20 What have the Romans ever done for us?



Or should I go with the more scholarly title: How is Romanian related to Portuguese?

Continuing the mini-series of European languages and where they came from, let’s take a look at the languages that derive from Latin, often referred to as Romance languages.

When John Cleese’s character in The Life of Brian asked the question it was supposed to be rhetorical, but the long list of Roman accomplishments that every essay-writing schoolchild tries to remember is missing an important one: the whole family of Latinate languages.



In his excellent book Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, Gaston Dorren compares the Roman Empire with an earthenware pitcher. One piece of pottery: functional, classically beautiful… and in one piece. It is a metaphorical image of how the great area surrounding all sides of the Mediterranean from Babylonia in the east to Portugal in the west was controlled by Rome in every way: politically, militarily, culturally and, yes, linguistically. Latin was the one official language spoken throughout the Empire. Rome’s decline can be viewed as the pitcher shattering, and each broken shard represents a different state, newly liberated from their imperial overlords.



This is not the time to go into how and why some countries reverted to their pre-Roman dialects, or adopted the language of new conquerors; what we’ll look at here is the group of individual areas that did retain Latin as their lingua franca, and how they evolved over the years.

Moving forward in time the best part of two millennia and the remarkable thing is not how different they have become from each other but how there are still so many similarities. We British my find the received pronunciation of 1950s BBC announcers quaint, but perfectly understandable. Within a century the regional dialects of a single sovereign state, united by a common cultural and TV networks, can change markedly. Go back to Chaucer’s England less than a thousand years ago and a modern Brit would struggle to understand anything at all.

The languages of the former Roman colonies, no longer united by the centre of political gravity, started to morph when left to their own devices and local influences. For a long while, no doubt, people speaking their own versions of Vulgar Latin could understand each other quite easily, and even nowadays Spaniards and Italians can hold a basically comprehensible conversation, but all of the countries we are referring to have their own definite languages, not merely dialects, and certainly much more than mere accents.

Most of us could probably name the ‘main’ Latinate languages:

Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romansh (Switzerland) and Romanian.

This, however, neglects the long list of other languages which get overlooked because they are not currently recognised as official languages of nation states:

Apulian, Aragonese, Aromanian, Asturian, Cantabrian, Catalan, Corsican…

…and this only takes us up to C in the dictionary!

Knowledge of one Romance Language is usually a great head-start when attempting to learn another. But beware! - ¡Ojo! - Fais gaffe! - Attento! If you over-rely on the original one that you have learnt, you will reach a frustrating conversational limit fairly quickly. At that point, you might consider signing up to second SameSky language course – the next one at a 50% discount.


Andrew Wenger, Founder and lead teacher of SameSky Languages, since 2015

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