What are Romance Languages and Where Are They Spoken?
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What are Romance Languages and Where Are They Spoken?

Melanie Smith
Melanie Smith

If you’re wondering which languages are Romance languages, what defines them, and how many Romance languages there are in the world, then we’ve got the answers for you.

The Romance languages can all trace their roots back to the ‘vulgar ’Latin spoken by the ancient Roman (hence their name) soldiers that carried the language into the countries that they invaded and subsequently occupied.

Over time, each of these dialects evolved to become distinct tongues, while retaining strong traces of their shared heritage: they share a significant amount of vocabulary and grammatical forms.

This means that Romance languages are not so called due to their beautiful, elegant nature, but as a result of their Roman ancestry. Slightly disappointing, but hey-ho.

Ancient Romans Signs Background with Imperator Statue Conqueror Colosseum Old Europe Map
Ancient Rome ghosts most widespread languages today

This leads us onto the next natural question, which is: what are the five Romance languages? They are Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Other dialects feature on the romance languages list, but these five are considered to be the main ones.

What is the Oldest Romance Language?

It’s extremely difficult to ascertain with any certainty which of the five main Romance languages is the oldest; given that they all originated from vulgar Latin, their subsequent development is intertwined, and the Romance languages tree’s branches are hard to untangle.

Italian and Romanian (a romance language spoken in east Europe) are commonly suggested as being the most likely candidates, although the oldest manuscript written in a Romance language discovered to date is the Los Cartularios de Valpuesta, written in a primitive form of Spanish in 804 AD.

Which Language is Closest to English?

If you’re wondering ‘is English a Romance language?’ - no, its credentials on this score are poor! The closest languages to English are Frissian, Dutch, and Danish.

The Romance language definition is a language that derives from Latin - usually vulgar Latin. While the English language has certainly been influenced by Latin, and has borrowed many of its linguistic markers, it principally evolved from Anglo-Saxon dialects that came to Britain from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in the fifth to seventh centuries AD, from migrants traveling from those countries.

The Norse language was also a major influence on the evolving English language; this arrived on British shores courtesy of frequent Viking invasions from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Some Old Norse fragments of vocabulary still remain.

Scots is, arguably, the closest language to English. But this is problematic, as Scots is usually considered to be a dialect, rather than a language in its own right. Both English and Scots have their roots in Old English, and Scots was the main language of Scotland until the eighteenth century. It remains very much a spoken language today.

Why Are Romance Languages So Beautiful?

The Romance languages are widely considered to be distinctly beautiful due to their melodic, musical quality, their ‘smoothness,’ and soft intonations. They also link to cultural associations about elegance, sensuality, and passion.

Linguists also have suggested that these languages appeal to English speakers because of the way in which they contain consonant clusters and sound combinations that are familiar to the English speaking ear - which is different from, for example, Chinese, which uses tonal distinctions in a way not present in European languages.

A couple admiring Rome's night landscape
Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

The Romance languages are often considered the best dialects in which to express love and affection; their musicality and harmonious quality lend themselves perfectly to the murmurings of sweet nothings! Let’s have a look at the specific romantic qualities of each of the big five below:

Spanish - the longer vowels and softer consonants of Spanish make this language sound soft and sensual. Its conjugations also have a rhythmic quality, and it's considered the ideal language in which to write poetry and music.

French - the structure and patterns of consonants and vowels in French make it sound smooth and flowing. Its pronunciation also adds to its musical credentials.

Italian - lilting and rhythmic, to many people speaking the Italian language sounds like singing. It’s often considered to be the most romantic language in the world.

Portuguese - it’s the dramatic and expressive intonation that marks this language out as romantic. Portuguese’s drawn out vowels emphasize its musicality and allure.

Romanian - Romanian is distinct from the other four main Romantic languages due to the strong Slavic influence in the tongue; it’s considered to be musical, passionate and beautifully unique sounding.

What is the Most Difficult Romance Language to Learn?

Romanian is widely considered to be the trickiest of the Romance languages to learn, due to the challenge that mastering its grammar poses. French and Spanish are sometimes cited as being difficult, too.

Some of the aspects that make Romanian hard to learn are its grammatical foibles: the form of nouns are prone to change depending on their relationship to the verb. This is common in languages like Polish and Russian, but isn’t seen in the other Romance languages.

Regional variations can also add complexity for the learner: in some parts of the country the local dialect will incorporate Hungarian words, while in others Slavic influences will be very evident.

Romance languages are considered romantic - show your love with this hand gesture of a heart sign
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

On the other hand, there are many factors in the Romanian language’s favor, when it comes to ease of learning. Firstly, the language is highly phonetic, making it comparatively simple to write and read. Its Latin heritage also means that it shares many similarities, when it comes to vocabulary, with other languages.

Spanish, French, and Portuguese are currently all popular languages to learn. When considering whether to learn a new language, and deciding which one to study, it’s common to wonder is Spanish easier than French?

Spanish is usually considered to be easier to become fluent in than French. This is due to the greater consistency of prepositions and gender, and the fact that Spanish doesn’t have complex partitive articles, as French does. The highly phonetic pronunciation of words in Spanish is also generally easier for students to master, making speaking the language less likely to cause difficulties.

Looking at Spanish vs English can also help prospective learners get a better idea of why Spanish is a comparatively easier language to master: Spanish has five vowel sounds to English’s fourteen! The highly formulaic and predictable nature of the linguistic rules of Spanish help, too.

Portuguese is increasingly gaining popularity as an option to study as a second language, although many people hesitate, wondering, ‘is Portuguese hard to learn?’ The rules of grammar in Portuguese, however, follow, broadly, the same rules as the English language; this means that, structurally, the language follows a familiar logic, making it somewhat easier to learn.

What’s Next?

If you’re carefully weighing up which of the five Romance languages to learn, then it can be helpful to think about your motive for this study.

If it’s to travel, then a decision will be easy, and can be based on the language that will be the most useful to you during your time away.

If you’re trying to decide which, learnt as a second language, would offer the most benefits in terms of employability, then this may take a little more research. Have a look at job specifications for relevant roles in the industry you’re considering, and see how often a specific second language pops up in the ‘desirable section’ to help you make a choice.