to cross the empire and be understood, Latin (and sometimes Greek) was required.

The funny thing about Latin was that cultured Romans were particularly fond of Greek. It was considered the language of literature, art and philosophy, its cultural prestige surpassing that of Latin, which meant that they both shared the status of official languages of the Empire.

The Roman Empire reached its peak during the second century AD, while its collapse is usually considered to have happened in 476 AD, the year of the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor. From that moment on we enter what historians consider to be the middle ages — and with this we witness the continued development of all the dialects that have spun off from Latin. For instance, contemporary French is vulgar Latin influenced by a number of Gallic dialects. What we now call Italy was awash for centuries in a number of dialects mostly descendant from Latin (and many of these are dying as we speak). Portuguese, Galician, Castilian and Catalan are all direct descendants of “bad Latin” spoken by the uneducated and Romanian is so honest about its origins, it even includes the name of the empire that gave birth to it in its first five letters.

To prove all these languages are bedfellows, let’s take the word “city” in English and translate it into Latin and a few romance languages:

Vernacular Latin Italian Catalan French Spanish Portuguese Romanian
cīvitās città ciutat cité ciudad cidade oraș

Did you notice that classical Latin has a different word for city? This term was also used in Romance languages as a reference to the city with the word “urban.”

Classical Latin Italian Catalan French Spanish Portuguese Romanian
 urbs urbano urbà urbain urbano urbano urban

But how have we learned about these differences? Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, literally “common speech”) has been found in graffiti and inscriptions. And there are many other examples of similar discrepancies: from “field” (agro in Classical Latin and campus in Vernacular Latin) — to “horse” (cabbalo in Vernacular and equus in Classical Latin).

The Consolidation Of Nations

How did these dialects acquire the status of languages? Perhaps the linguist Max Weinreich put it best, when he stated that, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

The 19th century saw the birth of many new countries: Italy became a unified nation with Germany following suit, Hungary was granted autonomy, as well as Norway, Bulgaria and Albania. Composers from Chopin to Wagner were inspired not only by folk music but by historical myths and narratives. The bellic undertow of national pride would eventually culminate in the first half of the 20th century, leading to conflict and war.

Let’s take Italy as an example. There were several languages descendant from Latin before unification in the 19th century, but once Standard Italian, a descendant of the Florentine dialect spoken in Tuscany, was chosen as the official language of the nation (at the time spoken by only around 10% of the population), it was forced upon the millions inhabiting the Italian peninsula, with the remaining languages downgraded to “dialects.” The political dimension of this act has had reverberations to this day, and something similar happened to France after the Revolution. Estimates show that in 1789 only half of the population of France could speak French. The creation of an educational system and the adoption of French as the official language of the Republic gradually standardized the situation, but even as late as 1871 only a quarter of the population of France spoke French as their native language. (Some of the other languages spoken were Occitan and Breton, which manage to survive to this day in minority groups.)

And what about Spain? Can you imagine what would’ve happened if the Basques had conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula? We would be uttering words and sentences preceding Indo-European tongues with nothing in common with the Romance languages. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula developed its own versions of vernacular Latin, the most demographically successful being Castilian, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese.

Romanian, The Eastern European Cousin

Romanian is geographically separate from other Romance languages, so why did it persist in an area surrounded by Slavic and Germanic tongues? There are different competing theories around this subject, but we can outline a basic narrative.

Romania has a history connected to the Dacians. They occupied the territory we now call Romania up until the 6th century, when the Romans conquered it and the Dacian language was replaced by Latin, leading to its extinction. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the territory was taken over by several Slavic and Germanic tribes. During these turbulent centuries, the language morphed gradually into what we now recognize as Romanian, but it was written in Cyrillic up until the 19th century, when Western-inspired nationalist movements latinized the script, bringing it once again closer to its origins.

Languages Continue To Change

Does this mean languages stopped influencing each other from behind the cultural protectionism of national borders?

Not at all! For instance, the R in Portuguese was historically pronounced in the exact same way as in Spanish or Italian, with a sound named alveolar flap [r], a trill of the tongue. But in the 19th century it became chic to “french it up” — French was the language of culture and diplomacy during the 18th and 19th centuries, something it only lost to English in the 20th century — and the classist snobbery of the guttural R [ʁ], a fricative produced with the throat and not with the tongue, became socially desirable. Soon enough it spread all over the country, and now it is the most common sound heard in European Portuguese, with the alveolar flap typical of Spanish and Italian relegated to a regional variant — ironically! Also ironic is the fact I grew up thinking the alveolar flap was in fact sophisticated and the guttural sound I grew up using in my family was basic and common. (It does sound less lyrical, but personal sensibility is not historical accuracy!)

Latin dialects turned official national languages also spread throughout the world, from Latin America to Africa and Asia. Portuguese, for instance, traveled the Atlantic but kept evolving in Europe beyond its South American legacy, to the point where Brazilian Portuguese might give us a more accurate rendition of European Portuguese in the 16th century than contemporary European Portuguese can.

Death Of Dialects Or A Future Of Borders?

Recent research shows the death of dialects and languages all over the world continues at a speedy rate. For some, it is the inevitable consequence of migratory fluxes and the cultural dominance of English triggered by political and economic power.

Whatever point of view you take, there is a visible and audible growing backlash about this dominance. It’s mirrored in independence movements (Catalonia and Scotland, for instance), but also present in some mainstream politics that glorify difference and are suspicious of linguistic and cultural standardization. How this will play out in the 21st century makes ours an interesting time to be alive!

We can see this in many situations as the continuing story of Latin and its offspring. Languages with the same birthplace don’t always bring people together. Speakers of Catalan and Castilian (Spanish) do understand each other quite easily — they both speak evolved vernacular Latin — but they have little desire to live under the same national umbrella.

Being able to understand someone is somewhat different from agreeing with them, and conflicts have continued to persist in many of the regions once occupied by the Roman Empire. It’s really nothing new and language doesn’t seem to provide any clear answers for it.

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