Romance languages: Latin or love?

Romance languages: Latin or love?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 10, 2022

Here at Lingoda, we love languages. But we know that Romance languages are not necessarily romantic. Don’t get us wrong, we still want to hear sweet-nothings whispered in our ear. It’s just that Romance languages are closer to Latin than to love. Here is everything you need to know about Romance languages:

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What are Romance languages?

Romance languages are modern languages that evolved from Latin. Maybe French sounds swoon-worthy, but, Romance languages have nothing to do with being romantic. From Latin, the term “Romance” means to speak “in Roman.” To avoid the confusion with romantic love, Romance languages are also called Neo-Latin (literally “new Latin”) languages.

The most spoken Romance or Neo-Latin languages are:

  • Spanish (477 million native speakers)
  • Portuguese (279 million native speakers)
  • French (77 million native speakers)
  • Italian (63 million native speakers)
  • Romanian (24 million native speakers)
  • Catalan (4 million native speakers)

There are a number of other Romance languages with smaller native-speaking populations throughout Europe.

A brief history

At its height in the 2nd century, the Roman Empire stretched across most of Western Europe, the Balkans, and northern Africa. In some of these places, the Romans ruled for hundreds of years. Vulgar Latin was the common spoken language of the conquered Roman territories. As the Roman Empire declined and broke apart, the areas that spoke Vulgar Latin became increasingly isolated. From there, each language developed distinctly into the top five modern Romance languages we know today.

Examples of different Romance languages

How similar and different are these languages? It depends. Because of their Latin origin, Romance languages share very similar root words and grammar. Here is an example of just how similar they can be:

meaningLatinSpanishItalianFrenchPortugueseRomanian
To singcantārecantarcantarechantercantara cânta

Some Romance languages are considered mutually intelligible. For example, a Spanish speaker might understand quite a lot of Italian without studying it. A Portuguese speaker might also understand a Spanish speaker relatively easily. Here is an example of a simple sentence:

English meaningMarcus gives the book to his father.
Vulgar LatinMarcos da libru a patre.
SpanishMarcos le da el libro a su padre.
ItalianMarcus dà il libro a suo padre.
FrenchMarcus donne le livre à son père.
PortugueseMarcus dá o livro para seu pai.
RomanianMarcus îi dă cartea tatălui său.

Remarkably, Romanian (spoken in Romania and Moldova) has many similarities despite being surrounded by Greek and Slavic languages for over a thousand years. Speakers of other Romance languages won’t understand everything, but will hear familiar words. Check out this video of French, Spanish, and Romanian speakers playing a language guessing game together.

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Is English a Romance language?

No, I’m afraid not. English is not a Romance language. English belongs to the Germanic language family along with cousins such as German, Danish and Swedish, among others. 

It’s true that English has borrowed a lot of vocabulary words from Latin: decimal, altitude, antique, maritime, obscure, etc. It was the Normans (of modern-day France) who brought Latin-based language to England when they invaded in 1066. The Latin-based vocabulary remains since then.

In the study of linguistics, languages have groups and complex family trees. The great-great-great-grandmother of English is definitely German and not Latin.


Love them and learn them

Romance languages come from Latin and are a product of a long, complex history. Romance languages are cool, but it doesn’t mean they have to be romantic. The “romance” part comes from historical origins in Rome. Don’t let us stop you from falling in love with these amazing languages, though.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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