Romance languages: what you need to know

The languages that directly derive from Vulgar Latin are the Romance languages, sometimes referred to as the Latin or Neo-Latin languages. Within the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family, they represent the only surviving subgroup.

The national languages of their respective countries of origin, Spanish (489 million), Portuguese (240 million), French (80 million), Italian (67 million), and Romanian (24 million) are the five most commonly spoken Romance languages when it comes to native speakers.


The fragmentation of Latin

The roots of the Romance languages trace back to Vulgar Latin, spoken by the people of the Roman Empire. As the empire crumbled, so did the uniformity of Latin, giving rise to diverse vernaculars.

Spoken varieties of Latin became increasingly isolated from one another during the decline of the Empire, especially after its fragmentation and the collapse of its Western half in the fifth and sixth centuries. The western dialects, particularly those of the Goths and Franks, were heavily influenced by Germanic culture, while the eastern dialects were influenced by Slavic culture.

The dialects quickly separated from classical Latin and finally developed into a range of distinctly distinct typologies. Around two-thirds of all speakers of Romance languages today reside outside of Europe thanks to the colonial empires that Portugal, Spain, and France founded from the 14th century onwards.


Geographic spread

Romance languages are not confined to the regions of their origin; they have traversed oceans and continents through colonization, migration, and cultural exchange.

Besides Spain, Spanish extends its influence across Latin America and parts of the United States. Portuguese, with its colonial legacy, resonates in Brazil and several African nations. French spans Europe, Canada, parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia. Italian’s cultural footprint is discernible globally, particularly in the realms of art, music, and cuisine. Romanian, while primarily spoken in Romania, reverberates in communities across Europe.


What characterises a Romance language?

Latin roots

The imprint of Latin is unmistakable in Romance languages. Vocabulary, grammar, and syntax retain vestiges of their ancestral language, creating a linguistic bridge to ancient Rome.

Grammatical gender

Romance languages often employ gendered nouns, a feature inherited from Latin. Understanding the gender of nouns is crucial for proper grammar and article usage.

Extensive verb conjugation

Verb conjugation is a hallmark of Romance languages. Verbs change their form based on the subject, creating a system of expressing actions, moods, and tenses.

Pronunciation variations

While sharing a common ancestry, Romance languages exhibit distinct pronunciation variations. Phonetic differences contribute to the diverse musicality and cadence of each language.

Mutual intelligibility

The Romance languages are linked by a chain of mutual intelligibility, allowing speakers of one language to decipher and understand related languages to varying degrees. Shared linguistic roots, cognates, and structural similarities form the basis for this comprehension.

This linguistic phenomenon enhances the learning experience for individuals familiar with one Romance language, offering a bridge to explore and appreciate the richness of other languages within the family.

A caveat

Mutual intelligibility may not be the same in both directions (for instance, Portuguese people understand Spanish people better than Spanish people understand Portuguese people).

This is because mutual intelligibility also depends on other factors, such as the listener’s level of exposure to the other language, their level of education and willingness to understand.

When this happens, it is called asymmetric intelligibility. It is an expression used by linguists to describe two languages that are mutually intelligible, but where one group finds it more difficult to grasp the language than the other.

Here is a useful table on this subject:

Romance language 1 Romance language 2 Degree of intelligibility
Italian Spanish partial
Portuguese Galician significant
Portuguese Italian partial
Spanish Portuguese moderate
Portuguese French moderate
Spanish French poor
Romanian others poor


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