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Encyclopedia > Romance language

The Romance languages, also called Romanic languages, are a subfamily of the Italic languages, specifically the descendants of the Vulgar Latin dialects spoken by the common people evolving in different areas after the break-up of the Roman Empire. Latin itself is considered an Italic but not a Romance language.



The term "Romance" comes from the Romance word romance or romanz, from Latin romanice, the adverbial form of romanicus, in expressions like parabolare romanice ("to speak in Roman").

The modern Romance languages differ from Classical Latin in a number of fundamental respects:


The most spoken Romance language is Spanish, followed by Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

Most Romance speakers have little difficulty understanding each other. Generally, the Romance languages are much more simplified than their notoriously complex ancestor, Latin. Only Romanian and Sardinian have retained some of the complex features of Latin.

Roughly, from west to east, the Romance variants, or dialects, form a dialect continuum. See also Vulgar Latin for attempts at understanding the central dialect. Portuguese, French, and Romanian typify three extreme deviations, though this does not imply that they are totally distinct. Sardinian is the most isolated and conservative variant. Languedocian Occitan could be tagged as the central "Western Romance by default".

Historically, the first split was between Sardinian and the rest. Then of the rest, the next split was between Romanian in the east, and the others in the west. The third major split was between Italian and the Gallo-Iberian group. This latter then split into a Gallo-Romance group, which became the Oïl languages (including French), Occitan, Francoprovençal and Rumansh, and an Iberian Romance group which became Spanish and Portuguese. Catalan is considered by many specialists as a transition language between the Gallic group and the Iberian group, since it shares characteristics from both groups (just for an example, among many others: 'fear' is 'medo' in Portuguese, 'miedo' in Spanish, but 'por' in Catalan — compare with 'peur' in French).

There are many local varieties spoken in the Romance-language countries, and there is no clear differentiation between a 'language' and a 'dialect'. Roughly speaking, there are varieties that are considered national or international languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan), and those which are more often considered regional languages such as Occitan (or Provençal), Sardinian, the Oïl languages and Rumansh.

Classification frequently becomes questionable: is Galician, for example, a) a language in its own right; or b) a variety of Portuguese with strong influence of Spanish; or c) a language of which Portuguese is a dialect (as some argue it is)? Naturally, political and cultural and local pride issues play a role in these debates. Moreover, languages that lacked officialdom, a central standard model, or a literary tradition, such as Occitan, Sardinian or Rumansh, may possess several competing standards. And some minor variants which might have developed into distinct languages have been reduced to residual areas and restricted usage, like Astur-leonese, Aragonese or Mirandese.

Typical characteristics

Characteristics typical of Romance languages include:

  • General:
    • Romance languages are "verb-framed" rather than "satellite-framed". This means that phrases indicating motion will tend to encode the motion's direction within the verb (e.g. "enter", "insert"), rather than in an external particle (e.g. "go in", "put in").
    • Romance languages usually have two copula verbs (see Romance copula), from the Latin infinitives ESSE and STARE: one for essence and the other for status.
    • Romance languages conjugate verbs in first, second, and third person forms, both singular and plural. The third person forms may also be inflected for gender, but the first- and second-person forms are not (compare with Hebrew, which inflects all three persons for gender and number.)
    • Politeness forms include some form of the T-V distinction in all Romance languages.
    • Romance languages have 2 or 3 genders for all nouns, but usually do not inflect nouns for case, though their parent Latin did.
    • Romance languages include a default stress on the last or second-last syllable, and have euphony rules that avoid glottal stops, and multiple stop consonants in a row. The combination of these rules gives spoken Romance languages their characteristic high speed and flow.
  • Written form only:
    • The letters "W" and "K" are rarely used (except in names or borrowings, for example Kappa, or w in standard Walloon orthography)
    • The letters "C" and "G" are usually "soft" postalveolar consonants before a front vowel, but "hard" velar consonants by default, or before a back vowel.
    • In most Romance languages, proper adjectives (including nationalities, such as American and British), names of days of the week and months of the year are not capitalized. For example, nationalities are capitalized in French only when used as nouns.

Distinguishing features

Formation of plurals

Some Romance languages form plurals by adding /s/ (derived from the plural of the Latin accusative case), while others form the plural by changing the final vowel (by influence of the Latin nominative ending /i/). See La Spezia-Rimini Line for more information.

  • Plural in /s/: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, French.
  • Vowel change: Italian, Romanian.

Omission of final Latin vowels

Some Romance languages have lost the final unstressed vowels from the Latin roots. For example: Latin lupus, luna become Italian lupo, luna but French loup /lu/), lune (/lyn/).

  • Final vowels retained: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Romanian (southern dialects).
  • Final vowels retained in feminine gender only: Catalan, Occitan, Romanian (Dacoromanian).
  • Final vowels dropped: French.

Words for "more"

Some Romance languages use a version of Latin plus, others a version of magis.

  • Plus-derived: French plus /ply/, Italian più /pju/.
  • Magis-derived: Portuguese (mais), Spanish (más), Catalan (més), Occitan, Romanian (mai)

The number 16

In some languages the word for the number 16 is irregular after the fashion of English "sixteen", as are all the Romance numerals from 11 to 15. In other Romance languages, 16 is literally "ten and six", like the numbers from 17 to 19.

  • "Sixteen": Catalan, Occitan, French, Italian, Romanian.
  • "Ten and six": Portuguese, Spanish.

To have and to hold

The verbs derived from Latin habere and tenere are used differently for the concepts of "to hold", "to have", "to have" (auxiliary for complex tenses), and existence statements ("there is").

For instance, in French, je tiens, j'ai, j'ai fait, il y a: these are respectively derived from tenere, habere, habere and habere. If we use T for tenere and H for habere, in these four meanings, we can encode the difference as follows:

  • TTTT: Portuguese (Brazil).
  • TTTH: Portuguese/Galician.
  • TTHH: Spanish, Catalan.
  • THHH: Occitan, French.

There's also essere in Italian and este in Romanian, used for "to be":

  • THHE: Romanian, Italian

To have or to be

Some languages use their equivalent of "have" as an auxiliary verb to form the perfect forms (e. g. French passé composé) of all verbs; others use "be" for some verbs and "have" for others.

  • "Have" only: Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian.
  • "Have" and "be": Occitan, French, Italian.

In the latter, the verbs who use "be" as an auxiliary are intransitive verbs that show motion or a change of state of the subject, such as "fall", "come", "become". All other verbs use "have".

Pidgins and creoles

The global spread of colonial Romance languages has given rise to numerous creoles and pidgins. Some of the lesser-spoken languages have also had influences on varieties spoken far from their traditional regions.

Constructed languages

Latin and the Romance languages also give rise to numerous constructed languages, both International Auxiliary Languages (well-known examples of which are Esperanto, Interlingua and Latino sine flexione) and languages created for artistic purposes only (such as Brithenig and Wenedyk).


Here is a more detailed listing of languages and dialects:

Ethnologue classification

The classification below is largely based on the analysis provided at ethnologue.com. The ISO-639-2 code roa is applied by the ISO for any Romance language that does not have its own code. The Ethnologue classification (produced by the SIL International) is at one extreme of linguists, who divide into 'splitters' and 'lumpers'. Ethnologue produce a very detailed classification, which is more precise than many other linguists would accept, but it is valuable as a description of varieties.

The Southern group

  • Sardinian Four versions recognized; all are included in ISO 639-1 code, sc; ISO 639-2 code, srd)
  • Corsican - (SIL Code, COI; ISO 639-1 code, co; ISO 639-2 code, cos)

The Italo-Western group
The Western sub-group
. .Gallo-Iberian division
. . .Ibero-Romance sub-division
. . . .West Iberian section

  • Asturo-Leonese
    • Asturian - (SIL Code, AUB; ISO 639-2 code, ast)
    • Mirandese - (SIL Code, MWL; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
  • Castilian
    • Spanish - (SIL Code, SPN; ISO 639-1 code, es; ISO 639-2 code, spa)
    • Spanish, Loreto-Ucayali - (SIL Code, SPQ; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) - (SIL Code, SPJ; ISO 639-2 code, lad)
    • Extremaduran - (SIL Code, EXT; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Caló - (SIL Code, RMR; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
  • Portuguese-Galician
    • Portuguese - (SIL Code, POR; ISO 639-1 code, pt; ISO 639-2 code, por)
    • Galician - (SIL Code, GLN; ISO 639-1 code, gl; ISO 639-2 code, glg)
    • Fala - (SIL Code, FAX; ISO 639-2 code, roa)

. . . .East Iberian section

. . . .Oc section

  • Occitan (langue d'oc) - Six versions recognized; all are included in ISO 639-1 code, oc; ISO 639-2 code, oci) - all are from France

. . .Gallo-Romance sub-division
. . . .Gallo-Rhaetian section

  • Rhaetian
    • Friulian - (SIL Code, FRL; ISO 639-2 code, fur)
    • Ladin - (SIL Code, LLD; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Romansh - (SIL Code, RHE; ISO 639-1 code, rm; ISO 639-2 code, roh)
  • Langues d'Oïl
    • French (langue d'oïl)
      • Standard French - (SIL Code, FRN; ISO 639-1 code, fr; ISO 639-2(B) code, fre; ISO 639-2(T) code, fra)
      • Cajun French - (SIL Code, FRC; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
      • Picard - (SIL Code, PCD; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
      • Zarphatic - (SIL Code, ZRP; ISO 639-2 code, roa) - extinct
    • Franco-Provençal - (SIL Code, FRA; ISO 639-2 code, roa)

. . . .Gallo-Italian section

    • Emilio-Romagnolo - (SIL Code, EML; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Ligurian - (SIL Code, LIJ; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Lombard - (SIL Code, LMO; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Piemontese - (SIL Code, PMS; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Venetian - (SIL Code, VEC; ISO 639-2 code, roa)

. .Pyrenean-Mozarabic division

  • Pyrenean
    • Aragonese - (SIL Code, AXX; ISO 639-1 code, an;ISO 639-2 code, arg)
  • Mozarabic
    • Mozarabic - (SIL Code, MXI; ISO 639-2 code, roa) - Extinct for common speech

The Italo-Dalmatian sub-group

    • Italian - (SIL Code, ITN; ISO 639-1 code, it; ISO 639-2 code, ita)
    • Napoletano-Calabrese - (SIL Code, NPL; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Sicilian - (SIL Code, SCN; ISO 639-2 code, scn)
    • Judeo-Italian - (SIL Code, ITK; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
    • Dalmatian - (SIL Code, DLM; ISO 639-2 code, roa) - extinct in 19th century.
    • Istriot - (SIL Code, IST; ISO 639-2 code, roa)

The Eastern group

  • Romanian - (SIL Code, RUM; ISO 639-1 code, ro; ISO 639-2(B) code, rum; ISO 639-2(T) code, ron) - Includes Daco-Romanian.
    Also as Moldovan - (ISO 639-1 code, mo; ISO 639-2 code, mol)
  • Istro-Romanian - (SIL Code, RUO; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
  • Megleno-Romanian - (SIL Code, RUQ; ISO 639-2 code, roa)
  • Macedo-Romanian - (SIL Code, RUP; ISO 639-2 code, roa) - Includes Aromanian

See also

  Results from FactBites:
Reference.com/Encyclopedia/Romance languages (5794 words)
All Romance languages (sometimes referred to as Romanic) descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of soldiers, settlers and slaves of the Roman Empire, which was substantially different from the Classical Latin of the Roman literati.
Despite multiple influences from pre-Roman languages and from later invasions, the phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax of all Romance languages are predominantly derived from Vulgar Latin.
Diacritics common across Romance languages are the acute accent (á), the grave accent (à), the circumflex accent (â), the diaeresis mark (ü), the cedilla (ç), and the tilde (ñ).
  More results at FactBites »



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