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Romance Languages: What Makes Italian a Romance Language

The Italian language is part of the big Romance languages family. Romance, or (Neo-)Latin, languages developed directly from Latin and are natively spoken by more than a billion people around the world. Let’s discover a little bit of their long history and see what this family tree looks like.


Romance Languages

In terms of number of current native speakers, the main Romance languages are, in order, Spanish,Portuguese, French, Italian, and Rumanian. Spanish, Portuguese, and French are spoken well beyond their countries of origin and are also used internationally as trade and common languages. The name “Romance”comes from the Latin adverb romanice, when means “in Roman,” as opposed to “in Latin.” If this sounds confusing (it is, indeed!), just consider that roman was the equivalent of Vulgar/Vernacular Latin—the one used in everyday life—while the “high” Latin language was used in formal contexts and in writing.


Among the Romance languages, Italian is the most similar to Latin, while the most divergent is French. All Romance languages feature, of course, a number of differences from Latin. Romance languages (all of them but Rumanian) do not have cases, for instances, and they do not have the neutral gender (except for Rumanian again). That explains the rule you learned in one of your first Italian classes: all nouns fall into either feminine or masculine, even when they refer to things. However, there are also many resemblances between Latin and the Romance languages. Let’s take a very popular verb, “to love:” It was amare in Latin, it’s still amare in Italian, amar in Spanish and Portuguese, aimer in French … and a iubi in Rumanian! Yes, history, usage, dominations, colonialism … all of this, and much more, played a role in differentiating the “original” Romance languages from Latin itself and from each other. (It is worth noting that Rumanian also uses a amă for “to love,” but a iubi better conveys Romantic love.)


Italian, the Loyal Romance Language

Italian is natively spoken by around 67 million people—which is, basically, the population of Italy. Contrary to Spain, Portugal, and France, Italy never had a great colonial empire. The few territories that were annexed by Italy before WWII—Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia—were gone after the war and thus, Italian lost its status as their official language. Today, Italian is spoken in Italy, part of Switzerland, and in immigrants communities all around the world (mainly in the Americas and Australia), most often not as a native language.


As we’ve just seen, Italian is the most similar to Latin among its fellow Romance languages. But there’s actually one language that features even more resemblances: Sardinian, which is spoken in Sardinia, one of the two big Italian islands, as well as one of Italy’s twenty regions. Sticking to standard Italian, however, which is the language taught in Italian schools and the one virtually everyone learns outside Italy, its similarity to Latin is mostly lexical. Some Latin words—like amare, discussed above—are still commonly used in current Italian with no substantial variations; if you study Italian, the Latin words amicus and panem should need no translation. In some cases, the Latin word hasn’t changed, but its meaning did: casa meant “shack” in Latin and means “house” (as well as “home”) today. In other cases, the Latin word changed both form and meaning: The Italian donna (woman) comes from dŏmĭna, which translated “landlady, lady of the house.” It should be clear at this point that the relationship between Latin and Italian is a complicated one—and an open one. Italian also welcomed many terms from Greek—remember those odd masculine nouns ending with an -a, like il problema or il panorama? They come from Greek, together with many others, from tesi to analisi, antidoto, or the wonderful democrazia. Italian has always been—and still is today—very permeable to foreign words. French (in the past), and English (now) have widely enriched the Italian spoken today. So, given that we are not super partes and that de gustibus non disputandum est, maybe Italian’s openness and generosity explain why it is la lingua più bella del mondo!



By Claudia Quesito


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What’s In a Name? Why Spanish a Romance Language
5 months ago

[…] Romance Languages: What Makes Italian a Romance Language […]