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Romance Languages: A Latin Love Story
Why do French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian have so many words in common? Read on to learn about the lingering effects of an ancient empire.
More than a millennium and a half has passed since the sack of Rome, but linguistically speaking, more than a few roads still lead to that ancient city. Romance languages are arguably the most diverse and widespread linguistic family, with more than 780 million native speakers spread across five continents. The “Big Five” of Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian, and their close relationship is quite clear. Take the word for “beautiful,” for example: belle in French, bella in both Italian and Spanish, bela in Portuguese. Or “to sing”—chanter in French, cantar in Spanish, and cântare in Romanian. And if you notice a passing resemblance to such English words as “chant” or “canticle,” it’s no coincidence. Thanks to the Norman invasion, English bears an indirect link to Latin, like how kids might call their neighbor “Uncle” just because he crashed the family barbecue.
But how did the language spread so far and wide? The Roman Empire was vast, of course, but it isn’t every conqueror that can impose their language so easily. The answer might lie in the outlier of Latin’s surviving family members: Romania. Romania is the only Eastern European nation to speak a Romance language—Russian, for example, is Slavic—and its roots date back to about 106 AD. Around that time, the soldier-emperor Trajan absorbed Romania, known then as Dacia. Many of the soldiers in the Roman army were already of Dacian origin, and many of those who were of Roman origin married Dacian women—making for a uniquely fluid merge of the region’s cultures. Moreover, in many cases, the Romans made certain to respect the existing traditions of conquered lands—and new subjects in turn were more amenable to Roman customs, such as adopting elements of Latin and wearing leaves behind their ears.