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Children of Rome: Are the Romance Languages Latin Progeny?

March 12, 2013

(This post is a response to Chris Guillebeau’s call to action to “help someone for free.” I hope I can help you learn languages.)

I once thought that the Romance Languages were “descended” from Latin. In linguistics class at the University of Georgia I was taught to understand language relatedness in the form of a tree diagram. The proto-language (i.e. hypothetical mother language of which we have no records) Indo-European contains an Italic branch that becomes Latin, which further down the line spawns Italian, French, Romansch, Romanian, etc.  Indeed, with today’s advances in comparative linguistics one could hardly miss the similarities between these languages. But are they really descended from Latin? Did so-called Classical Latin really evolve into French and Spanish?

When I brought this up with Dr. Haneda Masashi of the University of Tokyo, he was skeptical of the idea. The influence of the Roman empire did not extend into all fields of linguistic endeavor. More likely than not, people did not consciously emulate the speech of Rome. They may have adopted Roman ways, but they simply did not have the means to emulate the speech of the capital. Why? I surmise because they never went there, they had no radios or recording devices of any kind, and there was no standardized education system. In his class on Chinese Topolect Studies at Fudan, Dr. Tao Huan(陶寰) said that linguists no longer consider the “Romance Languages” to be the descendants of the Latin language as spoken in Rome. Likely, they developed their own local dialects as Latin spread with Roman rule, and these evolved into the myriad “Romance Languages” of Europe.

What does this tell us about modern languages?

The modern languages most of us are likely to study are very likely recent constructs. I learned at conferences at Fudan that “Standard Japanese” and “Mandarin Chinese” were created in the late 19th and early 20th Century, respectively, fashioned out of different dialects by philologists who followed the European trend of creating a “national language.” After all, if you are going to create a “modern nation,” shouldn’t you also create a “national language,” a “national religion,” and a “national people?” In Japan, these were “Standard Japanese,” “Shinto,” and “the Japanese people.” The greatly varied topolects of Japan were stigmatized (and mostly driven to extinction), Buddhism was outlawed (temporarily, but many temples were destroyed and never rebuilt), and the diverse cultural makeup of the archipelago was denied in favor of a mythical “Japanese race.” In the 19th Century, much of what Japanese knew about nation building they learned from Europeans like Lorenz von Stein. Europeans were engaged in their own nation building projects, which they believed necessitated the creation of “national languages” like “German” and “Italian.”

This week Fudan is holding a series of guest lectures by James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University. Today he lectured on the “Old Story of the Old World,” or the traditional story of the “rise of Greece” and the “decline and fall of the Roman empire.” As he sees it, the Roman empire didn’t fall until 1924, when the Ottoman Empire, which had inherited the territory of Rome, was finally dissolved. I asked about the linguistic situation in the ancient world, and he told us a story. He said there was a German writer who grew up in Bulgaria, and he remembers that his uncle could speak 17 languages. By “speak,” he probably meant his uncle could ask directions, find a place to sleep, and make a little conversation. He could read only one language, but he could get around in a lot more. This is the “natural state” of language. People speak one way in their village; walk across the hill to the next village and they will laugh at their neighbors’ funny accents (or shake their heads in dismay when they understand nothing at all). St. Augustine, who was from Africa, was laughed at for his funny accent in Rome. Language is naturally extremely varied, and like nationality and ethnicity, “national language” is a cultural construct.

What does this teach us about studying languages?

Only understand that language is extremely varied, and modern national languages are a convenience. They are a tool to be used, not a bill to be filled. Stick to one language variety, and eventually the great variety will become apparent. Language isn’t perfect—it’s just something people do.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kieran Maynard permalink*
    March 12, 2013 10:47 pm

    I cannot understand Welsh; it’s only very very remotely related to English, at about the same distance as Farsi or Polish.

    I think Spanish will be easy to learn to speak enough to get around, and relatively easy to learn to read. The pronunciation is simple and indicated clearly by the script. I am hoping Spanish will expand my possibilities for interaction and travel. As far as other languages, I am interested in learning Indonesian/Malay, and also Korean, Turkish, and Arabic, but I haven’t put any time into those languages. As for ancient languages I might like to learn Old English, but now I have my hands full studying Classical Chinese and beginning to study Classical Japanese. In Japanese we are reading “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (aka “Princess Kaguya”), a 10th-Century folktale (

  2. Isabel Maynard permalink
    March 12, 2013 11:48 am

    Kieran I find this extremely interesting. I am hoping you will expand into other languages. I know you are teaching yourself Spanish. I love French because I love to travel in France. Lately I have been around people from England, and I could not understand them at all. Some of those English dialects from the island of Britain are very dense. Can you read and understand Welch? I found that Miami is like South america – no English spoken. Our cab driver in Miami was from Columbia, and difficult to understand. There are so many interesting languages. Tell me what you are thinking.

    Love bb

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