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Legacies of the Latin language

By Sarah, published on 11/07/2018 Blog > Academia > Latin > What are the Romance Languages?

There are almost 430 million people who speak Latin languages, 18% of those speak an Indo-European language, overall accounting for 7.9% of the world.

Latin (or Romance) languages are almost as widely spoken as Germanic languages, especially because of the influence of Latin America. Learning basic Latin is also a popular option for A-level students in the UK.

So, can you name all the Indo-European languages that stem from Latin?

The Origin of Latin

Discover the origins of Latin by learning Romance languages. Originally a Semitic language, the Latin language has Etruscan, Greek and Phoenician roots. Source: Visual Hunt

Most languages in Europe are Indo-European languages, i.e. languages spoken from Europe to India (from Greek to Sanskrit). The languages of the Indo-European group would have originated on the banks of the Volga, several millennia ago.

But even though European languages almost all have the same origin, they differ. In fact, there are Slavic languages, Germanic languages, Celtic languages and Latin languages.

Latin languages use the Latin alphabet and follow the evolution of Latin, which has Etruscan origins. The Etruscans borrowed the Greek alphabet and before that the Greeks used the Phoenician alphabet to create their own.

In the beginning, Latin was only one italic language among others (Umbrian, samnite, osque, etc.) spoken on the banks of the Tiber.

Latin was originally spoken in the Lazio region in Central Italy.

Rome had a major influence on the Mediterranean basin throughout Antiquity, and it was for this reason that Latin was widely disseminated, putting an end to other dialects. The languages we speak today largely come from Latin.

The Latin language has:

  • 5 declensions and many endings,
  • 3 types of nouns and adjectives (feminine, masculine, neutral) like Greek and German,
  • Singular, plural as in French,
  • No articles,
  • 4 conjugations but can be reduced to one if so desired,
  • 1 passive form like Greek.

Latin is an inversion language: words are placed in the sentence in order of value and importance but also according to the laws of harmony (verse, prose). The Latin language was an oratorical language, especially used in law and politics.

Of course, people have gradually adopted the language and transformed it through the centuries to give birth to the Latin languages of today.

What Is a Romance Language?

How the Latin language still has major influence in modern day life. Phonological affiliation with Latin depends on the Western or Eastern origin of the language. Source: Visual Hunt

The various Romance languages are the languages derived from vulgar Latin, spoken by the people, the vernacular Latin used in everyday life for communication.

The Romance languages either were spoken or are still spoken in a geographical area known as Romania, the northwestern Europe of the ancient Roman Empire. The word Romania is a derivative of Romanus (Roman). Indeed, speakers used a language derived from Roman as opposed to Frankish for example which resulted from Germanic languages and is spoken in the north of France.

It is the evolution of vulgar Latin that led to the creation of different Romance languages.

Chronologically, there were multiple forms of vulgar Latin between -200 and 400. Then, little by little, the forms became more and more differentiated between 500 and 600. In 813, a Romance language is known to have existed and it was required to recite sermons in rural Romanesque (Rusticam Romanam linguam). You are bound to find some similar words in a contemporary Latin dictionary.

Finally in 842, we see the first text written entirely in a Romance language (the first fruits of the lanoi d’oïl).

These Romance languages have some common characteristics:

  • A common word origin with vulgar Latin and therefore a vocabulary derived from vulgar Latin,
  • A vowel system different from Latin (diphthong, apophony, syncope),
  • A consonantal evolution towards a signification palatalization,
  • The disappearance of the neutral gender (still only present in Romanian),
  • A reorganised verbal system (disappearance of the Latin future, the creation of the auxiliary and conditional tense),
  • A development of articles, which did not exist in Latin sentences.

The Romance languages are themselves divided into two groups according to the Spezia-Rimini line in Western Romance languages (Gallo-Romance, Ibero-Romance, Occitan-Romance, Roque-Romance) and Eastern Romance languages (Italo-Romanes, Sardinian, Thraco Romani, Dalmatian).

Discover the best dictionaries to help you translate Latin…

Which Modern Latin Language Is the Closest to Latin?

Latin has also influenced the English language in many ways. The English language has its origins in Germanic languages but some English words have Latin origins. Source: Visual Hunt

This is a very difficult question to answer: which language spoken today is the most similar to Latin?

Sardinian, dialect of Sardinia would be the language most similar to Latin with a derivation of only 8% compared to Latin. In a more general context, the languages of southern Italy are those that come closest to Latin while in the north they are more detached. The derivation levels of other languages from Latin are:

  • Italian 12%,
  • Spanish 20%,
  • Romanian 23.5%,
  • Occitan 25%,
  • Portuguese 31%,
  • French 44%.

Logically, as Latin is the official language of the Church and therefore still spoken in the Vatican, it is not surprising that Italian is closer to Latin than French, for example. By knowing your Latin declensions by heart, you will be able to remember Italian words more easily.

Did you know that English has a lot of loan words from Latin languages? Blame the words borrowed from French 😉

Test your Latin knowledge: do you know these famous quotes?

The Romance Languages Closest to Latin

The resemblance between the various Romance languages can be highlighted through the examples below:

LatinItalianSpanishRomanianOccitanPortugueseFrenchEnglish
ClaveChiaveLlaveCheieClauChaveCléKey
NocteNotteNocheNoapteNuèit/nuèchNoiteNuitNight
CantareCantareCantarCîntaCantarCantarChanterSing
CapraCapraCabraCapraCabraCabraChèvreGoat
LinguaLinguaLenguaLimbâLengaLinguaLangueLanguage
PlateaPiazzaPlazapiaţǎPlaçaPraçaPlaceSquare

There are, of course, differences related to the various events in the history of each country. Each language has drawn from other languages according to the historical events it has experienced. For example, French was drawn from Arabic, Spanish and Italian while Spanish used French and Arabic, Italian used French and Romanian Dace.

Even if the similarities are the most obvious, French stands somewhat apart because it has been influenced by Germany given its geographical position. For example, the words sing (chanter) and goat (chèvre) have an obvious substrate (from Germanic languages).

The similarities apply particularly to writing but much less to spoken French. For example, for the number 5 in French (cinq), in Italian (cinque) and in Romanian (cinci), you can see that:

  • Only French has a nasal vowel [~ ε],
  • At the beginning of the word, we hear “tch” in Romanian and Italian but “s” in French,
  • At the end of the word, we have [k] in French, but [kw] and “tch” in Romanian.

Italian

Italy has a great linguistic diversity, mainly because the language was not unified until quite late (1861). Northern Italian languages are closer to Western Romance languages (French, Spanish) while the south of the country has more similarities with Eastern Romance languages (Romanian). It’s true that the north/south divide wasn’t born overnight!

Tuscan was designated as the official language at the time when the capital was in Florence. It is notably the language of Dante Alighieri.

On a side note, Corsican is an Italian dialect which is very close to basic Tuscan.

62 million people around the world have Italian as their mother tongue.

Spanish

Spanish, also called Castilian (and not to be confused with Catalan), has its origins in Latin but has been strongly influenced by Arabic. The Moors have indeed been present for more than seven centuries on the Iberian Peninsula. In Latin America, Spanish has evolved differently, giving rise to many variations and differences in terms of vocabulary.

Today it is the native language of 437 million people.

The Spanish language is also derived from Latin. The same language has defined most languages spoken in Europe. Source: Pixabay

Romanian

The Romanian language is very close to the dialects of southern Italy, like Neapolitan, but it also has a Slavic influence. “Yes” is “Da” as in most Slav languages, for example.

Moldovan, although written in Cyrillic, is closer to Romanian and it is often said that the differences between the two languages are more political than linguistic.

24 million people speak Romanian as their first language.

Portuguese

Portuguese is the other language on the Iberian Peninsula. It has spread throughout the world at the time of the conquests in Portugal, especially in Brazil, in some African countries and more surprisingly in East Timor.

219 million people have Portuguese as their mother tongue.

French

The French language was unified and codified early in the Renaissance. But that’s not why it’s totally aligned. The reality is much more complicated. Two groups of languages coexist in France: the langues d’oc in the south and the langues d’oïl in the north. The two words were chosen because it’s the way to say “yes” in both languages.

French has gradually emerged as a national language, but at its foundations, it is a langue d’oïl, which spread from the capital, Paris. This influence can be seen in Latin phrases, whereas some words may seem similar to French.

76 million people speak French today around the world (mother tongue).

Uncover the roots of the Latin alphabet…

Other Latin Languages

There are many languages other than these main descendants of Latin. Nowadays, several languages belong to the Spanish, French or Italian group.

The Ibero-Romance group is divided into several different dialects :

  • Spanish group: Castilian, Asturian, Leonese, Andalusian, Extremadura, Judo-Spanish (Israel),
  • Portuguese group: Portuguese, Galician, Mirandese, Azorean, Algarvio, Alentejano, Minho dialect, etc.
  • Catalan group: Catalan is spoken in a part of southern France, Andorra, Catalonia, parts of Aragon, parts of Valencia and in the Balearic Islands. From a linguistic point of view, Catalan is closer to Occitan than Castilian.

The Occitan-Romance group includes French, Gascon, Languedoc, Provençal, Auvergne-Limousin and Alpine-Dauphinois (Italy).

The Italo-Romance group includes all the Italian dialects: Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Emilian, Bolognese, close to French pronunciation. But also: Tuscan, Corsican, Sardinian, Roman, Campanian, Silicon, Calabrian.

The Gallo-Romance group is composed of several langues d’oïl: Walloon, Picard, Norman, Berry, Champagne, Franc-Comtois, Burgundy, Bourbonnais, Tourangeau, Angevin, Poitevin, Saintongeais, Gallo, etc.

In the Rhaeto-Romance group, we must mention Friulian and Ladin for Italy, and also Romansh for Switzerland.

Finally, the Balkan-Romance group includes Daco-Romanian but also dead languages such as Istro-Romanian and Aromanian.

All of these regional languages or dialects originally come from the Latin language.

Now find out everything you need to know about the Latin language…

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