The Romance languages are the languages that descended from Latin (more specifically, the form that was spoken in everyday life by commoners during the late Roman Empire – Vulgar Latin – not directly from the higher register we have far more written records of. see also: Proto-Romance). The bulk of all the languages I’ve studied have belonged to this language family, and I’m pretty interested in Romance languages’ history, their modern distribution and use, and how they compare to one another, so this will probably become a pretty large “category” of pages!
In medieval times, the Romance family formed an intricate dialect continuum across much of western and southern Europe. With the emergence of nation-states during the Enlightenment era, a gradual process began whereby these dialects were sidelined in favour of the high-prestige “national language”. While some minority languages are still relatively healthy and in active use, a large number are in fairly steep decline, spoken almost solely by the elderly in rural villages. Some of these are subject to language revival efforts, though, which may help to stabilise them and reverse their decline – we’ll see.
Due to their history as a dialect continuum, it can be hard to sub-divide the Romance family. On a big, macro-level, sometimes people will divide them into Eastern and Western groups (basically the languages that pluralise by changing the final vowel vs languages that pluralise by adding -s), or else Italo-Western, Eastern and Southern. Nonetheless, here are the subdivisions that are often talked about:
- Western Romance
- Eastern Romance
- Southern Romance
- African Romance (extinct)
There are some other extinct Romance varieties, Pannonian Romance (spoken primarily in what’s now Hungary) and British Romance, neither of which survived beyond the Middle Ages. These lects’ only attestation is a handful of words inscribed on tombs, so we don’t really know what they were like, just that their speakers existed.
Most of the Romance languages share a high degree of lexical similarity with each other: for example, Spanish and Portuguese share 89% of their vocabularies, as do French and Italian. Catalan is 87% similar to Italian and 85% to French, Spanish and Portuguese. Italian and Spanish are 82% similar, and even Romanian – the outlier of the family – is 77% similar to Italian.
This doesn’t mean that there’s a high degree of mutual intelligibility between all these languages. In writing, yes (except for Romanian, and French probably being trickier than the others). But in speech, the languages’ divergent phonologies make communication between different Romance languages a lot trickier than you’d imagine given the shared vocabulary. Of the major languages, probably the most readily intelligible pair is Spanish-Italian, because they both have very conservative (and thus similar) phonologies – but understanding will still depend on the topic of conversation. A conversation about politics or philosophy is a lot more likely to be successful than one about food or domestic life.
As of 2020, there were an estimated 880 million native speakers of Romance languages, of which 54% were native speakers of Spanish, 26% of Portuguese, 9% of French, 7% of Italian, 3% of Romanian, 0.5% of Catalan, and 3% all others put together. In addition, Wikipedia says there are 308 million L2 speakers of a Romance language, although some of those’s L1 will be a different Romance language. So in total, maybe you’d estimate that 1.1 billion people in the world speak a Romance language, either as L1 or L2.