Amor. Amour. Amore. They mean the same thing — love. But only a few world languages get to be called “Romance languages.” So, are these dialects better suited for wooing a lover? Or is there something else going on here?
What Is a Romance Language?
Today, almost a billion people around the world speak a Romance language. The most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. Spanish is the most used, followed by Portuguese and French.
Many other languages and dialects, including Sicilian and Haitian Creole, would fit under the umbrella of a Romance language. However, because this is such a complicated topic, there are linguists who debate which languages and dialects should belong under the heading of Romance language.
How Are Romance Languages Defined?
For the major world languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian, this question is pretty easy to answer. These systems of communication came from the language of the Roman Empire, which was Latin — specifically Vulgar Latin. That doesn’t mean the Latin dialect was filled with naughty words, just that the general public spoke it. It was the “vernacular,” as opposed to Classical Latin, which was formal.
In the first century CE, the Roman Empire controlled the areas that would become modern-day Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and Romania. It was standard practice for the Romans to move in and introduce the Roman way of life wherever they went. This included the language, and those who wanted to survive and thrive during the Roman occupation needed to adopt it quickly.
Even after the last Roman emperor fell in the fifth century, Latin remained in use as the language of the church. Local communities continued to hear Latin, but they drifted apart and developed their own linguistic variations and distinctions.
Today, modern Romance languages are similar, though distinct. Take the opening example of “amor,” “amour,” and “amore.” They’re all recognizably similar, with slight variations. For language learners, fluency in one Romance language makes it easier to learn another Romance language.
Are They Really More Romantic?
Dinner with a view of the Eiffel Tower or sipping lattes next to a canal in Venice might be the height of romance, but French and Italian aren’t called “Romance languages” because they sound swoon-worthy. The word “romance” means “in the Roman style.”
As far as the love-related definition, in fifth-century France, love ballads told “in the Roman style” were popular. Later, these tales grew in fame to become stories like the Arthurian legends. Eventually, the term “romance” came to apply to these daring love stories, as well as the languages they originated from.
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