The French language is the engine behind the brilliance of French culture that has been the benchmark of Western civilization for centuries. Many people find its words soothing to the ear and have romantic associations with it. Not surprisingly, the French language is categorized as a Romance language. But what exactly is a Romance language? Let’s take a closer look.
Romance Languages Yesterday and Today
The Romance languages are a small branch of the Indo-European language family and have deep roots in Western Europe.
After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire and subsequent political fragmentation, Vulgar Latin evolved into dozens of languages that over time became the Romance languages.
Starting in the fifteenth century, a handful of European countries colonized vast stretches of the globe. While the majority of their former colonial territories are now independent, the languages of colonial heritage remain.
Today, Romance languages are spoken in Europe, the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia for a total of 800 million native speakers worldwide.
The most widely used are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian, each with many millions of native speakers. However, according to Ethnologue, there are 44 Romance languages.
Some of the lesser known Romance languages include Asturian, Istriot, Gascon and Romansh, and one has become extinct, Dalmatian.
What’s In a Name?
The Romance languages got their name from the languages that Western Europeans wrote their romantic stories in.
During the Middle Ages, formal communications were written in Latin, but popular stories, called “romances” since they often had to do with love, were recorded in the local people’s native languages – the precursors to what we call the Romance languages today.
With their common roots in Vulgar Latin, the Romance languages share many linguistic features. Here are four of the most prominent ones.
First, nouns in Romance languages have a grammatical gender. For example, “the table” is feminine in both French (la table) and Spanish (la mesa), while “the book” is masculine in French (le livre) and Spanish (el libro).
Second, they all use definite articles (the) and indefinite articles (a, an) to talk about nouns. Definite articles are used to refer to something specific, while indefinite articles refer to something in a general way.
Third, verb forms change according to the person(s) speaking, the tense (e.g. past, present, future) and the mood (e.g. indicative, subjunctive, conditional). As an example, let’s consider the verb hablamos in Spanish. This is an indicative verb for the subject “we” and can be used in the past or the present, meaning “we speak” as well as “we spoke.”
Fourth, word order in Romance languages dictates that the subject come first, the verb next and the object last, like in the sentence: “I ate the apple.”
Experts in Romance Languages
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