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All In The (Language) Family

Romance Languages Share Many Similarities

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By examining the passage of Latin to Italian as a straight line, we neglect a broader picture of the linguistic changes taking place at that time. As Latin was developing into numerous Italian dialects from which Florentine was selected to be the national language, changes were taking place in other regions of what was once the Roman Empire. New linguistic entities were evolving into languages which today are separate and distinct from Italian. Or are they? What do we really know about the languages we call "romance"?

Most people are aware of the five most widely-spoken languages within the Romance category: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and of course, Italian. The term "romance language" is derived from the Latin expression romanice loqui (to speak in the Roman fashion). Each was shaped by outside influences. German, Gaelic, and Arabic among others, added separately to the vocabulary and grammar of each Romance language.

As with Italian, these alterations took place over hundreds of years, a continuous process from the end of the Roman Empire through to today. Yet despite the centuries of separate development, Romance languages are strikingly similar. It is quite possible for native speakers of Spanish and Italian to hold a conversation in their respective languages and understand one another. For example, in Italian the phrase "The book is here" translates to "Il libro sta qui," while the Spanish version of the same sentence is "El libro está aquí." With this small phrase as an sample, it's easy to see that the terms language and dialect are not always strict indicators of how closely related two linguistic entities are; two different Romance languages are similar enough for two speakers to communicate with little difficulty while native speakers of Italian would not be able to converse freely with one another in their respective dialects.

In addition, while those who speak Romance languages can understand one another relatively easily, native speakers of English can comprehend some words in Romance languages as well. If you didn't know any Italian and someone said the word "problema," it would be relatively simple to guess the meaning: "problem." These two words, as we saw in Italian Semantics: What Does It Mean?, are cognates; Italian and English share numerous cognates. This is partly because Latin, the parent language of Romance languages, is in turn a descendant of the large family grouping called Indo-European. Indo-European is one of the six major linguistic families (there are other smaller ones as well) from which came Romance, Baltic, and Germanic languages (English and German are two languages of this grouping).

Meet Your New Baby...Language!
Does this occur in every language family of the world? No. Languages do not always evolve in a linear fashion flowing down through the families from parent to daughter language. In some cases, languages spring up almost over night. When this happens, the new formations are called pidgins. A pidgin is a language with limited grammar and minimal vocabulary. They arise in order to facilitate communication between people from different linguistic backgrounds. For example, slaves brought from Africa to America were placed together in groups specifically selected for their dissimilar linguistic backgrounds. This minimized the possibility of communication which slave owners hoped would reduce their risk of slaves organizing a revolt. However, these groups learned to exchange meaning with one another by choosing words and assigning them meanings every member could understand, thus developing their own language.

In desperate situations such as this one, the temporary solution works for the first generation of speakers. However the answer is not satisfactory for the human needs for a language and in the next generation, changes occur almost instantaneously. Children of pidgin speakers fill in the gaps with grammar and additional vocabulary, enriching the language to make it what linguists call a creole. A creole is just a pidgin language that has become established as the native language of a speech community. Do not confuse either a pidgin or a creole with a koine which is a compromise language made up of leveled features from dialects of a common base language. It is similar to a pidgin in that it is developed as a sort of lingua franca between groups of diverse linguistic backgrounds.

Army? Check. Navy? Check.
In You're In Italy, Speak Italian!, I mentioned that the guidelines Ethnologue uses to define a language are not—by its own admission—complete for discussion of languages in every context. The introduction to Ethnologue goes on to state that "Where there is enough intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages." Perhaps Max Weinreich was right when he said it takes an army.

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.

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