Romance languages, Modern status

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The Romance languages—occasionally called the Latin languages or, less often, the Romanic or Neo-Latin languages—are a group of languages descended from Vulgar Latin. They form a branch of the Italic languages within the Indo-European language family.


The Romance language most widely spoken natively today is Spanish (Castilian), followed by Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and Catalan, all of which cover a vast territory in Europe and beyond, and work as official and national languages in various countries, respectively. Galician, with more than a million native speakers, is official together with Spanish in Galicia, and has legal recognition in neighbouring territories in Castilla y León. A few other languages have official recognition on a regional or otherwise limited level; for instance, Asturian and Aragonese in Spain; Mirandese in Portugal; Friulan, Sardinian and Franco-Provençal in Italy; Romansh in Switzerland.

French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian are also official languages of the European Union. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and Catalan are the official languages of the Latin Union; and French and Spanish are two of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Outside Europe, French, Portuguese and Spanish are spoken and enjoy official status in various countries that emerged from their respective colonial empires. French is one of the official languages of Canada, many countries in Africa, and some islands in the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

Spanish is a national, cultural and official language in much of South America, Central America, Mexico, and the islands of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean (except in Haiti, The Cayman Islands, and Jamaica). It is also the official language of Equatorial Guinea in Africa, and Easter Island in Oceania. Spanish is the most spoken Romance language in the world.

Portuguese is the second most spoken Romance language. In its original homeland, Portugal, it is spoken by virtually the entire population of more than 10 million.

As the official language of Brazil, it is spoken by some 200 million people in that country, as well as by neighboring residents of eastern Paraguay and northern Uruguay, accounting for about half the population of South America. It is the official language of five African countries (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe), and is spoken as a first language by perhaps 14 million residents of that continent. In Asia, Portuguese is co-official with other languages in East Timor and Macau, while most Portuguese-speakers in Asia—some 300,000—are in Japan due to return immigration of Japanese Brazilians. In North America more than 700,000 people speak Portuguese as their home language.

In Oceania, Portuguese is the second most spoken Romance language, after French. Its closest relative, Galician, possesses official status in the autonomous community of Galicia in Spain, together with Spanish.

Although Italy also had some colonial possessions, its language did not remain official after the end of the colonial domination, resulting in Italian being spoken only as a minority or secondary language by immigrant communities in North, South America, Australia, and African countries notably former Italian colonies Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, where it is spoken by educated people and in commerce and government. Romania did not establish a colonial empire, but beyond its native territory in Southeastern Europe, it also spread to other countries on the Mediterranean (especially the other Romance countries, most notably Italy and Spain), and elsewhere such as Israel, where it is the native language of five percent of the population, and is spoken by many more as a secondary language; this is due to the large numbers of Romanian-born Jews who moved to Israel after World War II.

The total native speakers of Romance languages are divided as follows (with their ranking within the languages of the world in brackets):

  • Others 3.6%

Catalan is unusual in that it is not the main language of any nation-state, other than Andorra (a microstate between Spain and France), but nonetheless has been able to compete and even gain speakers at the expense of the dominant language of its nation (Spanish); in fact, Catalan is the only minority European language whose long-term survival is probably not under threat. This is because unlike most minority-languages, Catalan has not remained linked to tradition and rural culture.

Catalan was used for high-level culture in the Middle Age and early modern times, and again from the twenty-first century. Besides it, a rich and lively popular culture (songs, literature, theatre, newspapers) has always existed and evolved in accordance with times. The result is a Catalan national feeling surviving the kingdoms union, and the belief that the Catalan language is a critical component of the separate ethnic identity of the Catalan people. This has allowed them to resist the historic persecutions and high immigration rates as well as the assimilationist urges that are in the process of destroying most of the remaining minority-language communities, even those that have strong government support (e.g. Irish language speakers).

The remaining Romance languages survive mostly as spoken languages for informal contact. National governments have historically viewed linguistic diversity as an economic, administrative or military liability, as well as a potential source of separatist movements; therefore, they have generally fought to eliminate it, by extensively promoting the use of the official language, restricting the use of the "other" languages in the media, characterizing them as mere "dialects", or even persecuting them. As a result, all of these languages are considered endangered to varying degrees according to the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, ranging from "vulnerable" (e.g. Sicilian and Venetian) to "severely endangered" (Arpitan, most of the Occitan varieties).

Since the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, increased sensitivity to the rights of minorities has allowed some of these languages to start recovering their prestige and lost rights. Yet it is unclear whether these political changes will be enough to reverse the decline of minority Romance languages.

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External Links

  • WikipediaMichael de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Brill, 2008, 826pp. (part available freely online)Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik (LRL), edd. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt

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