Why Romance Languages Are Just Vulgar Latin

One of the ways polyglots become polyglots is by using the tools they've already learned in one language to help with the next. Sometimes those tools are more than just learning techniques. Sometimes, when studying a second language in a language family that is already known, the entire previous experience can be mapped onto the new language, making it easier to learn.

Vulgar Latin

Today, I'd like to explore how that works in the so-called Romance languages... though I prefer to think of them as Vulgar Latin languages, because that term avoids the connotations of romanticism. It also points out that most of the features of modern Romance languages were present in Vulgar Latin. This comes to me as no great surprise, since Latin itself was a very difficult language. I can imagine how the less-educated would have felt much more comfortable without some of its peculiarities.

I'll be focusing on the four most popular Vulgar Latin European languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, however most of this will be applicable to to the lesser-known, more regional languages as well, such as Bolognese, Catalan, Galician, Sicilian, Romanian, and so on.

Language features

All of these languages have certain grammatical features which are similar to each other, and different from other languages from different language families. Some of those features include:

  • There are two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, with separate masculine and feminine forms for plural as well. There is no neuter.
  • Nouns have definite and indefinite articles.
  • There is no noun declension, except for personal pronouns.
  • Adjectives typically follow the noun.
  • Sentence structure is subject-verb-object (SVO), and is not very flexible.
  • Word stress tends to fall on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable.

Similar vocabulary

Anyone who has studied languages from two different families knows how very different they can be, and can appreciate how just the grammatical similarities listed above would be a huge advantage. But that's just the start! Languages from a language family tend to all have vocabulary that comes from the same roots, so the words are easy to remember too!

Let's take for example the words door, wind, and the verb to come.

 doorwindto come
Frenchporteventvenir
Italianportaventovenire
Portugueseportaventovir
Spanishpuertavientovenir
Now, as if that's not already enough similarity to make my point, let's translate the sentence The wind is coming through the door.
FrenchLe vent vient à travers la porte.
ItalianIl vento viene attraverso la porta.
PortugueseO vento vem através da porta.
SpanishEl viento viene a través de la puerta.

Let's try another one. How about Where is the new restaurant?

FrenchOù se trouve le nouveau restaurant?
ItalianDove si trova il nuovo ristorante?
PortugueseOnde fica o novo restaurante?
Spanish¿Dónde está el nuevo restaurante?

This isn't even scratching the surface of the similarities between these descendents of Vulgar Latin. In many cases, just learning the basic rules of pronunciation in a given language — something that can usually be done un an afternoon — is often enough to allow speakers of one language to understand what someone is saying in another.

I have heard stories of Italians and Spaniards having conversations with each other, each speaking his own native language. And from my own experience, I know that my Italian studies this year have been made somewhat easier by the fact that I already know Spanish, and have a little experience with French.

So are the polyglots cheating?

If someone were to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese and then go brag to the world that he/she was a polyglot, I might tend to be unimpressed. But on the other hand, a person who focused their attention on one family of languages could perceivably learn them all to a better degree.

All the same, I don't know any polyglots in the online language community who are doing that. Yes, several people know more than one Romance language, but they also tend to know a Germanic language, and a Slavic language, and often one or more of the Asian languages.

Nevertheless, if you do find yourself wanting to know another language in the same family, it's nice to know that you're starting with an advantage.


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  • "Le vent vient à travers la porte." It doesn't mean anything in French. It actually means that the door is closed and that the wind is coming from the outside through the door ... I'd rather say : "Le vent vient de la porte".

  • You're right, of course -- the phrasings I chose are not perfect -- but the important detail for the purpose of this post is that a person can look at each of the translations and easily see their shared vocabulary and roots.Certainly, over the course of evolving, each language will have acquired different connotations for many words. But that doesn't diminish the sentiment of this post in any way.

  • Everything you say is of course correct, but a few things to note:
    "new restaurant" in English looks similar to the languages you listed. In Czech it's "nová restaurace" and in German it's "neues Restaurant". All European languages have similar words, whether in the same direct language family or just due to being Indo-European or because of borrowings.The Spanish understanding Italians example illustrates your points really well. But beyond reading written text a lot of native speakers have a lot of trouble understanding those in the same language family they are in. "vent" in French doesn't sound anything like Spanish viento. Even the initial "v" is pronounced differently (at least in Spain).Polyglots get their heads around this issue quicker because they can transpose collections of consistent sound changes across the board based on experience. However with no work a native of one romance language will indeed be lost in another one's land. I can tell you from experience that when I am out with international groups of people, normal natives don't even get the "gist" of conversations in the same language family.Especially when things get *really* vulgar and go apart from the formal standard. In Brazil for example, your example of "Onde fica" could also be rendered as "Cadê", which is frowned upon in formal circles but is very common from Brazilians.What I'm trying to say is that it's easy to look at languages written down and grammar books and simply say that the languages are super similar, but this is far from the truth when you actually have to speak it with natives. Spanish and Italian follow similar phonetic rules and intonation (unlike French) so that makes it easier, but this doesn't quite work across the board unless you speak all languages academically.The "vulgar" aspect still counts to have brought the languages quite far apart in the last 2,000 years ;) German is in the same language family as English, but understanding what "Arm" and "Fuß" mean and getting the general gist from a little study don't mean you would have a clue what they are talking about when in a normal social situation...Extra work is involved for branching out to other language families, but I still think someone who would *just* speak a bunch of languages in one family deserves to be called a polyglot. (I've properly gone through 4 language families myself, but switching from Italian to French took more work than learning Czech did due to less experience in polyglot extrapolation techniques...)Great post though - needs to be said! I still disagree with the premise of it ;)

  • No, no... I agree. In spite of their similarities, they are all different enough to require in depth study in order to master them. But you can't deny that the the similar grammar, verb tenses and conjugations, articles, sentence order, articles, etc, make it 1000x times easier to learn French after Spanish, than, say, learning Czech after Spanish.

  • Cheating? I hope not.I'm fluent (not native) in Spanish but took me a while to get my Brazilian Portuguese down. Something like 6-12 months. The two languages are similar, yes but there're enough differences as well.Window: janela (pt), ventana (es)
    Store: loja (pt), tienda (es)etcThen there's the pronunciation which is very very different between the two languages, so while you may read, you may have trouble conversing in the native environment.A lot of languages are similar. Portuguese is eerily similar to English; a lot of words can be deduced from learning English, so I feel I'm cheating at times
    when reading because English helps out a lot.But if you want to get to the next level of fluency, ie, converse with people in Brazil, you'll have to put some hard work into it.My last day in Sao Paulo, there was a native Spanish speaker (maybe Spaniard) trying to speak Portuguese over the phone. It was very very painful to listen to for me and probably for person on the other end.

  • If you look just at the written and theoretical content then it looks 1000 times easier. But as I said, French was HARDER for me to learn than Czech was, even though I'd argue that on paper French is even more similar to Italian than Spanish was. (Grammar and vocabulary-wise, definitely not pronunciation-wise)This was due to differences I outlined above, cultural issues (that I blogged about finally figuring out in terms of Parisians), different learning environment etc. In general I'm not a fan of saying any language is easier than another universally like that. I'll take on other language families after German and I still think it will be "easier" than my struggle to learn French was, even though I already had learned Spanish and Italian.I like posts like this to encourage people learning within the same family that they have some shortcuts to help them, but I still think it simplifies things too much. As I said "vent" and "viento" and similar word orders on paper are not the same as in real life...I see where you are coming from, but I get comments on my blog that it "doesn't count" to speak a bunch of Latin languages from people who learned just Chinese for example and don't appreciate the actual work involved beyond reading, so this topic frustrates me a little ;)

  • Very interesting post. I'm Brazilian and Portuguese has definitely helped me with Spanish and French.I've been told that Brazilians can understand spoken Spanish more easily than Spaniards can understand spoken Portuguese. I wonder why...Just a little thing:
    "O vento vem através DA porta" is the right sentence. It just doesn't make sense without the word "da" in the middle.

  • Thanks. I've fixed that sentence.

  • Thanks to the British and American empires of the past two centuries, it's safe to say that English words are going to show up in many languages.

  • Anyone who tells you it doesn't count is trolling. You should ignore such comments.I completely agree that the polyglot advantage is more significant than the shared vocab advantage. And I also agree with your aversion to descriptions like "easier" and "harder"... though I disagree with your example comparison of French and Czech, because your block wasn't a language block but a psychological one.Nonetheless, speaking from my own experience this year, the shared vocab experience is still significant. I'm going to just guess blindly at some numbers here, but let's say that it takes me 10-20 times of seeing/hearing/using a word before I get it ingrained into my memory... I'm finding that in Italian, I often only need it 2-5 times because I've already learned it in Spanish... or, to a much lesser extent, in French. (My French studies were cut short.)Also while two words can be pronounced quite differently, as in your example "vent" and "viento", a person who clearly understands the language's pronunciation rules can often work out a word he hears, and can sometimes even get away with pronouncing a different language's word... French-ifying the word "viento", for example, sound very close to "vent", and a listener would probably get what you were trying for. That's quite a tool if you ask me!

  • Oh definitely! I have heard words that I've never previously encountered and extrapolated their meaning with quite good accuracy thanks to my other romance languages ;) I'm just saying that natives don't tend to see this. If anything being a non-native actually helps a little when looking for such patterns.You're right about the psychological barrier, but that (and culture, pronunciation etc.) is just as much a part of learning a language as similar vocabulary is ;)Yeah, I need to start ignoring the trolls more :P I'm getting thicker skin by the day! I barely flinched last time I was called a fraud and charlatan :D

  • Those of you interested in the similarities of Romance languages, and particularly if you're already fluent in one of them and are planning to learn some more simultaneously, have a look at this resource. I think you'll like it:https://bit.ly/cXpUJc
    It's basically "A resource [...] that aims to help students learn to read in four new languages simultaneously (Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian or French)."

  • Cool link!

  • While I was researching this post, I was surprised to learn that Romanian is also a Vulgar Latin descendant... which made it jump much higher on my radar. I may have to spend some time with it soon.

  • Yes, excellent link, if only they would expand it to English.
    After a bit of searching, it seems there is some decent research in this area of 'Intercomprehension' in projects like Galatea, IGLO and EuroCom.
    For a general intro to the EU research strand: https://www.hum.uit.no/a/svenonius/lingua/flow/c...
    (After some investigation, it turns out this last link is a mere outline for a mockup course whose server seems to have died in 2003, though it may still exist in another form elsewhere)
    Apologies Randy if I'm hogging your comment thread. I must get me own darn blog up and running.

  • Language learning shouldn't be a contest but going through the experience of learning Chinese myself I'd say I have more respect for a Westener who speaks "only" Chinese as a foreign language, but speaks it really well, than for a European who speaks 5 romance languages. Of course there is grading here in difficulty. For someone from Western Europe learning Chinese is much, much more difficult than learning another related language. Chinese was my 5th foreign language and by far the hardest of all.

  • The only person I have lowered respect for is the one who judges another based on something as arbitrary as the origin of the language he or she has chosen to learn.

  • I am not "judging" anyone (judging as in not respecting someone). I guess I should have said respect or admiration for someone's achievement, because that is what I really meant. If I'd meet another German who has really mastered Chinese, I would want to ask him how he did it. If he were fluent in 5 romantic languages I wouldn't have that urge.

  • I didn't say you were. :)

  • # There are two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, with separate masculine and feminine forms for plural as well. There is no neuter.
    # There is no noun declension, except for personal pronouns.
    # Sentence structure is subject-verb-object (SVO), and is not very flexible.Romanian has neuter, noun cases, and therefore a more flexible word order. ;)

  • That instantly makes Romanian more interesting to me! :)

  • One should took this site with care, because "learning" in portuguese is already wrong on there, so many other things can be wrong alos.

  • I think an intimate knowledge of not just accents, but grammatically authentic English dialects and creoles is just as impressive as being able to speak Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

  • Hi,I am really happy to find this blog post!
    It also raises a question: Is there an advised order (that makes acquision "easier") to learn these languages, or it doesn't matter which of these languages one picks first to learn?What is your experience and suggestion at this point?(I speak English and Hungarian.)Thank you for your answer. :-)

  • I always say that the best order in which to learn languages is the order in which you will use them. It's exceedingly difficult to learn a language through sheer study. If you know people who speak Spanish, or French, or Italian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, choose the one that is spoken by the people you know. Or, if you'll be living in one of those countries, choose the language that is spoken there.

  • Thank you for your advice.
    The fact is that there is yet no exact goal (such as moving to the country, etc.) with the language. I just simply want to begin to learn languages .

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