Friday, May 1, 2015

Romance Languages: From Aragonese to Zarphatic

In case you aren't already aware, the Romance language family is composed of languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the 6th and 9th centuries. Latin had dominated much of Western Europe for centuries due to the spread of the Roman Empire, but when it collapsed, local varieties quickly developed their own quirks, allowing them to eventually become new languages.

If you asked the average person to name all of the Romance languages they could think of, you'd probably be met with an answer that included a few of the following languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Language nerds might be able to add a few more languages, such as Catalan, Galician, or Sardinian. With that said, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually somewhere between 20 and 50 distinct languages within the Romance language family!

As we've mentioned in the past, linguistic classification is a tricky business, since most languages exist on a dialect continuum. Today we're going to go by the number provided by the Ethnologue, which lists 43 distinct Romance languages, and try to shed some light on some of the lesser-known languages.

The Big Five

There five most spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. All five of these languages are official languages in their respective countries of origin. The first three languages are also important lingua francas due to their use in colonies throughout Africa, South America, and North America.

Part of Western Europe at night as seen from the ISS.
Paris is the bright spot in the center, while Milan is near the upper-right corner.
Ibero-Romance Languages

The aptly named Iberian languages are all of the Romance languages that developed on the Iberian Peninsula, which is home to the countries of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. Aragonese, Asturian, Catalan, Galician, Aranese (a standardized variety of Occitan), and Spanish all have varying levels of official recognition in Spain. In Portugal, both Portuguese and Mirandese, which is closely related to Asturian, are recognized by the government.

Two Iberian languages spoken in the Spanish autonomous community of Extremadura are Extremaduran and Fala, which is closely related to Galician and Portuguese. Another fascinating member of this sub-group is Ladino, a language that is primarily spoken by Sephardic Jews. It evolved from Old Spanish with loanwords from languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Gallo-Romance Languages

The Gallo-Romance branch consists of the Romance languages native to France and northern Italy. Some of its most prominent languages are the Oïl languages, a dialect continuum that includes French, Picard, and Walloon, which are all spoken in both France and Belgium. It also includes Zarphatic, an extinct language that was spoken by Jews in France until the 14th century. 

The Rhaeto-Romance languages of Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh also belong on this branch of the Romance family tree. Friulian and Ladin (not to be confused with the aforementioned Ladino) are both spoken in Italy, while Romansh is an official language in Switzerland.

Finally, there are the Gallo-Italian languages, which include Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, and sometimes Venetian, depending on who you ask. Unsurprisingly, all of these languages are spoken in Italy. Despite recognition by numerous linguists as being independent languages, the Italian government generally refers to all of them as dialects of the Italian language.

Italo-Romance Languages

It won't come as a surprise that this final branch of the Romance language that we're looking at today consists of languages native to Italy. It includes Italian, the country's official language, as well as the Sicilian and Neapolitan languages.

While we're stopping here, there are still several more languages that the Ethnologue considers to be a part of the Romance language family, though most of them are extinct or endangered. You can find the full list on the Romance page of the Ethnologue website.