Romance language misconceptions: The truth behind the Romance languages

by on November 13, 2015

“So, what are you majoring in?” That dreaded question had come up again. The person asking me was probably looking for some way to keep the small talk going, and was also probably looking for a one-word answer such as “biology” or “accounting.” What they didn’t know was that they were about to get a longer definition that might keep them in the conversation for a while against their will.

I could have said I was majoring in foreign language, but I knew they would ask which one. I could have said Spanish, but that wasn’t altogether true, either. So I decided to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“Romance languages.” I watched their face grow confused before they politely covered up their judgement by asking, “What is that?”

I originally thought that my uncle—a native Spanish speaker—might understand what I was talking about, but even he looked at me strangely for a second before asking the same question. Every time I heard that question, I felt like I was talking about a specific type of neuroscience as opposed to a language family (kudos to you who can understand the different categories of neuroscience).

I guess I can’t really blame them, though. In fact, I am proud that these people would even ask for an explanation rather than stick with what I knew they were probably thinking. In fact, just a few years ago, the phrase “Romance languages” triggered a certain image in my own mind: two people walking through Paris—the city of love—speaking French and occasionally making out. “Romance languages,” I thought, was just a term for languages that are so pretty and smooth that they make finding romance easy. If that were truly the case, though, I would have a ring on my finger and a wedding date planned by now. In reality, it’s not quite so simple.

Romance (not romantic) languages actually have nothing to do with the noun “romance”; the term refers instead to a family of languages that all originated in the same area and time period. In this case, that area was the Roman Empire (hence, “Romance languages”). The main language spoken throughout the expanding empire was a type of colloquial Latin referred to as Vulgar Latin (and not because that language was unsophisticated, but rather because the adjective “vulgar” can describe a language spoken by ordinary people during every-day interactions). As the empire began to crumble, however, different regions separated and developed their own cultures. This cultural separation led to diversity in Vulgar Latin, which allowed in turn for the evolution of the languages we know today as Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian—in addition to various lesser-known languages and dialects. According to one widely-accepted model of classifying Romance languages, they can be categorised as Eastern Romance (e.g. Romanian) or Western Romance (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan). Italian falls under a separate category, although it is more closely related to its western than to its eastern relatives. Sardinian—a language spoken on the island of Sardinia—is also grouped separately from the others. Although each Romance language is unique, they do have a great deal in common as a result of their shared origin. Many of their verb conjugations and endings and some of their words are incredibly similar. Their numbers are also noticeably similar—if not in sound, then in spelling. Although each one has its own distinct pronunciation, it is easy to pick up written words in another Romance language if you already speak one. Due to these similarities, learning one Romance language tends to make learning and understanding a second incredibly easy. In fact, the biggest problem most Romance language polyglots seem to have is keeping them separate.

You’ve made it through the explanation, so let me offer you an official welcome to the world of Romance languages! A world that spans, well, across much of the world. The Romance languages dominate the linguistic scene in the Americas, as well as in parts of Western Europe and Africa—large portions of which rely on French as a means of general communication. France, Italy, and Europe’s Iberian Peninsula (Portugal, Spain and Andorra) have one or more Romance languages as primary or official languages. On the other side of the Atlantic, 30 countries and territories in the Americas grant at least one Romance language primary or official status, while 12 more identify a Romance language as a language spoken by a large number of immigrants. Only 11 remaining territories and one remaining nation (Belize) are listed in Ethnologue as not relying on a Romance language as a means of general communication.

I don’t know if the people who asked me about my major ever paid attention—much less remembered my explanation—but either way, the Romance languages no doubt enjoy a notable presence globally. Each has a traditional culture and story behind it, but is now blending into our English-centered lives. In fact, it is (almost) perfectly normal to hear a story about someone at a café eating gelato, listening to Enrique Iglesias, and having a déjà vu moment. Even English-set spell-checkers don’t mark those foreign words as wrong. Oh, and lesson learned: Just because somebody speaks a Romance language doesn’t mean they know which family it comes from. After all, how many English speakers know that English is a Germanic language? Probably as many as who know what Romance languages actually are. And now, you can hopefully count yourself as one of those people.

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