❝Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all❞ - Walt Whitman, American poet, essayist, journalist and humanist.

From the Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Europe has seen many local dialects, regional idioms and national language, emerge, thrive, die or live on until today. The incredible number of vernacular that appeared and more often than not disappeared, was caused by massive migration patterns, many successive conflicts and assimilation of entire people within another culture. Europe, as we know it today, is the fruition of thousands of years of evolution during which many different tribes and ethnic groups (sometimes originally far from Europe), coexisted or struggled with each other. Their legacy gave birth to our modern languages. Latin which was initially only spoken by the people of the Latium, in central Italy, was forced on other people by the Roman Empire. Take Latin lessons here.

Map of the Roman Empire in 117AD
The Roman Empire under Trajan in 117AD was at its greatest size and power.
From the standard form of Latin, which was the official language of the Empire, two distinct dialects emerged, classical Latin which was spoken by the civil servants of the Roman institutions and vulgar Latin spoken by the common people. When the Roman Empire fell, the lingua latina, did its best to survive and often took over the local dialects. In many provinces of the former Empire, vulgar Latin merged with the local idioms and eventually formed the early forms of Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, ...). The term "romance language" commonly refers to any of the languages descendants or derived, directly or indirectly from the Latin language. The extent of the territories that were under the dominium of the Roman Empire is so wide that linguists have to separate romance languages into two different categories: the eastern Romance languages and the western Romance languages. English, in which 30% of all nouns, verbs and adjective are inherited from Latin, isn't a romance language. After the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Old English mainly took after the Germanic languages that the invaders spoke. But as more than 1 billion people speak a language that was inherited from Latin, is it fair to consider Latin as a dead language? Superprof will briefly introduce you to languages that came from Latin.

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Latin, ancestor of the Italian languages

Roman theatre in Italy.
The Roman theatre of Volterra still stands today in Italy (by EROV65)
Latin, the vehicular language of the Roman Empire, was born in the Latium, a region in central Italy. The Roman civilisation rose thanks to its incredible capacity to learn and imitate the technics and knowledge originating from other regions in the Italian peninsula, notably from the Etruscans. When the Romans imposed Latin as the universal language of the Empire, many italic languages were still spoken in Italy: Oscan, Umbrian, Volscian, Marsian, Sabine, South Picene and more. The dominium of the Roman Empire generated a Latinisation of the Italian peninsula and many of those dialects stopped being used while other survived. The Italian language belongs to the Italo-Dalmatian language family which also includes Sardinian, Tuscan, Venetian, Istian, Calabrese, Sicilian and Corsican. All of the Italic languages have roots in Greek (Greeks had many colonies in Italy), but most of their origins come from Latin. Many of the dialects mentioned above still survive today and are classified as Romance Language. While the official language of Italy was only set when the country unified in 1861, many other Italian dialects have a consequent number of native speakers.
LanguageNative speakersDialects of the language
Central Italian5,700,000Romanesco, Sabino, Marchigiano
Neapolitan3,000,000Abruzzese, Cosentino, Bari
Sicilian4,700,000Salentino, Souther Calabrian
The North of Italy was mainly influenced by French and Spanish languages when the South of Italy mainly took after Romance languages and is closely linked to Romanian. This duality amongst Italian languages can be used to trace a border between the Western and Eastern Romance languages. That border even has a name, the Spezia-Rimini line. Historians can link this link and the separation of Eastern and Western Romance language to the Gaulish invasion in Northen Italy between 500BC and 300BC. That line separates Cisalpine Gaul (in the North part of Tuscany) from the rest of Italy until the Roman conquered the valley of the Po River. North of that line are the Western Italic dialects such as Venetian, Lombard or Ligurian while South of the line are the Eastern Italic dialects such as Tuscan (the standard Italian), Neapolitan or Sicilian. North and West of that line, consonants of Latin words were removed while in the South they were kept intact. For example, the word fire, focum in Latin became fuoco in standard Italian, foc in Romanian, fuego in Spanish or feu in French. The Eastern Romance languages are closer to the original Latin once spoken all over Europe. Why should anyone learn Latin today?

The Main Western Romance Languages

The 3 main Romance languages that survived in Western Europe are the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese languages.


Gaul was invaded and conquered by Julius Caesar, (100-44BC). Consequently, the French language, like any of the other Romance languages, evolved from Latin while assimilating words from the Gaulish, Frankish or Germanic languages. Even though the French language was standardised as soon as the 16th century, two major romance dialects coexisted in France. The Oïl language in the North, the Oc language in the South and the Franco-Provencal language in the Southeast of France, North of Italy and in Switzerland. Many French words, some of which made their way to English, have a Latin locution and phonemes dating from the Antic Rome. Check out some online Latin course here on Superprof.

The Roman arenas of Paris.
In Paris, France, only a few Roman constructions survived 2000 years of urban development. The Roman arena is one of them and it is a popular picnic spot for Parisians.
The oïl language includes many dialects (Berrichon, Bourguignon, Morvandiau, Champenois or Campanois, Franc-Comtois, French, Lorrain, Norman, Picard, Poitevin and Saintongeais, Walloon, Angevin, Manceau, Mayennais) many of which are almost dead and only have a handful of native speakers. The Occitan language includes other idioms originating from Latin and mostly spoken in the Southern Tier of France, the region once called Occitanie. It includes:

  • Gascon: includes the Béarnese and Aranese (spoken in Spain).
  • Languedocien (lengadocian)
  • Limousin (lemosin)
  • Auvergnat (auvernhat)
  • Provençal (provençau or prouvençau), including the Niçard subdialect.
    • Shuadit language
  • Vivaro-Alpine (vivaroaupenc), also known as "Alpine" or "Alpine Provençal", and sometimes considered a subdialect of Provençal

The Occitan language is the most spoken regional language in France and still counted around 800,000 native speakers in 2012. Other regional languages still spoken in France include Breton and Alsatian but neither are Latin since the former is of Celtic origin while the later is of Germanic origin. Have you ever wondered what the origins of the Latin language are?

Spanish and Portuguese

The Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Romans in 228BC. There, vulgar Latin that emerged after the Roman colonisation gave way to many other dialects:

  • Castillan
  • Catalan
  • Andalusian
  • Extremaduran
  • Murcian
  • Aragonese
  • Galician
  • Portuguese

Roman aqueduc in Spain.
Romans left many buildings all over Europe including this amazing aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. ( by kadege59).
After the fall of the Empire, the Iberian territories were conquered by Berber soldiers coming from North Africa. From the 8th century up until the Treaty of Grenada which was signed in 1491, the Iberian peninsula was home to a large population of Umayyads and Arabs. Castillan (the official language of Spain) was greatly influenced by 700 years of cohabitation with Arabic languages. Catalan, which is spoken in Catalonia (region of Barcelona) is derived from the French Occitan language and is often easier for French-speaking people to understand. In Portugal and Spain, the Latinisation process was fairly swift according to historians. The huge number of soldiers and civil servant that the Roman Empire dispatched to the newly conquered territories of Iberia seem to have been the main factor for this. Latin easily took over the local dialects and the indigenous population, generation after generation, slowly forgot their native languages (Celtic, Iberian, Leonese, Cantabrian, Vascones). Some dialects successfully survived to the Roman Empire. The Basque language still is spoken today in both France and Spain in the region of the Pyrenees is not part of the Romance language since its grammar doesn't come from Latin. Scholars are still trying to figure out where this language came from.

❝One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.❞ - Frank Smith, psycholinguist

 The Eastern Romance Languages

The Eastern part of the Romance languages includes four languages derived from Latin which are spoken in Romania and Moldavia:

  • the Daco-Romanian
  • the Istro-Romanian
  • the Aromanian
  • the Megleno-Romanians

According to linguistic rules, Latin vocabulary incorporated in the Albanian and Greek languages is also to be considered an Eastern Romance language. These four languages originate from the Romanian dialects that were spoken before the rule of the Roman Empire on the regions north of the Jirecek line, which delimits the area of influence of the Romans until the 4th century AD. These regions included the current countries of Romania, Moldavia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.

Because Latin in the mother of all Romance languages, to learn Latin will greatly help you in learning any of Indo-European languages.

According to certain theories, the presence of Roman forces in Romania explains why the country kept speaking a Latin-derived language when all its neighbour use Slavic dialects. What is uncertain is where the Romanian language first appears and more exactly on which side of the Danube River, in Dacia, Macedonia, Moldavia, or south of the Danube. Linguists are still searching for an answer. Romanians use the Latin alphabet and the Romanian language shares with Latin many similarities in phonemes, phonology and grammatical rules. 71% of all Romanian nouns, verbs and adjectives come directly or not from Latin which explains why Italian and Romanian are very close languages.


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