New language, new soul: The role of Latin in learning the Romance languages

by on February 19, 2016

Many people today are looking to learn new languages: for emotional reasons, out of necessity, for job or graduate school applications, or simply to be able to talk to foreigners. For these very reasons, there is a growing number of language schools or online platforms providing language courses at a distance, or even facilitating contact and communication between people from different parts of the world. Multilingualism therefore is becoming an even more important issue to discuss.

Among the various methods of learning a foreign language, I present here a method that studies the evolution of a language over time, based on comparison with others of the same language family: what is known to linguists as comparative historical linguistics. This method, it turns out, proves quite effective with regard to learning multiple languages from the same family, such as the Romance languages—all of which stem from Latin.

While historical linguistics usually deals with all the various components of a language, such as its sounds (phonetics), meaning (semantics), and sentence structure (syntax), we will limit ourselves to the phonetic and semantic aspects of the evolution of Latin (LA) into the Romance languages: in particular, Portuguese (PT), Italian (IT), French (FR) and Spanish (ES). In addition, I intend to show here that learning how sounds in Latin changed as Latin evolved into the Romance languages serves not only to help people remember the spelling and meaning of a word, but also helps to expand a learner’s cultural and linguistic vision.

Take a look at the –ct- sequence in Latin words, and how it has evolved in four of the Romance languages:

Latin (-ct-)Italian (-tt-)Spanish (-ch-)Portuguese (-it-)French (-it-)English
Lacte(m) LatteLecheLeiteLaitMilk
Nocte(m)NotteNocheNoiteNuitNight
Factu(m) FattoHechoFeitoFaitFact
Dictu(m)DettoDichoDitoDitSpeech
Lectu(m)LettoLechoLeitoLitBed
OctoOttoOchoOitoHuitEight

It can be seen that the Romance languages have thus systematically adapted the –ct- sequence in the following ways:

1) Italian has systematically replaced –ct- with -tt- in latte, notte, fatto, detto, letto, and otto;

2) Spanish done the same but with–ch- instead, resulting in leche, noche, hecho, dicho, lecho, and ocho;

3) Portuguese words replace the sequence with –it- as in leite, noite, feito, dito, leito, and oito;

4) French, which has an extremely conservative spelling system, spells the words lait, nuit, fait, dit, lit, huit.

In recognising these phonetic changes, a learner of Romance languages has already secured the following two immediate advantages: 1) coming to the realisation that there is a system of language evolution, suggesting that vocabulary acquisition can and should be done logically; 2) the relationship between languages of the same family makes it easy to quickly acquire vocabulary across languages by applying these systematic rules.

In addition, this basic vocabulary can bridge understanding through expansion by identifying Latin cognates in the Romance languages. The Latin lacte is the root of Spanish words such as leche, lechada, lechera, but there are other words in Spanish, derived from the same Latin root, which preserve the “lact-” writing, as in lactancia (lactation), lactosa (lactose), and lacteo (of or relating to milk). It can be seen from these comparisons that although these related words vary between the modified modern writing and the Latin spelling, all of them share the same base, and therefore the same meaning. It thus seems clear that the identification of similarities in this process can significantly expand a learner’s vocabulary.

Although this method of historical comparison has other contributions to the learning of languages of the same family, our limited examples allow us to immediately identify and design representations equivalent in the Romance languages, thus favoring the simultaneous acquisition of more than one language with the same origin. While I have only given limited examples in this article, it is clear that we can expand on this method to learn a host of other languages that are closely related, such as the North Indian languages that developed from Sanskrit (including Hindi and Punjabi), and also the Central Asian languages that developed from a common Turkic ancestor. With these simple tools at hand, I encourage you to expand your linguistic horizons and embark on a journey that I can assure you will be exciting and immensely educational.

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