Romance languages: the truth behind the name

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Romance languages. If the term conjures up images of couples walking hand in hand through the streets of Paris, whispering sweet nothings to each other in French, you’re not alone.

Many people believe Romance languages are related to their romantic connotations. After all, major Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian are always showing up at the top of those sexiest accents lists. 

But we’re sorry to say, Romance languages have nothing to do with love. Keep reading to find out what are the Romance languages, where they come from and why they’re great languages to learn. And of course, if they don’t have the ability to make us swoon, we’ll explain exactly why they are called Romance languages.

What are the Romance languages?

Romance languages are a branch of Indo-European languages that trace their roots to Latin. Combined, there are over a billion people around the world who speak Romance languages.

The major languages include Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, Provençal, and Romansh (an official language of Switzerland). While these languages may have phonetic differences, they have a lot of similarities in vocabulary and grammatical forms.

These similarities explain why speakers of Spanish and Italian can often understand each other without ever learning the other language. 


Where do Romance languages come from? 

The term Romance derives from the historical origins of these languages in the Roman empire. Romanice meant to speak ‘in Roman’, which eventually became Romance. So that’s why we still refer to any language with roots in Latin as a Romance language with a capital R.

That being said, a recent study found that French is the most romantic language according to men, while women prefer Italian. Who knows, maybe their catalogue of more than 250 Italian hand gestures has something to do with it?

How did the Romance languages develop throughout Europe?

In the time of the Roman empire, the Romans spoke an informal version of written Latin called Vulgar Latin. And no, vulgar has nothing to do with swearing like a sailor, it simply means the common language spoken by ordinary people. As the empire spread and conquered new territories throughout Europe, so too did that language. 

This spoken Latin eventually mixed with the local language, forming dialects that differed from village to village. The further it spread from Rome, the more it changed. While many of these regional dialects have since died out, across Europe you will still find many regional dialects spoken alongside the standard variety taught in schools.

After the fall of the empire, these languages changed even further, until they became recognised languages.

Colonisation and empire-building later took these languages even further afield to South America, Africa and Asia, where they morphed again into regional dialects.

Okay, so have you got a Romance languages list handy?

A list of romance languages usually begins with the major five: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. They are considered the most important because they are all official national languages. Combined, these five languages account for over 90% of all Romance language speakers.

However, the full list of Romance languages is actually much longer with a total of 44 languages. Linguists include the following lesser known languages within the Romance language family, with Sardinian considered the closest to Latin:

  1. Aromanian (Greece) 
  2. Romanian (Romania) 
  3. Istro (Croatia) 
  4. Megleno (Greece) 
  5. Italo-Dalmatian,
  6. Istriot (Croatia) 
  7. Italian (Italy) 
  8. Judeo-Italian (Italy) 
  9. Napoletano-Calabrese (Italy)
  10. Sicilian (Italy)  
  11. Emiliano-Romagnolo (Italy) 
  12. Ligurian (Italy) 
  13. Lombard (Italy) 
  14. Piemontese (Italy) 
  15. Romangnol (Italy)
  16. Venetian (Italy) 
  17. French (France)
  18. French, Cajun (US)
  19. Guernésiais (Guernsey)
  20. Picard (France)
  21. Walloon (Belgium)
  22. Arpitan (France)
  23. Friulian (Italy)
  24. Ladin (Italy)
  25. Romansch (Switzerland) 
  26. Catalan (Spain)
  27. Occitan (France)
  28. Shuadit (France)
  29. Asturian (Spain) 
  30. Mirandese (Portugal) 
  31. Extremaduran (Spain) 
  32. Ladino (Israel)
  33. Spanish (Spain)
  34. Spanish, Charapa (Peru)
  35. Fala (Spain) 
  36. Galician (Spain) 
  37. Minderico (Portugal)
  38. Portuguese (Portugal)
  39. Aragonese (Spain)
  40. Corsican (France) 
  41. Sardinian Campidanese (Italy) 
  42. Sardinian Gallurese (Italy) 
  43. Sardinian Logudorese (Italy)
  44. Sardinian, Sassarese (Italy)

Is English a Romance language?

Even though English has adopted many words from Latin (as you’ll see in the table below) it is not officially a Romance language. In fact, English is categorised as a Germanic language, in the same category as German, Yiddish, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Fun fact: trivia, prior, delete and horrible are all Latin-derived words used in the English language, but which have died out in Romance languages.

Which Romance language should I learn? 

Lucky for you – Romance languages are also some of the easiest languages to learn. Spanish has been rated the easiest thanks to its simple spelling, pronunciation and grammar. Plus, with 21 countries listing Spanish as their official language, it’s also a very practical choice for travellers.

Fun fact: Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world in terms of native speakers.

French is also another popular option. While the French accent may take a little longer to master, the language itself is relatively straightforward. The most important phrases – you know, the ones that ensure you never go hungry – won’t take too long to pick up. “Un croissant s’il vous plaît” is a good place to start.

Even better, once you learn a Romance language, you will find it much easier to pick up another further down the track. Just take a look at this table, to see just how similar Romance languages are to one another.

ENGLISHLATINFRENCHSPANISHITALIANPORTUGUESE
Februaryfebruariusfévrierfebrerofebbraiofevereiro
mountainmonsmontagnemontañamontagnamontanha
magicmagicaemagiemagiamagiamágico
valuevaloremvaleurvalorvalorevalor
sunsolissoleilsolsolesol

Here at Busuu, the language-learning app with over 100 million learners, we can’t promise we’ll turn you into a casanova, but we can help you master the Romance language of your choice. 


Start learning a Romance language today 

With the four most widely spoken Romance languages – Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese – available on Busuu, try learning one with us today.


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