For many people, ‘romance’ may trigger an image of two people strolling in Paris or Rome, speaking French or Italian, and gazing happily at each other. It is often assumed that certain languages acquired the attribute ‘romance’ because of their beautiful romantic sounds.
Not true! Historically, ‘romance’ means ‘of Rome.’ As the Roman Empire disintegrated, the Latin word romanticus (of Rome) came to be associated with the languages that developed from the Latin of ancient Rome.
By the time romanticus reached Old French, as romanz, it was being widely used to refer to stories in the local language, rather than in Latin. Since many of these tales told of brave knights and their chivalrous rescue of fair maidens, resulting inevitably in love, the words ‘romance’ and ‘romantic’ took on the meanings they now have, and the tales themselves were called ‘romances’.
Today, around 800 million people are native speakers of Romance languages, mainly in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The five most widely spoken Romance languages by number of native speakers are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.
Romance languages are the continuation of Vulgar Latin, the popular and colloquial version of Latin spoken by soldiers, settlers, and merchants of the Roman Empire. Here, the term ‘Vulgar’ merely means a language spoken by ordinary people during every-day interactions. For 500 years, from 350 BCE, the expansion of the Empire made Latin the dominant native language in many parts of Europe.
As the empire began to crumble, however, different regions developed their own cultures, as well as diversity in Vulgar Latin, resulting in the evolution of the languages we know today as Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian. Although each Romance language is unique, they do have a great deal in common as a result of their shared origin. Due to these similarities, learning one Romance language tends to make learning and understanding a second incredibly easy. In fact, the biggest problem most Romance language polyglots seem to have is keeping them separate.
It wouldn’t be unusual to hear a story about someone at a café eating gelato, listening to Enrique Iglesias, and having a déjà vu moment. But English itself is not a Romance language. Our expressive, complicated, frustrating language is Germanic.
All this kind of takes the moonlight and roses out of ‘romance language’, doesn’t it?