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The Romance languages, a major branch of the Indo-European language family, comprise all languages that descended from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The Romance languages have more than 600 million native speakers worldwide, mainly in the Americas, Europe, and Africa, as well as in many smaller regions scattered through the world.

All Romance languages (sometimes referred to as Romanic) descend from Vulgar Latin (more appropriately, Popular Latin), the language of soldiers, settlers and slaves of the Roman Empire, which was substantially different from the Classical Latin of the Roman literati. Between 200 BCE and 100 CE, the expansion of the Empire, coupled with administrative and educational policies of Rome, made Latin the dominant native language over a wide area spanning from the Iberian Peninsula to the Western coast of the Black Sea. All languages are constantly changing, and during the Empire's decline and after its collapse and fragmentation in the 5th Century, evolution of Latin within each local area accelerated, and eventually diverged into a myriad of distinct languages, many of which survive today in their modern forms. The overseas empires established by Spain, Portugal and France from the 15th century onward then spread Romance languages to the other continents—to such an extent that about two-thirds of all Romance speakers today live outside Europe.

Despite multiple influences from pre-Roman languages and from later invasions, the phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax of all Romance languages are predominantly evolutions of Latin. As a result, the group shares a number of linguistic features that set it apart from other Indo-European branches. In particular, with only one or two exceptions, Romance languages have lost the declension system of Classical Latin and, as a result, have SVO sentence structure and make extensive use of prepositions.


Vulgar Latin

Main article: Vulgar Latin

There is very little documentary evidence about the nature of Vulgar Latin, and it is often hard to interpret or generalise based upon what evidence does exist. In any case, many of its speakers were soldiers, slaves, displaced peoples and forced resettlers—that is, more likely to be natives of the conquered lands than natives of Rome. It is believed that Vulgar Latin already had most of the features that are shared by all Romance languages, which distinguishes them from Classical Latin—such as the almost complete loss of the Latin declension system and its replacement by prepositions, the loss of the neuter gender, of comparative inflections, and of many verbal tenses, the use of articles, and the initial stages of change in pronunciation of /k/ and /ɡ/ before front vowels /i/, /ɛ//e/.

The Romance language family (simplified) - click to enlarge

Fall of the Empire

The political decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the large-scale migrations of the period, notably the Germanic incursions, led to a fragmentation of the Latin-speaking world into several independent states. Central Europe and the Balkans were occupied by Germanic and Slavic tribes, Huns, and Turks, isolating Romania from the rest of Latin Europe. Latin also disappeared from England, which had been for a time part of the Empire. On the other hand, the Germanic tribes that had entered Italy, France, and the Iberian Peninsula eventually adopted Latin and the remains of Roman culture, and thus Latin continued to be the dominant language in those areas.

Latent incubation

See also: Medieval Latin

Between the fifth and tenth centuries, spoken Vulgar Latin underwent divergent evolution in various parts of its domain, leading to innumerable distinct languages. This evolution is poorly documented, as the written language for all purposes continued to be a Latin close to the Classical variant.

Recognition of the vernaculars

Between the 10th and 13th centuries, some local vernaculars came to be written and began to supplant Latin in many of its roles. In some countries, such as Portugal, this transition was expedited by force of law, whereas in other countries, such as Italy, the rise of the vernacular was the result of many prominent poets and writers adopting it as their medium.

Uniformization and standardization

The invention of the press apparently slowed down the evolution of Romance languages from the 16th century on, and brought instead a tendency towards greater uniformity of standard(ized) languages within political boundaries, at the expense of other Romance languages less favored politically. In France, for instance, the Francien spoken in the region of Paris gradually spread to the entire country, while the Langue d'oc and Franco-Provençal of the south lost much ground.

History of the name

The term "Romance" comes from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, derived from romanicus, as used in the expression romanice loqui ("to speak the Roman vernacular", contrasted with barbarice loqui, "to speak the non-Latin (barbarian) languages of the invaders", and latine loqui, "to speak the Latin taught in schools")[1]. From this adverb originated the noun romance, which applied initially to anything written romanice, "in the Roman vernacular".

Incidentally, the word romance, meaning "love story" or "love affair," has the same origin. In the medieval literature of Western Europe, while serious writing was usually in Latin, popular tales, often focusing on love, were composed in the vernacular and came to be called "romances".


The most widely spoken Romance language is Spanish, followed by Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and Catalan. All but Catalan are main and official national languages in more than one country each. A few other languages have official status on a regional or otherwise limited level, for instance Friulian, Sardinian and Valdôtain in Italy; Romansh in Switzerland; Galician, Occitan Aranese and Catalan in Spain (the latter which is also the only official language in the small sovereign state of Andorra). Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian are also official languages of the European Union and the Latin Union; French and Spanish are two of the six official languages of the United Nations.

The remaining Romance languages survive mostly as spoken languages for informal contact. National governments have historically viewed linguistic diversity as an economic, administrative or military liability, as well a potential source of separatist movements; therefore, they have generally fought to eliminate it—by extensively promoting the use of the official language, by restricting the use of the "other" languages in the media, by characterizing them as mere "dialects"—or worse.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, increased sensitivity to the rights of minorities have allowed some of these languages to recover some of their prestige and lost rights. Yet, it is unclear whether these political changes will be enough to reverse the minority languages' decline.

Linguistic features

Features inherited from Indo-European

As members of the Indo-European (IE) family, Romance languages have a number of features that are shared by other IE subfamilies (such as the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Indo-Persian languages, Albanian, Armenian, Greek, Lithuanian, etc.), and in particular with English; but which set them apart from non-IE languages like Arabic, Basque, Hungarian, Tamil, and many more. These features include:

  • Almost all their words are classified into four major classes — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — each with a specific set of possible syntactic roles.
  • They have a complex system of word inflections to indicate syntactic relationships between words and to create derivative words in the same or in other classes.
  • Inflection almost always consists in replacing a suffix of the word, and each word has relatively small set of "suffix slots".
  • They are verb-centered; meaning that the basic clause structure consists of a verb, expressing an action involving one or more nouns — the arguments of the verb — that play specific semantic roles in the action and specific syntactic roles in the clause.
  • The verb is inflected to indicate various aspects of the action, such as time, completeness or continuation; and also according to the grammatical person and grammatical number of one of the arguments, the subject.
  • The verb can be further modified by adverbs, or by additional nouns preceded by prepositions that indicate their semantic roles.
  • Nouns are classified into several grammatical genders and grammatical numbers.
  • Adjectives are noun modifiers; each adjective is normally inflected so as to echo the gender and number of the noun it is attached to.
  • Verbs are usually not inflected according to the gender of the subject (unlike Arabic and Hebrew, for example).
  • Tone (voice pitch) is used only at the sentence level, e.g. to indicate surprise or interrogation (unlike Chinese and Yorùbá, for example, where pitch changes the meaning of words).

Features inherited from Classical Latin

The Romance languages share a number of features that were inherited from Classical Latin, and collectively set them apart from most other Indo-European languages.

  • In most languages, personal pronouns have different forms according to their grammatical function in a sentence (a remnant of the Latin case system); there is usually a form for the subject (inherited from the Latin nominative) another for the object (from the accusative or the dative), and a third set of personal pronouns used after prepositions or in stressed positions. Third person pronouns often have different forms for the direct object (accusative), the indirect object (dative), and the reflexive.
  • They all have retained at least three of Latin's verbal tenses: present, preterite, and past imperfect:
"he says"/
"he is saying"
"he said"/
"he has said"
Past Imperfect:
"he was saying"/
"he used to say"
Latin dīcit dīxit dicēbat
French il dit il a dit il disait
Piedmontese a dis a l'ha dit a disìa
Spanish dice dijo decía
Italian dice disse diceva
Portuguese diz disse dizia
Romanian zice zise zicea
  • For each tense, there are usually six distinct verbal inflections, encoding each of the three persons (I, you, he/she/it) and two numbers (singular and plural) of the subject.
  • At least one form of the subjunctive mood remains in use (often two, the present and the imperfect), and it is clearly distinguishable from the indicative mood.
  • There is a special imperative form for the second person.
  • Most of them are null-subject languages. French is one notable exception.
  • They have lost the dual number, retaining only singular and plural.
  • Italian and Sardinian have kept the phonological opposition between simple and long consonants, although it was lost in all other languages in the group. Sicilian, Neapolitan and Jèrriais have gemination.
  • All those languages are written with the "core" Latin alphabet of 22 letters — A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Y, Z — subsequently modified and augmented in various ways.
  • In particular, the letters K and W are rarely used in most Romance languages — mostly for unassimilated foreign names and words, as they were in late Latin.

Features inherited from Vulgar Latin

Romance languages also have a number of features that are not shared with Classical Latin. Most of these features are thought to be inherited from Vulgar Latin. Even though the Romance languages are all derived from Latin, they are arguably much closer to each other than to their common ancestor, due to a core of common developments. The main difference is the loss of the case system of Classical Latin, an essential feature which allowed great freedom of word order, and has no counterpart in any Romance language (except to some extent in Romanian, which preserved three of Latin's seven noun cases). In this regard, the distance between any modern Romance language and Latin is comparable to that between Modern English and Old English. While speakers of French, Spanish or Italian, for example, can quickly learn to see through the phonological changes reflected in spelling differences, and thus recognize many Latin words, they will often fail to understand the meaning of Latin sentences.

  • The distinction between long and short vowels, believed to have been present in Classical Latin, was lost and replaced by a system of lexical stress, where one vowel of each word is pronounced slightly louder, or in a higher pitch, than the rest. (An exception is Friulian.)
  • The Latin letters C and G — which usually stand for [k] and [ɡ] — represent other sounds when they come before E and I. (See below.)
  • There are definite and indefinite articles, derived from Latin demonstratives and the numeral unus ("one").
  • There are only two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. The neuter gender of Latin has been lost (mostly merging with the masculine). (Exceptions: Romanian, which retains neuter gender; Spanish, which has the neuter third person pronoun ello, the neuter demonstratives eso, esto, aquello, and the neuter article lo, all used for objects or some abstract notions; and Italian, which while not keeping the neuter gender intact, has residual traces of it represented by some words that switch gender between singular and plural, such as il dito (the finger), plural le dita, inherited from Latin digitum, plural digita).
  • There are no cases, that is, noun and adjectives are no longer altered to indicate their grammatical function. (An exception is Romanian, which retains a combined genitive/dative case. Also, Old French and Old Occitan retained an oblique case.)
  • Adjectives generally follow the noun they modify.
  • The normal clause structure is SVO, rather than SOV, and is much less flexible than in Latin.
  • They all had originally two copular verbs, derived from the Latin stare (mostly used for "temporary state") and esse (mostly used for "essential attributes"). However, the distinction was eventually lost in some languages, notably French, which now have only the first copula. In French, stare and esse had become ester and estre by the late middle ages. Due to phonological development, there were the forms êter and être, which eventually merged to être. In Italian, the two verbs share the same past participle, stato. See also Romance copula.
  • Most Latin synthetic perfect tenses and all synthetic passive voice tenses were lost, generally replaced by new compound forms with "to be" or "to have" + past participle.
  • The Latin future tense was replaced by new synthetic future, based on infinitive + present tense of habēre ("to have"), fused to form new inflections.
  • A new conditional form (distinct from the subjunctive) was created, by fusing the imperfect tense (in Italian, the perfect tense) of habēre to the infinitive.
  • Many Latin combining prefixes were incorporated in the lexicon as new roots and verb stems, e.g. Italian estrarre ("to extract") from Latin ex- ("out") and trahere ("to drag").
  • Many Latin constructions involving nominalized verbal forms (e.g. the use of accusative plus infinitive in indirect discourse and the use of the ablative absolute) were dropped in favor of constructions with subordinate clauses in all Romance languages except Italian (for example, Latin tempore permittente > Italian tempo permettendo; L. hoc facto > I. fatto ciò).

Other shared features

The Romance languages also share a number of features that were not the result of common inheritance, but rather of various cultural diffusion processes in the Middle Ages — such as literary diffusion, commercial and military interactions, political domination, influence of the Catholic Church, and (especially in later times) conscious attempts to "purify" the languages by reference to Classical Latin. Some of those features have in fact spread to other non-Romance (and even non-Indo-European) languages, chiefly in Europe. Here are some of these "late origin" shared features:

  • Most Romance languages have polite forms of address that change the person and/or number of 2nd person subjects (T-V distinction), such as the tu/vous contrast in French, the (or vos)/usted in Spanish, the tu/Lei contrast in Italian or the tu/dumneavoastră (from dominus + vostre) contrast in Romanian.
  • They all have a large collection of prefixes, stems, and suffixes retained or reintroduced from Greek and Latin, used to coin new words. Most of those have cognates in English, e.g. "tele-", "poly-", "meta-", "pseudo-", "dis-", "ex-", "post-", "-scope", "-logy", "-tion".
  • During the Renaissance, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and a few other Romance languages developed a new, progressive aspect that did not exist in Latin. In French, progressive constructions remain very limited, the imperfect aspect generally being preferred, as in Latin.

Divergent features

In spite of their common origin, the descendants of Vulgar Latin have many differences. These occur at all levels, including the sound systems, the orthography, the nominal, verbal, and adjectival inflections, the auxiliary verbs and the semantics of verbal tenses, the function words, the rules for subordinate clauses, and, especially, in their vocabularies. While most of those differences are clearly due to independent development after the breakup of the Roman Empire (including invasions and cultural exchanges), one must also consider the influence of prior languages in territories of Latin Europe that fell under Roman rule, and possible inhomogeneities in Vulgar Latin itself.

It is often said that Portuguese and French are the most innovative of the Romance languages, each in different ways, that Sardinian and Romanian are the most isolated and conservative variants, and that the languages of Italy other than Sardinian (including Italian) occupy a middle ground. Some even claim that Languedocian Occitan is the "most average" western Romance language. However, these evaluations are largely subjective, as they depend on how much weight one assigns to specific features. In fact all Romance languages, including Sardinian and Romanian, are all vastly different from their common ancestor.

Romanian (together with other related minor languages, like Aromanian) in fact has a number of grammatical features which are unique within Romance, but are shared with other non-Romance languages of the Balkans, such as Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Serbian. These features include, for example, the structure of the vestigial case system, the placement of articles as suffixes of the nouns (cer = "sky", cerul= "the sky"), and several more. This phenomenon, called the Balkan linguistic union, may be due to contacts between those languages in post-Roman times.

Sound changes

The vocabularies of Romance languages have undergone massive change since their birth, by various phonological processes that were characteristic of each language. Those changes applied more or less systematically to all words, but were often conditioned by the sound context or morphological structure.

Some languages have lost sounds from the original Latin words. French, in particular, has dropped all final vowels, and sometimes also the preceding consonant: thus Latin lupus and luna became Italian lupo and luna but French loup [lu] and lune [lyn]. Catalan, Occitan, many Northern Italian dialects, and Romanian (Daco-Romanian) lost the final vowels in most masculine nouns and adjectives, but retained them in the feminine. Other languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Franco-Provençal, and the Southern dialects of Romanian have retained those vowels.

Some languages, like Portuguese, Spanish, and Venetian, have lost the final vowel -e from verbal infinitives, e.g. dīcere → Portuguese dizer ("to say"). Other common cases of final truncation are the verbal endings, eg. Latin amāt → Italian ama ("he loves"), amābamamavo ("I loved"), amābatamava ("he loved"), amābatisamavate ("I loved you"), etc.

Sounds have often been lost in the middle of the word, too; e.g. Latin luna → Galician and Portuguese lua, crēdere → Spanish creer ("to believe").

On the other hand, some languages have inserted many epenthetic vowels in certain contexts. For instance Spanish and Portuguese have generally inserted an e in front of Latin words that began with S + consonant, such as sperōespero ("I hope"). French has gone the same way, but then dropped the s: spatulaépaule ("shoulder"). In the case of Italian, a unique article, lo for the definite and uno for the indefinite, is used for masculine S + consonant words (sbaglio, "mistake"), as well as all masculine words beginning with Z (zaino, "backpack").

For more detailed descriptions, see the following articles:

  • History of French
  • From Latin to Portuguese
  • Latin to Romanian sound changes
  • Linguistic history of Spanish

Lexical stress

The position of the stressed syllable in a word generally varies from word to word in each Romance language, and often moves as the word is inflected. Sometimes the stress is lexically significant, e.g. Italian Papa [ˈ] ("Pope") and papà [pa.ˈpa] ("daddy"), or Spanish imperfect subjunctive cantara ("he would sing") and future cantará ("he will sing"). However, the main function of Romance stress in appears to be a clue for speech segmentation — namely to help the listener identify the word boundaries in normal speech, where inter-word spaces are usually absent.

In Romance languages, the stress is usually confined to one of the last three syllables of the word. That limit may be occasionally exceeded by some verbs with attached clitics, e.g. Italian mettiamocene [me.ˈtːʧ]or Metintilu in Friulian ("let's put some of it in there") or Spanish entregándomelo [en.tre.ɣ] ("delivering it to me"). Originally the stress was predominantly in the penultimate syllable, but that pattern has changed considerably in some languages. In French, for instance, the loss of final vowels has left the stress almost exclusively on the last syllable.

Formation of plurals

Main article: Romance 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/).

  • Vowel change: Italian, Romanian.
  • Plural in /s/: Portuguese, Galician, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, Sardinian, Friulian.
  • Special case of French: Falls into the second group historically (and orthographically), but the final -s is no longer pronounced (except in liaison contexts), meaning that singular and plural nouns are usually homophonous in isolation. Many determiners have a distinct plural formed by changing the vowel and allowing /z/ in liaison.

Borrowed words

This section is a stub. You can help by adding to it. Vulgar Latin has borrowed many words, often from Germanic languages that replaced words from Classical Latin during the Migration Period, even including common basic vocabulary. Notable examples is *blancus, (white) that replaced Classical Latin albus in most major languages and dialects except for Romanian, *guerra (war) that replaced bellum, and words for the cardinal directions, where words similar to English north, south, east and west replaced the Classical Latin words borealis (or septentrionalis) (north), australis (or meridionalis) (south), occidentalis (west) and orientalis (east) everywhere (for standard usage). See History of 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/, Friulian plui dialectal Catalan pus /pus/ (this word is exclusively used on negative statements in Mallorcan Catalan), Romansh
  • Magis-derived: Galician and Portuguese (mais; mediaeval Galician-Portuguese retained both words: mais and chus), Spanish (más), Catalan (més), Venetian (massa or masa, "too much") Occitan (mai), Romanian (mai), Italian (mai, used in constructions such as non... mai, meaning "never", or "Londra è la più grande città che io abbia mai visto" "London is the biggest city I have ever seen").

Words for "nothing"

The common word for "nothing" is nada in Spanish and Portuguese, nada and ren in Galician, rien in French, res in Catalan, ren in Occitan, nimic in Romanian, and niente and nulla in Italian, nue and nuie in Friulian. It is said that all three roots derive from different parts of a Latin phrase nullam rem natam ("no thing born"), an emphatic idiom for "nothing".

The number 16

Romanian constructs the names of the numbers 11–19 by a regular pattern which could be translated as "one-over-ten", "two-over-ten", etc.. All the other Romance languages use a pattern like "one-ten", "two-ten", etc. for 11–15, and the pattern "ten-and-seven, "ten-and-eight", "ten-and-nine" for 17–19. For 16, however, they split into two groups: some use "six-ten", some use "ten-and-six":

  • "Sixteen": Catalan setze, French seize, Italian sedici, Friulian sedis, Lombard sedas / sedes, Franco-Provençal sèze, Occitan setze, Sardinian sédichi.
  • "Ten and six": Portuguese dezasseis or dezesseis, Galician dezaseis, Spanish dieciséis, marchigiano dialect digissei.
  • "Six over ten": Romanian şaisprezece (where spre derives from Latin super).

Classical Latin uses the "one-and-ten" pattern for 11–17 (ūndecim, duodecim, ..., septendecim), but then switches to "two-off-twenty" (duodēvigintī) and "one-off-twenty" (ūndēvigintī). For the sake of comparison, note that English and German use two special words derived from "one left over" and "two left over" for 11 and 12, then the pattern "three-ten", "four-ten", ..., "nine-ten" for 13–19.

To have and to hold

The verbs derived from Latin habēre "to have", tenēre "to hold", and esse "to be" are used differently in the various Romance languages, to express possession, to construct perfect tenses, and to make existential statements ("there is"). If we use T for tenēre, H for habēre, and E for esse, we have the following distribution:

  • HHE: Romanian, Italian
  • HHH: Occitan, French.
  • THH: Spanish, Catalan.
  • TTH: Portuguese, Galician.

For example:

English: I have, I have done, there is
Friulian: (jo) o ai, (jo) o ai fat, a 'nd è, al è (HHE)
Lombard (Western): (mi) a gh-u, (mi) a u fai, al gh'è, a gh'è (HHE)
Romanian: (eu) am, (eu) am făcut, este (or e) (HHE)
Italian: (io) ho, (io) ho fatto, c'è (HHE)
French: j'ai, j'ai fait, il y a (HHH)
Catalan: (jo) tinc, (jo) he fet, hi ha (THH)
Spanish: (yo) tengo, (yo) he hecho, hay (THH)
Portuguese: (eu) tenho, (eu) tenho feito, (TTH)

Galician-Portuguese used to employ the auxiliary H for permanent states, such as Eu hei um nome "I have a name" (i.e. for all my life), and T for non-permanent states Eu tenho um livro "I have a book" (i.e. perhaps not so tomorrow). Informal Brazilian Portuguese uses the T verb even in the existential sense, e.g. Tem água no copo "There is water in the glass". In most languages, the descendant of tenēre still has the sense of "to hold", as well, e.g. Italian tieni il libro, French tu tiens le livre, Catalan tens el llibre, Romanian ţine cartea, Friulian Tu tu tegnis il libri "You're holding the book". In others, like Portuguese, this sense has been mostly lost, and a different verb is currently used for "to hold".

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: Standard Catalan, Spanish, Romanian, Sicilian.
  • "Have" and "be": Occitan, French, Italian, some dialects of Catalan (although such usage is recessing in those).

In the latter, the verbs which use "be" as an auxiliary are unaccusative verbs, that is, intransitive verbs that show motion not directly initiated by the subject or changes of state, such as "fall", "come", "become". All other verbs (intransitive unergative verbs and all transitive verbs) use "have". For example, in French, J'ai vu "I have seen" vs. Je suis tombé "I am fallen" ("I have fallen"). A similar dichotomy exists in the Germanic languages, which share the same Sprachbund; German uses "have" and "be", while English uses "have" only.

I did or I have done

Some languages (e.g. Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and written French and Italian) make a distinction between a preterite and a perfect tense (cf. English I did vs. I have done). Others (spoken French, Italian, and Spanish) contain only one tense, which renders both meanings. French, Italian, and European Spanish use the compound past for this, while Sicilian and Latin American Spanish use the simple past.

Portuguese is unique in that its equivalent of the passé composé — made with the auxiliary ter (Spanish tener) is uncommon and does not have the same meaning as for other Romance languages. The phrase eu tenho feito is closer in meaning to I have been doing than to I have done, which would be rendered with the simple past eu fiz (although the meaning of the compound tense overlaps with "I have done" in some contexts). Galician is also unique in that it does not use auxiliary verbs in perfect tenses, except a similar use of Portuguese ter (never haver).

Writing systems

Main article: Latin Alphabet

Letter values

While most of the 22 basic Latin Letters have similar sound values in all Romance languages, the values of some letters have diverged considerably; and the new letters added since the Middle Ages have been put to different uses in different scripts. Some letters, notably H and Q, have been variously combined in digraphs or trigraphs (see below) to represent phonetic phenomena not recorded in Latin, or to get around previously established spelling conventions.

A characteristic feature of the writing systems of all Romance languages is that the Latin letters C and G — which originally always represented /k/ and /g/ respectively — represent other sounds when they come before E, I, and in some cases Y and Œ. This is due to a general palatalization of /k/ and /ɡ/ before front vowels like /i/ and /e/. This is believed to have occurred in the transition from Classical to Vulgar Latin. Since the written form of all the affected words was tied to the classical language, the shift was accommodated by a change in the pronunciation rules. However, the new sounds of C and G in those contexts differ from language to language.

The spelling rules of most Romance languages are fairly complex, and subject to considerable regional variation. To a first approximation, the phonetic representation of non-combined letters can be summarized as follows:

C: generally [k], but "softened" before E, I, or Y in most Romance languages — to [s] in French, Portuguese, Occitan, Catalan, and American Spanish; to [θ] in Peninsular Spanish; and to [ʧ] in Italian and Romanian.
G: generally [ɡ] or [ɣ], but "softened" before E, I, or Y in most languages — to [ʒ] in French, Portuguese, Occitan and Catalan; to [x] or [h] in Spanish (according to dialect); and to [ʤ] in Italian and Romanian.
H: silent in most languages, but represents [h] in Romanian and Gascon Occitan. Used in various digraphs (see below).
J: represents [ʒ] in most languages; [x] or [h] in Spanish; [j] in several of Italy's languages, though it is normally replaced with I in native Italian words.
S: normally represents [s] (either laminal or apical) at syllable onset, but usually [z] between vowels. Intervocalic s is, however, pronounced [s] in Spanish, Romanian, and several varieties of Italian. In the syllable coda, it may have special allophonic pronunciations.
W: used only in Walloon. Represents [v] in French, with the exception of words borrowed from English.
X: at the beginning of words, represents [ks] (in some words [ɡz]) in French, [s] or [ks] in Spanish, and [ʃ] in Portuguese, Catalan, and Galician. In intervocalic position, represents [ks] in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian; [ɡz] in Catalan, French, and Romanian; [ɡs] in Galician and Spanish; [ʃ] in Catalan, Galician and Portuguese; [z] in French and Portuguese; or [s] in French and Portuguese. Not used in Italian (except in borrowings), where it is replaced by s.
Y: used in French and Spanish for the vowel [i], and also as a consonant, [j] (esp. in French), [ʝ], [ʒ] or [ʤ].
Z: [z] in most languages; either [θ] or [s] in Galician and Spanish; either [ʣ] or [ʦ] in Italian.

Otherwise, letters that are not combined as digraphs generally have the same sounds as in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), whose design was, in fact, greatly influenced by the Romance spelling systems.

Digraphs and trigraphs

Since most Romance languages have more sounds than can be accommodated in the Roman Latin alphabet they all resort to the use of digraphs and trigraphs — combinations of two or three letters with a single sound value. The concept (but not the actual combinations) derives from Classical Latin; which used, for example, TH, PH, and CH when transliterating the Greek letters "θ", "ϕ" (later "φ"), and "χ" (These were once aspirated sounds in Greek before changing to corresponding fricatives and the <H> represented what sounded to the Romans like an /ʰ/ following /t/, /p/, and /k/ respectively. Some of the digraphs used in modern scripts are:

CI: used in Italian and Romanian to represent /ʧ/ before A, O, or U.
CH: used in Italian, Romanian and Sardinian to represent /k/ before E or I; /ʧ/ in Spanish and Galician; and /ʃ/ in most other languages.
ÇH: used in Poitevin-Saintongeais for voiceless palatal fricative /ç/
DD: used in Sicilian and Sardinian to represent the voiced retroflex plosive /ɖ/.
DJ: used in Walloon for /ʤ/.
GI: used in Italian and Romanian to represent /ʤ/ before A, O, or U.
GH: used in Italian, Romanian and Sardinian to represent /ɡ/ before E or I, and in Galician for the voiceless pharyngeal fricative /ħ/ (not standard sound).
GLI: used in Italian for /ʎ/.
GN: used in French and Italian for /ɲ/, as in champignon or gnocchi.
GU: used before E or I to represent /ɡ/ or /ɣ/ in all Romance languages except Italian and Romanian.
LH: used in Portuguese, reintegrationist Galician and Occitan for /ʎ/.
LL: used in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Norman and Dgèrnésiais, originally for /ʎ/ which has merged with /j/. Represents /l/ in French unless it follows I (i) when it represents /j/ (or /ʎ/ in some dialects).
ĿL: used in Catalan for a long /lː/.
NH: used in Portuguese, reintegrationist Galician and Occitan for /ɲ/, used in (official) Galician for /ŋ/ (in reintegrationist Galician MH is used for this sound, or less frequently ũ since it only occurs in the indefinite article and its derivates).
NY: used in Catalan for /ɲ/.
QU: represents [kw] in Italian; [k] in French and Spanish; [k] (before e or i) or [kw] (normally before a or o) in Portuguese and Catalan.
RR: used between vowels in several languages to denote a trilled /r/ or a guttural R, instead of the flap /ɾ/.
SC: used before E or I in Italian for /ʃ/, and in French and Spanish as as /s/ in words of certain etymology.
SCI: used in Italian to represent /ʃ/ before A, O, or U.
SH: used in Aranese Catalan for /ʃ/.
SS: used in French, Portuguese, Occitan and Catalan for /s/ between vowels.
TH: used in Jèrriais for /θ/ (as in English "thick"); used in Aranese for either /t/ or /ʧ/

While the digraphs CH, PH, RH and TH were at one time used in many words of Greek origin, most languages have now replaced them with C/QU, F, R and T. Only French has kept these etymological spellings, which now represent /k/ or /ʃ/, /f/, /ʀ/ and /t/, respectively.


For most languages in this family, consonant length is no longer phonemically distinctive or present. The double consonants in French spelling are due to etymology. However, Italian, Sardinian and Sicilian do have long consonants like BB, CC, DD, etc., where the doubling indicates a short hold before the consonant is released, which often has lexical value: e.g. note /ˈnɔ.te/ ("notes") vs. notte /ˈnɔt.te/ ("night"). They may even occur at the beginning of words in Romanesco, Neapolitan and Sicilian, and are occasionally written, e.g. Sicilian cchiù (more), and ccà (here). In general, the letters B, R and Z are long at the start of a word. In Jèrriais, long consonants are marked with an apostrophe: S'S is a long /z/, SS'S is a long /s/, and T'T is a long /t/. In Catalan, there exists a geminate /lː/ sound written ŀl, but it is usually pronounced as a simple sound in colloquial (and even some formal) speech.

Diacritics and special characters

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 (ã). French spelling includes the etymological ligatures œ and (more rarely) æ. Romanian has a few diacritics of its own.

An accent mark placed over a vowel generally denotes stress, height, or both. In Spanish, only stress is indicated, with an acute accent. Romanian â/î and ă are central vowels; stress is not marked in this language. Catalan regularly marks stress with an acute accent on high vowels, and with a grave accent on low vowels. Similarly, French é is a high-mid vowel and French è is a low-mid vowel, although in French stress is not indicated with diacritics. Italian marks stress with the grave accent, except on high e and o, which are sometimes marked with an acute accent. Portuguese marks stress with the acute accent, except for high a, e, o, which take a circumflex accent.

Homophones may be differentiated by a grave accent in Italian and French, by an acute accent in Spanish.

Upper and lower case

Most languages are written with a mixture of two distinct but phonetically identical variants or "cases" of the alphabet: majuscule ("uppercase" or "capital letters"), derived from Roman stone-carved letter shapes, and minuscule ("lowercase"), derived from Carolingian writing and Medieval quill pen handwriting which were later adapted by printers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In particular, all Romance languages presently capitalize (use uppercase for the first letter of) the following words: the first word of each complete sentence, most words in names of people, places, and organizations, and most words in titles of books. Text in all upper case is used for emphasis and is generally interpreted as shouting. The Romance languages do not follow the German practice of capitalizing all nouns including common ones. Unlike English, the names of months (except in European Portuguese), days of the weeks, and derivatives of proper nouns are not capitalized: thus, in Italian one capitalizes Francia ("France") and Francesco ("Francis"), but not francese ("French") or francescano ("Franciscan"). However, each language has some exceptions to this general rule.

Vocabulary comparison

The table below provides a vocabulary comparison that illustrates a number of examples of sound shifts that have occurred between Latin and the main Romance languages, along with a selection of minority languages.

English Latin Catalan French Italian Norman Jèrriais Lombard (literary Milanese) Occitan (Languedocien) Portuguese Romanian Sardinian Sicilian Spanish
Apple [Mattiana] Mala (Pomum, fruit) Poma Pomme Mela / Pomo Poumme Pomm Poma Maçã Măr Mela Pumu Manzana
Arm Bracchium Braç Bras Braccio Bras Brasc Braç Braço Braţ Bratzu Vrazzu Brazo
Arrow Sagitta (Frankish fleuka) Fletxa / Sageta Flèche Freccia / Saetta Èrchelle Frecia Sageta Seta / Flecha Săgeată Fretza Fileccia Flecha / Saeta
Bed Lectus (Camba, for sleeping) Llit Lit Letto Liet Lecc Lièch Leito / Cama Pat [2] Lettu Lettu Cama / Lecho
Black Nigrum Negre Noir Nero Nièr Negher Negre Preto [3] / Negro Negru Nieddu / Nigru Nìuru Negro
Book Liber (acc. Librum) Llibre Livre Libro Livre Liber Libre Livro Carte [4] Libru / Lìburu Libbru Libro
Breast Pectus Pit Poitrine Petto Estonma Peito Piept Pettus Pettu Pecho
Cat Feles (Cattus[5]) Gat Chat Gatto Cat Gatt Cat Gato Pisică [6] Gattu / Battu Gattu / Jattu Gato
Chair Sella (Greek Cathedra, seat) Cadira Chaise Sedia Tchaîse Cadrega Cadièira Cadeira Scaun [7] Cadira / Cadrea Seggia Silla
Cold Frigus (adj. Frigidus) Fred Froid Freddo Fraid Fregg Freg Frio Frig Fridu Friddu Frío
Cow Vacca Vaca Vache Mucca [8] / Vacca Vaque Vaca Vaca Vaca Vacă Bacca Vacca Vaca
Day Dies (adj. Diurnus) Dia / Jorn Jour Giorno Jour Jorn Dia Zi Die Jornu Día
Dead Mortuus Mort Mort Morto Mort Mort Mort Morto Mort Mortu / Mottu Mortu Muerto
Die Morior Morir Mourir Morire Mouothi Morì Morir Morrer (a) Muri Morrer Muriri / Mòriri Morir
Family Familia Família Famille Famiglia/Familia Famil'ye Familia Familha Família Familie Famìlia Famigghia / Famiggia Familia
Finger Digitus Dit Doigt Dito Dii Det Dedo Deget Didu Jìditu Dedo
Flower Flos (acc. Florem) Flor Fleur Fiore Flieur Fiôr Flor Flor Floare Frore Ciuri Flor
Give Dono, -are
Donar Donner Dare Donner / Bailli Donar Dar (a) Da Dare / Donare Dari / Dunari Dar
Go Eo, -ire (Ambulare, to take a walk) Anar Aller Andare Aller Ndà Anar Ir / Andar (a) Merge [9], (a) Umbla [10] Andare Jiri Ir
Gold Aurum Or Or Oro Or Or Aur Ouro Aur Oru Oru Oro
Hand Manus Main Mano Main Man Man Mão Mână Manu Manu Mano
High Altus Alt Haut Alto Haut Olt Aut Alto [11] Înalt Artu / Attu Autu Alto
House Domus (Casa, hut) Casa Maison [12] Casa Maîson Casa Casa Casă Domo Casa Casa
I Ego Jo Je Io Mi Ieu Eu Eu Iu / Jù / Jò Yo
Ink Atramentum (Tincta, dyeing) Tinta Encre Inchiostro Encre Nciòster Tencha Tinta Cerneală [13] Tinta Inga Tinta
January Ianuarius Gener Janvier Gennaio Janvyi Ginée / Genar Genièr Janeiro Ianuarie Ghennarzu / Bennarzu Jinnaru Enero
Juice Sucus Suc Jus Succo Jus Sugh Suc Suco / Sumo Suc Sutzu Sucu Jugo / Zumo
Key Clavis (acc. Clavem) Clau Clé Chiave Clié Ciav Clau Chave Cheie Crae Chiavi / Ciavi Llave
Man Homo (acc. Hominem) Home Homme Uomo Houmme Omm Òme Homem[14] Om Òmine Omu / Òminu Hombre
Moon Luna Lluna Lune Luna Leune Luna Luna Lua Lună Luna Luna Luna
English Latin Catalan French Italian Norman Jèrriais Lombard (literary Milanese) Occitan (Languedocien) Portuguese Romanian Sardinian Sicilian Spanish
Night Nox (acc. Noctem) Nit Nuit Notte Niet Nocc Nuèch Noite Noapte Notte Notti Noche
Old Senex (Vetus, things mainly) Vell Vieux [15] Vecchio Vyi Vegg Vièlh Velho [16] Vechi [17] / Bătrân [18] Betzu / Sèneghe / Vedústus[19] Vecchiu / Vecciu Viejo
One Unus Un Un Uno Ieune Vun Un Um Unu Unu Unu Un / Uno
Pear Pirum Pera Poire Pera Paithe Pera Pera Pêra Pară Pira Piru Pera
Play Ludo (Jocare, to joke) Jugar Jouer Giocare Jouer Giogà Jogar Jogar (a se) Juca Zogare Jucari Jugar
Ring Anelus Anell Anneau Anello Anné / Bague Anèl Anell Anel Inel Aneddu Anneddu Anillo
River Flumen (Rivus, small river) Riu Fleuve Fiume Riviéthe Riu Rio [20] Râu [21]/ Rîu [22] Riu / Frùmine Ciumi Río
Sew Consuo Cosir Coudre Cucire Couôtre Cusì Cóser Coser (a) Coase Cosire Cùsiri Coser
Snow Nix (acc. Nivem) Neu Neige Neve Nev Nèu Neve Nea / Zăpadă [23] Nie Nivi Nieve
Take Capio (Prehendere, to catch) Agafar Prendre Prendere Prendre Ciapà Préner Tomar[24] / Colher [25] / Levar[26] (a) Lua Pigare [27] Pigghiari Tomar / Coger / Llevar
That Ille (Accu+Ille) Aquell Quel Quello Chu Quell Aquel Aquele Acel/Acela Cuddu / Cussu Chiddu Aquél
The - (nom.Ille/Illa/Illud,
lé/la el/la
sos/sas (is) [28]
lu/la (u/a)
Throw Iacio (Lanceo, -are, to throw a weapon) Llençar Lancer Lanciare Pitchi Trà [29] Lançar Lançar / Atirar [30] (a) Arunca [31] Ghettare/Bettare Jittari Lanzar / Echar
Thursday dies Jovis Dijous Jeudi Giovedì Jeudi Gioedì Dijòus Quinta-feira [32] Joi Zobia Jovi / Juvidìa Jueves
Tree Arbor Arbre Arbre Albero Bouais Pianta [33] Arbre Árvore Arbore / Pom [34]/ Copac [35] Àrvore Àrvuru Árbol
Two Duo Dos/Dues Deux Due Deux Duu / Doo Dos Dois / Duas Doi Duos / Duas Dui Dos
Urn Urna Urna Urne Urna Vas Urna Urnă Urna Urna Urna
Voice Vox (acc. Vocem) Veu Voix Voce Vouaix Vôs Votz Voz Voce / Glas[36] Boghe Vuci Voz
Where Ubi (in-) / Unde (from-) / Quo (to-) On Dove Ioù / Où'est Ndoe Ont Onde[37] Unde Ue Unni Donde[38]
White Albus (Germ. Blank[39]) Blanc Blanc Bianco Blianc Bianch Blanc Branco / Alvo Alb Àbru Jancu Blanco
Who nom. Quis/Quæ, acc. Quem/Quam Qui Qui Chi Tchi Chi Quau Quem Cine Chie Cui / Cu Quien
World Mundus Món Monde Mondo Monde Mond Mond Mundo Lume [40] Mundu Munnu Mundo
Yellow Flavus (also meaning reddish), Galbus Groc Jaune Giallo Jaune Giald Jaune Amarelo [41] Galben [42] Grogu Giarnu Amarillo
English Latin Catalan French Italian Norman Jèrriais Lombard (literary Milanese) Occitan (Languedocien) Portuguese Romanian Sardinian Sicilian Spanish
  1. Ilari, Rodolfo (2002). Lingüística Românica, 50, Ática. ISBN 85-08-04250-7.
  2. (<Greek πάτος)
  3. (<appectoratu)
  4. (<carta)
  5. (unknown origin)
  6. (onomatopoeic)
  7. (<scamnum)
  8. (from either muggire ("to moo") or, more likely, mungere ("to milk"))
  9. ( <mergere)
  10. (<ambulare)
  11. (arch. Outo)
  12. (<mansio)
  13. (from Slavic, *črъniti)
  14. arch. Home
  15. (<vetulus)
  16. arch. also vedro
  17. (objects, temporal)
  18. (people, <veteranus)
  19. (<vetustus)
  20. arch. also Frume
  21. (according to the 1993 orthographic rules)
  22. (according to the 1953 orthographic rules)
  23. (from Slavic, *zapadati)
  24. (unknown origin)
  25. (<colligere)
  26. (<levare)
  27. (<captiare)
  28. (<Ipsu/Ipsa)
  29. (<trahere)
  30. (<adtirare)
  31. (<eruncare)
  32. (<Quinta Feria)
  33. (<planta)
  34. from poamă, fruit (<poma)
  35. (<substratum)
  36. (from Slavic, *gols)
  37. arch. also U
  38. <De + onde; arch. also Onde
  39. Germanic origin
  40. (<lumen)
  41. (<amarellus)
  42. (<galbinus)

List of languages

Main article: List of Romance languages

The classification of Romance languages is inherently difficult, since most of the linguistic area is a continuum. The Romance languages include 47 (SIL estimate) languages and dialects spoken in Europe; this language group is a part of the Italic language family.

Proposed subfamilies

Here are the main subfamiles that have been proposed within the various classification schemes for Romance languages:

  • Italo-Western, the largest group
  • Eastern Romance, which includes the languages of Eastern Europe, such as Romanian
  • Southern Romance, which includes a few languages of southern Italy, such as Sardinian

Pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages

There are some languages that developed from a mixture of two established Romance languages. It is not always clear whether they should be classified as pidgins, creole languages, or mixed languages.

Constructed languages

Latin and the Romance languages also give rise to numerous constructed languages: international auxiliary languages (such as Interlingua, its reformed version Modern Latin, Latino sine flexione, Occidental, Lingua Franca Nova, and Esperanto), and languages created for artistic purposes only (such as Brithenig and Wenedyk).

See also

  • Vulgar Latin
  • Latin Union
  • Latin Europe
  • Latin America
  • Interlingua
  • Romance copula
  • Subjunctive
  • Linguistic history of Spanish

External links

Template:Romance languages Template:Latin Europe

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