Why are they Called Romance Languages?

You’ve probably noticed that I talk a lot about Romance languages here. These are languages largely derived from Latin. Currently there are five main Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian.

It’s interesting to compare these languages to English because they’re so widespread. They’re the native tongues of about 800 million people in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. It’s also often enlightening to compare them to English, because while English is predominantly a Germanic language, it’s still heavily influenced by Latin, and one can often find interesting similarities between English and Romance languages.

It often sounds strange to people the first time they hear the term Romance language, because nowadays when we think of romance, we tend to think of love. Knowing that the Romance languages are derived from Latin though, it’s probably not too hard to guess roughly how they got their names. Yes, Romance in this case is related to Roman. But how did we get from that to love?

As usual, once you see all the steps, it kind of makes sense. Romance is derived from the Vulgar Latin romanice (in Roman) to refer to the everyday, vernacular Latin spoken throughout the Roman Empire, as opposed to latine (in Latin), referring to Medieval Latin, the Latin of the upper classes, used in writing and more formal contexts.

In the medieval literature of Western Europe, serious writing was conducted in Latin, while more popular stories were written in vernacular languages. This led to the term romance being used to refer to such stories, often tales of adventure involving knights. And of course, such stories would often involve romance, in the modern sense that we recognise, eventually leading to romance meaning love affair, though this isn’t recorded until 1916. Romance was also long used to refer to novels in general, and the modern French word for novel is roman.

We can still see some of the older, general meaning of romance, when talk about someone having romanticising something, or having romantic notions about life. Whether these languages are romantic or not, is entirely up to you!

13 thoughts on “Why are they Called Romance Languages?

  1. In my younger days I (occasionally) had some very late nights and some very late mornings. Whatever time I woke up, I would eat my normal breakfast food of cereal and/or toast, so it was ‘breakfast’, even though the latest I remember was 2 pm. One day, though, I ate ‘lunch’ food, so it was ‘lunch’, even though it was, technically, ‘breakfast’.

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  2. […] And just as the term has nothing to do with Latin, it also has nothing to do with Romania, whose name is derived from the Latin romanus, meaning citizen of Rome. This is more than likely because the region that includes present-day Romania was a part of the Roman Empire, and the association with Rome stuck. And of course, Romanian is a Romance language. […]

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