Romance languages

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. Nonetheless, here are the subdivisions that are often talked about:

In addition to this, there were also historically African Romance, British Romance and Pannonian Romance (in the Balkans) varieties that did not survive beyond the Middle Ages.

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.