Differences between Latin and the Romance Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

When a language changes into several languages, it’s not just that words in the original language transform into different words in the new languages. Even the grammar, structure, and word order of the new language changes. How did this play out when the Romance languages evolved from Latin?

Marble slab with inscriptions in Latin.
Latin had endings on the end of nouns to indicate how they were used in a sentence, which has worn away in the Romance languages. (Image: Paolo De Gasperis/Shutterstock)

Endings on Nouns Have Worn Out in Romance Languages

We go back to the issue of grammar as opposed to just isolated words. For example, we could take a classical Latin sentence to say that you were going to give some object or present to a woman. The way you would render this in Latin, in a pretty normal way, would be fēminae id dedi. That’s to woman it I gave. Fēminae id dedi. That’s the sense. That’s the way it was in Latin, and that’s one stage of this language.

But now we’ve got these five new stages: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Of course, that sentence comes out very differently in each of them. In French it’s Je l’ai donné à la femme. In Spanish it’s Se lo dí a la mujer. In Italian it’s L’ho datto alla donna. In Portuguese it’s O dei à mulher. In Romanian it’s Am dat-o femeii.

Even if you don’t happen to be familiar with any of those five, you can see that these are all very different languages. These are not languages that a person who spoke Latin would understand, nor are these people conversant in Latin. How did you get from one place to the other?

It was through the kinds of changes that we’ve seen, except they take place differently in each language. Some of the changes take place in one or two, but not the other three and so on—the result being this, if you will, diversity among the languages.

For example, Latin was a language where you had endings on the end of nouns to indicate how they were used in a sentence. So, femina is woman, fēminae was to a woman. That meant there didn’t need to be a separate word for to, the way we do in English. To say to the woman you just had fēminae: to the woman it I gave.

In most of the Romance languages, these endings on nouns have worn away. As a result, you have to have something to indicate that it’s to the woman, so you get this separate word. If you’re familiar with French or Spanish then you know that word tends to be à. Where Latin had fēminae, in French it’s à la femme, in Spanish à la mujer.

Romanian, peculiar in its marvelous way as always, happens to have kept that ending so it’s femeii. But, Romanian has many, many fewer endings of this kind than Latin did. There’s no Romance language that preserves those endings in anything but essentially fragments. That’s one of the differences.

Learn more about how language changes-meaning and order.

Word Order is More Regular in Romance Languages

Although the correlation between word order and endings on nouns is not perfect, there’s still a correlation. It means that word order in the Romance languages is more regular than in Latin. In Latin, fēminae id dedi is one way you could put it but you could say, for example, id fēminae dedi, you could say dedi id fēminae. All of these were acceptable, because you had a lot of clues as to how these things fit together.

That is less true in the Romance languages. So, in Spanish, se lo dí a la mujer. You can’t have something like se mujer dí lo a. That doesn’t work, you have to have things in a certain order. It’s much less flexible and that’s because of the way the languages have changed over time, and particularly because of the loss of those useful endings.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Words Drop Out, Words Come Back

Dictionary entry for Spanish, with the definition partially visible.
Even though Spanish was born out of Latin, the Spanish word for ‘woman’ is mujer, while the Latin word for ‘woman’ is femina, which is typical difference between Latin and the Romance languages. (Image: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

Let’s take the word femina as an example. Latin has femina for woman, but only French and Romanian preserve femina as woman in the pure sense. Italian has femina, but it has a particular meaning. The default word for woman would be donna.

In Spanish there’s mujer and Portuguese has mulher. Words often replace each other that way as time goes by. Some of the languages keep femina, some of them have shed that for other words. That’s a typical kind of difference.

Learn more about language families-diversity of structure.

Grammatical Changes from Latin to Romance Languages

Even in terms of grammar, things change. Dedi means I gave, it’s a past-marked form of give, it’s also irregular. If you look at French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian—actually, it’s only in Spanish and Portuguese that the words for I gave come right from dedi, although, of course, with sound change. In Portuguese it’s dei, with that second d gone, and in Spanish it’s eroded even further to just . But, those go back to dedi.

In French, Italian, and Romanian, there’s been a change in the way the past is often marked. People who have taken French remember the passé composé. So, it’s j’ai donné, I have given. Except in French that doesn’t mean what it means in English. It also means I gave. So, j’ai donné instead of one word like dei, in Portuguese, to indicate it. That’s something that’s happened in some Romance languages and not in others, so it creates a very different grammar.

Learn more about how language changes-building new material.

Not All Languages Have the Articles ‘the’ and ‘a’

Classical Latin didn’t have a perfect along the lines of j’ai donné. It’s something that developed gradually as Latin turned into the Romance languages. It’s common that languages develop new ways of indicating the past, just like grammars develop new ways of indicating the future.

In general, you get new words from old ones; there’s been grammaticalization, which you can see from the difference between fēminae id dedi and these other things. Notice that it’s just to woman. There’s no word for the in classical Latin, you didn’t need to say it. The fact is that a language does not need a the. We’re so used to a book, the book and when we learn another language one of the first things we’re thinking is where’s the and a. Actually, a great many languages in the world don’t have the and a.

For example, Russian, which all of us would agree is a very sophisticated language, does not have a and does not have the. Chekhov and Tolstoy wrote without any of those words, yet the point is gotten across. Actually, it’s only about a fifth of the world’s languages that have both a word for the and a word for a. English happens to be one of them, Europe has kind of a the/a fetish. But around the world that’s really not all that common. Latin did not have that and Latin was a very precise language.

The developed from words meaning things like that. You might say something like that child and you’re kind of distinguishing that child from many others. In the same way the child does that: the child that I saw yesterday. I’m talking about the child. If you hear somebody say that, presumably the child has been brought up before. If the child hasn’t been brought up, then you say I’m talking about a child. That’s a very persnickety distinction. You could get along being a human being without specifying that.

It’s kind of nice, English happens to have it. So do the Romance languages, but that starts with the word for that. There were certainly words for that in Latin. There are no languages that don’t have good old demonstratives this and that. Gradually, the meaning started to soften. Instead of it being something concrete, as in that chiffarobe or something like that, it just became the chiffarobe, the one that we happen to mention. A certain semantic shade that we didn’t need to make explicit.

Languages have a way of climbing into little semantic spaces that might be filled, just like the cat climbs up onto something just because it’s there and finds a plant and eats your begonia as lunch—it just does it because it can. In the same way grammar does that.

We are a language that has these a’s and the’s and so do Romance languages. So, la femme—Latin didn’t know from la femme, there was no such thing as that. But in French, you have to have something like that, so la femme, la mujer, la donna, and so on.

The development of these articles is something that happened from the pathway from Latin to Romance. Articles developed because of this grammaticalization, so that’s another thing that distinguishes Latin from all of what we call its daughter languages.

Learn more about how language changes-many directions.

Common Questions about Grammatical Differences between Latin and the Romance Languages

Q: Is Latin considered a Romance language?

No, Latin is not a Romance language. Latin is the language that spread into different parts of Europe and evolved over a period of time to give birth to the various Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.

Q: Why are they called Romance languages?

The Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., evolved from Latin. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and it spread to different parts of Europe due to the expansion of the Roman Empire. Hence, these languages are known as Romance languages.

Q: How similar are the Romance languages?

Even though the Romance languages originated from Latin, and there are a lot of similarities between these languages, these are all very different languages. The way Latin changed to give birth to each of the Romance languages happened differently in each language. Some of the changes happened in one or two, but not the others. As a result, there’s diversity among the languages.

Q: Which language is closest to Spanish?

The Romance language that’s closest to Spanish is Portuguese. For example, the word for ‘woman’ in Spanish is mujer and in Portuguese it’s mulher. Similarly, in Spanish and Portuguese the words for ‘I gave’ come right from the original Latin dedi. In Portuguese it’s dei, and in Spanish it’s .

Keep Reading
Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words
What’s Wrong With This Sentence? — A Linguists View On Grammar Usage
Language Death: Why Languages Die and How to Save Them