Romance languages: What makes them romantic & other fun facts

two people with tin can phones speaking the language of love

Everyone’s heard of the romance languages, but do you know why they’re called romance languages or what’s so romantic about them? Here’s everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about Latin-based languages and more.

What is a Romance language?

Map of Roman empire at it's peak

Romance languages are a group of Latin-based languages that developed from a common ancestor, Vulgar Latin, which the Romans spoke in the Roman Empire. 

With nearly a billion first and second language speakers, the romance language family is one of the largest in the world.

What does vulgar Latin mean?

There are three types of Latin. 1) “Vulgar Latin,” 2) Classical Latin, and 3)Ecclesiastical Latin is also known as Church Latin. Let’s quickly go over them. 

Vulgar Latin

Vulgar, from Latin “Vulgus,” doesn’t mean offensive or obscene. It’s Latin for “common people.” 

Vulgar Latin = Latin of the common people (informal Latin spoken by the masses as opposed to classical or high Latin)

The majority of the common people in the Roman Empire could not read or write and spoke an informal Latin, or street Latin that we refer to now as Vulgar Latin. Common people who spoke vulgar Latin included the poor, enslaved people, military personnel, the middle class, people with limited schooling, merchants, and even lower public officials. 

This informal or vulgar Latin is what eventually evolved into different romance languages over time.

Classical Latin

Classical Latin, or high Latin, is formal Latin with a strict set of grammatical rules used in literary writings by the educated and elite Romans.

It’s the Latin that is taught in schools today, usually as an elective. We pronounce Classical Latin the way “we think” educated Romans pronounced it, but we can’t be sure.

Some famous Roman literature written in classical Latin includes the works of Cicero, Ovid, Caesar, and Vergil. 

Ecclesiastical Latin

And then there’s Ecclesiastical Latin, or church Latin which is still the official language of the Roman church. As a kid, I remember attending church services in Montreal and hearing part of the sermons spoken in this lyrical sing-songy Latin. 

Though well educated themselves, we think Ecclesiastical Latin is probably closer to street Latin, the way ordinary Romans spoke, which they may have called “sermo Vulgaris.” The Roman Catholic Church’s main goal was to reach the masses, the way the average person spoke. 

What are the most spoken romance languages?

Some linguists believe there are over 44 spoken Romance languages, with more than 900 million native speakers, mainly in Europe, the Americas and parts of Africa and the Caribbean.

According to Ethnologue, the six most widely spoken Romance languages by the number of native speakers are the following, each with millions of native speakers. 

Major
Romance Languages
Number of 
Native Speakers
Ibero-Romance
 
Spanish
(Español)
(460 million native speakers)
Most spoken romance language.
Portuguese
(Português)
(250 million native speakers)
Mainly spoken in Portugal and Brazil (Brazillian Portuguese)
Both share linguistic similarities with the Spanish language.
Catalan
(Català)
(4.5 million native speakers)
Mainly spoken in Spain, France, and Italy.
It’s the official language of Andorra.
Gallo-Romance 
French
(Français)
(76 million native French speakers)
Third most spoken romance language.
Most common second language
Italo-Dalmatian

 Italian
(Italiano)

(62 million native Italian speakers)
Standard Italian is based on Tuscan
Eastern Romance
Romanian (Rumanian)
(Limba română, româneşte‎)
(22-28 million native Romanian speakers)
Mainly spoken in Romania & Moldova

Why is Latin called Latin?

Many languages and places are named after early tribe settlers that spoke that language, the geography of the area they settled or a little bit of both.

For example: 

  • England (Speaks English): Named after the Germanic Angles tribe. Not as recognizable in English, but In French, England is called Angleterre, which means “land of the Angles.”
  • Persia (now called Iran speak Persian aka Farsi), based on the Parsa, a nomadic Indo-European people.
  • France: (Speak French): named after the Germanic Franks, who conquered the Romans. 
  • Siam: (now called Thailand Speak Thai) Named after the “Tai” ethnic group of people from the central plains region. Tai also means free, giving Thailand a double meaning of “land of the free” and “land of the Thai people.” Siam is from the Sanskrit word “Śyāma,” which means dark or brown, with respect to the skin colour of the native people. 
  • Normandy: The Scandinavian Viking invaders that settled in Northern France were referred to as Nortmann in the Frankish kingdom, which means “man of the North.” Nortmann was Latinised as Normannus and later became Normands in Old French. It gave birth to the terms Norman and Normandy. 

And then there’s Latin, the ancient Roman Language. 

The Latins (men of the plain)

The Romans referred to their “Latin language” as lingua Latīna—(“literally “Latin tongue”). 

A common question is if the Romans called their race Romanus (Roman), why didn’t they name their language after themselves, like Spain (Spanish), China (Chinese), or England (English)? 

The answer to that is easy.

When Rome was founded, Lingua Latīna was already established and spoken by an ancient tribe known as “Latini”  (“The Latins”). They spoke archaic or old Latin, the ancestor of Latin and all romance languages.

The Latins settled in the Latium region of Italy, located around the lower Tiber River (10th century BC.)   Today this region is called Lazio, and Rome is part of this region.

The popular belief is that Latium, from (lātus ), is the old Latin word for “Wide” or “broad”  in reference to the broad flatlands or plains of the region. If this is true, “Latini” could mean “men of the plain.”

Why is the word romantic and romance named after the Romans?

Roman Colosseum at night

The word Romance and Romance languages are named after the Romans, primarily through France. 

To understand the etymology of the word romance and how Latin-based languages came to be known as Romance languages, we have to go back in time before French was even a language. 

This is a very simplified explanation, but the French language is essentially a mixture of Vulgar Latin, Gaulish or Gallic ( a Celtic language), and Germanic language roots. Each language has contributed to the French vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. 

First, there were the Gauls who spoke Gallic (Celtic)

Before France was France and the language spoken in France became known as French (Français), the Gauls inhabited parts of modern-day France, Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy. They spoke an ancient Celtic language. 

According to Ceasar, these Celtic-speaking tribes called themselves “Celtae,” but the Greeks called them Keltoi (Celts), and the Romans them Galli (Gauls). 

Gallo-Roman (Rōmānus)

Around 121 BC, the Romans conquered and colonized the Gauls and imposed the Latin language on the existing people. As the Roman Latin and Celtic Gaul languages comingled, the language evolved into what we now call “Gallo-Roman” (Celtic-Roman) but what the Gauls themselves called “Rōmānus,” from Latin meaning “Rome,” or “Roman. 

Romanice: 

In the 4th century, after the fall of the Roman empire, the Germanic Franks took over Gaul, and Germanic settlers commingled their language with the Celtic / Latin language known as “Gallo-Roman”. The language evolved and became known as “Romanice,” an adverb meaning “in the vernacular of Rome.” 

Old French (Romanz or Romans):

From about the 8th to 14th century, Old French was spoken in France, but the people themselves called the language “Romanz” or “Romans.” Romanz became known as “the speech of the people,” or “the vulgar tongue. 

Romanz or Romans, becam Romance so etymologically speaking a Romance language indicates the connection of these languages to Rome

And at the time, Romanz, didn’t have the meaning of Romance we associate it with today. That came later. 

What’s so romantic about romance languages?

Woman crying of a broken heart holding a ripped paper heart next to her boyfriend

When Old French or Romanz was spoken in the Roman empire, stories of chivalrous and gallant knights saving damsels in distress and falling in love were very popular in France. 

These romantic, lovey-dovey literary works were mainly written in Old French, which the people called Romanz.

Over time, these fairytale romance stories spread to other parts of the world and people in these areas couldn’t get enough of them. 

Because the stories were mainly written in old French “Romanz,” they became known as “Romanz stories,” which became “Romance stories,” which gave birth to the adjective Romantic. 

It also gave birth to Romanz languages which became romance languages. 

Roman also became the French word for book and “Romans d’amour” became the French word for Romance novels.

What are the romance languages called in other romance languages?

I think most people would agree that the French language gets most of the glory as the most romantic language. The irony is that in French, Romance languages are called “Roman languages” or “Latin Languages”, not romance languages.

Most other Latin-based languages call Latin-based languages Romance languages.

How to say romance language
in other Latin-based languages
Language Romance Language  
French Les langues romanes
Les langues latines
Roman Languages
Latin Languages
Spanish Lenguas romance Romance language
Italian Lingue romanze Romance language
Portuguese  Línguas românicas Romance language
Romanian Línguas românicas Romance language
Catalan Llengües romàniques Romance language

How did Rome get its name?

Roman artillery attack

Although many languages such as Dutch, Afrikaans, Malay and English call the capital of Italy Rome, it’s not what Italians call their capital.

The name Rome is an exonym, meaning it’s not what natives call their city; it’s what it’s called in other languages. 

For example, in polish, Rome is called Rzym; in German, its Rom, and in Welsh, its Rhufain.

Italians, ancient Romans and many modern languages call Rome “ROMA.”

You might be interested in reading: 20 interesting country nicknames for France explained (ancient, modern, official & unofficial)

The origins of the name Roma or Rome are unclear, but there are a lot of theories. 

  • In Roman mythology, “Rome” is named after Romulus, one of the mythical founders, demigod and first king of the city. 
  • One theory is that Rome may have been an Etruscan word. Ruma, or Rumona, an Etruscan tribe name and possibly what they called the Tiber river. 
  • Another theory is that it’s from the Greek word for strength, vigor “ῥώμη” (rhōmē). Greeks heavily colonized Italy for centuries.

There are many more theories, but no one knows for sure. 

How did Latin spread?

map of the Roman Empire at its height

As the Roman empire grew, the Roman way of life and the Latin language was imposed on the conquered people in the Roman colonies who spoke other languages.

The main counties the Romans conquered included the following present-day countries:

  • England/Wales (Britannia)
  • France (Gaul or Gallia)
  • Spain (Hispania)
  • Portugal (Lusitania)
  • Romania (Rumania)
  • Greece (Achaea) and the Balkans
  • The Middle East (Judea)
  • North African coastal region.
  • Parts of Germany (Germania)

In the 5th century, as the empire declined and eventually collapsed in 476 CE, Vulgar Latin began to fragment and evolve independently in these different areas into dozens of distinctly different languages (and dialects).

Then with exploration and colonization, these new evolved Latin-based languages from Spain, Portugal, and France spread to other continents and countries, such as South America, Mexico, Quebec, the Caribbean and parts of the US such as Louisiana. 

What is the closest language to Latin?

Because romance languages all share a common ancestor (vulgar Latin), they also share a good portion of basic vocabulary words and some grammar forms too. That’s why speakers of one romance language can sometimes understand or at least recognize portions of another romance language without ever studying that language. They’re sometimes partially mutually intelligible.

But exactly how close to Latin are the romance languages?  

Logudorese Sardinian (SARDU)

According to a study by Mario Pei, an Italian-born American linguist and polyglot, Sardinian, also known as Sardu and Sarso, is the most similar language to Latin.

Sardian is spoken on the Italian island of Sardinia, south of Corsica, in the Mediterranean sea. Unesco classified Sardinian as an endangered language spoken by an estimated 1.3 million people worldwide.

Due to its isolation from mainland Italy, the Sardinian language has been more shielded from many outside influences and hasn’t evolved or changed as much as other romance languages. 

In his study, Mario used a composite evaluation (of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, discourse, and intonation) to determine the closest living language to Latin and came up with the following scorecard… 

Percentages represent differences from Latin, so French and Portuguese have undergone the most changes, 44% and 31%. 

  • Sardinian 8%
  • Italian 12%,
  • Spanish 20%,
  • Romanian 23.5%,
  • Occitan 25%,
  • Portuguese, 31%,
  • French 44%

Can people who speak different romance languages understand one another?

group of people holding up speech bubbles that say hello in different languages

When two speakers of different languages (or closely related languages) can understand each other, those languages are mutually intelligible. 

According to Ethnologue, French and Italian have a lexical similarity value of .89; in other words, they are 89% similar. 

French and Catalan are 85% similar, while French and English are only 27% similar. English borrows a lot of words from French. 

The table below shows the lexical similarity values for pairs of selected Romance languages, published by Ethnologue

Lexical similarity coefficients
LANGUAGE Sardinian Catalan English French Italian Portuguese Romanian Spanish
Sardinian 1 0.75 0.80 0.85 0.74 0.76
Catalan 0.75 1 0.85 0.87 0.85 0.73 0.85
English 1 0.27
French 0.80 0.85 0.27 1 0.89 0.75 0.75 0.75
Italian 0.85 0.87 0.89 1 0.77 0.82
Portuguese 0.85 0.75 1 0.72 0.89
Romanian 0.74 0.73 0.75 0.77 0.72 1 0.71
Spanish 0.76 0.85 0.75 0.82 0.89 0.71 1

But just because these languages have high lexical similarities doesn’t mean that they are mutually intelligible 

For instance, most romance speakers find it very difficult to understand spoken French and Romanian. 

Spanish and Portuguese are mutually intelligible; however, Spanish is more easily understood by Portuguese speakers
than the other way round.

A native Catalan speaker on Quora said he could easily understand Occitan and Spanish. And if he listened very carefully, he could also understand Portuguese and Italian. 

Another person on Quora, who was a native Portuguese speaker, stated that the following languages were mutually intelligible to a certain extent. 

  • Spanish: 95% 
  • Italian: close to 70% 
  • Occitan: about 34%
  • Catalan: Close to 73%
  • Romanian: 20%
  • French 10%

Examples of a few phrases in different romance languages

LANGUAGE I LOVE YOU
Latin Te amo
Sardinian T’amo
French   Je t’aime
Italian  Ti amo
Spanish Te amo
Portuguese  Eu te amo
Catalan  T’estimo
Occitan  T’aimi

 

LANGUAGE ENJOY YOUR MEAL
Latin Bonum appetitionem
Sardinian Bon appetito
French   Bon appétit
Italian  Buon appetito
Spanish Buen provecho/Que aproveche
Portuguese  Bom apetite
Catalan  Bon profit
Occitan Bon apetís
Romanian Poftă bună

 

LANGUAGE How are you?
Latin Quid agis
Sardinian Comente ses?/ Coment’istas?
French   Comment ça va/Comment allez-vous ?
Italian  Come sta?
Spanish Cómo está Usted?
Portuguese  Como o senhor está?
Catalan  Com estàs
Occitan  Cossí va? / Cossí vas?

You might be interested in reading 11 ways to say cheers In French and 20 other romance languages.

Why does French sound so different from Latin and other romance languages?

While Sardinian and Italian are the closest to Latin, French, heavily influenced by Gaulish and Germanic languages, is the most divergent from Latin.

Speakers of other romance languages may understand written French; however, spoken French is virtually incomprehensible, even to speakers of other Romance languages.

Here’s a really great video which explains how this happened. 

Latino, Latin American and Hispanic don’t mean what you think they do

Finger pointing to South America on map also known as Latin America

Have you ever wondered where the term Latino comes from, why South America is referred to as Latin America, or why Spanish-speaking people from South America and Central America are called Hispanic, but Spaniards from Spain don’t want to be called that? 

LATINO & HISPANIC: are not a race

In North America, the term Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably, but in reality, they’re different.

Latino and Hispanic are words that have entered the English Language, and many people in the US mistakenly believe that Latino and Hispanics are racial categories. 

They are not. 

Hispanic refers to the Spanish language. It comes from “Hispania,” the old Latin word for Spain, which later became “España.”

Latino was originally a shortening for the word “Latin-American” and has more to do about geography. It refers to anyone from South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean that speak Latin-based languages (Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and French in the Caribbean).

But most of all, the North American view is that Latino means you’re not white, you’re not black, you’re brown. 

Spain’s point of view:

Since the 1970s, the US government has used a census that defines Hispanic from Spanish-speaking countries and Latino as non-white.

That’s a problem for Spaniards living in the US who identify as white, black, Indigenous, Asian and even Middle Eastern.

For instance, the famous actor Antonio Banderos, a Spaniard from Spain, considers himself caucasian/white. Many darker complected Mediterranean Spaniards consider themselves caucasian, but in the US, they would be classified as brown. 

Many people in Spain are bothered if others confuse them for Latin Americans because Spaniards see Latinos and Hispanics as people of colour, and they don’t want to be associated with that,” NPR.

This person from Barcelona who lives in California also has a similar point of view. 

LATINO: The real meaning.

Latino is technically someone who belongs to a nation that speaks one of the 40 +Latin-based languages.

So technically, Romans were Latinos.

So are the French, Spaniards, Italians, Romanians, Portuguese, French-speaking Switzerland, Andorrans, Parts of Belgium and anyone in the following areas that speak a Latin-based language. 

  • Mexico
  • Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, etc.)
  • South America (Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, etc.)
  • Portugues speaking Brazil in South America
  • Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic)
  • French-speaking people from the Caribbean (Martinique, Curaçao, Guadeloupe, Haiti)

The French are to blame for coining the term Latino and Latin America

Like many pan-ethnic terms in the Western Hemisphere, “Latino” and “Latin America” comes from the legacy of colonialism.

It all started when a French Statesman named Michel Chevalier was sent on a mission to the US and Mexico in the 1830s.

Chevalier used the term “Latin people ” to distinguish between Anglo-Saxons in the English-speaking parts of the Americas from parts that spoke Latin-based languages. (Portuguese, Spanish and French.). 

The goal was to ally the Latin-speaking people in the colonies and south America (“Latin America”) with “Latin Europe” against the Anglo-Saxon Americas.

In the end, this was just an excuse for France to attack and colonize Mexico and the Americas and claim parts of it in the French Empire. 

The concept of Latin America and the Latin race took off when Francisco Bilbao used the term “Latin America” (“Latinoamérica”) at a conference in Paris in 1856.

Wrapping up Latin-based Romance languages

Although Latin may be a dead language, meaning it doesn’t have native speakers, learning to read and speak Latin still has value. There are also small communities of speakers worldwide who strive to speak Latin fluently. 

By learning Latin’s comprehensive set of grammar and rules can help language learners build a solid foundation to learn other romance languages. 

And don’t forget that the Latin language didn’t exactly die. It evolved into other Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish and many more. 

As a result, nearly 90 percent of vocabulary in romance languages comes from Latin.

Even English, which is not considered a romance language, is composed of 58% Latin and French. Have you ever heard of these Latin terms adopted into the English language? ( Ad hoc, Quid pro quo, Status quoi, Mea culpa, alma mater, defacto, perona non grata)?

As the old saying goes, all roads lead to Rome.

Carpe diem.

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

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