How to learn languages – Latinate languages

Over the past four weeks, we have looked at individual Latinate (or “Romance”) languages, all deriving from Latin, and specifically from the Vulgar Latin of the eighth century. The importance of Late/Vulgar Latin has become apparent; it bears repeating that half the changes between Classical Latin and any modern Standard national Latin-based language had already happened by the time the later Latin dialects based on the “vulgar” (colloquial spoken rather than high written) form broke up geographically. Therefore, modern Latinate languages are clearly linked to that Late Latin.

Very broadly, we can split Latin’s daughter languages into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. Nevertheless, largely because of its dramatic phonological development (and partly because of the consequent impact on grammar), French is the outlier – although Italian is geographically and in some ways idiomatically closer to French, it is in fact overall closer to Iberian than to French.

Phonologically all Latin-based languages broadly prefer soft sounds, they are more vocalic than Classical Latin was, and they exhibit significant changes to pronunciation of vowels and the letters <c> and <g> (which have softened, in divergent ways, before high vowels usually written <e> or <i>). There have been some divergences, particularly affecting medial letters (i.e. consonants surrounded by vowels or vowels surrounded by consonants). French has moved by far the fastest with its remarkably complex system of liaison; followed by Spanish and Portuguese and then by Italian, whose Standard is the most conservative form (i.e. closest to Latin).

Grammatically, the Latin-based languages discussed have all reduced three genders to two, continuing to mark them on words surrounding or referring to the noun; and they exhibit “agreement” of the adjective with the noun in all circumstances (and in each language adjectives generally follow nouns, with some minor exceptions). They are perhaps most interesting because of their treatment of the verb, however. They all mark verbs for three tenses (past, present and future) plus the conditional. These three tenses are assumed to be “normal” by many people across the Western world, but actually they are a clear marker of Latin-based languages (as we will find out, Germanic languages actually only have two tenses, and many other languages globally do not primarily mark tense at all). Additionally, most Latin-based languages continue to differentiate between imperfect and perfect aspect in the past (at least in writing). Through use of auxiliaries (usually those meaning or derived from ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, or occasionally ‘to stand’ and ‘to go’), a wide range of tense and aspect combinations is available. Notably, even though it has receded in some, all Latin-based languages continue to mark the subjunctive mood to some extent even in informal speech, at least in the present and the past. None marks for case (preferring prepositions instead) except with personal pronouns; and notably all are fundamentally SVO except if the object is the personal pronoun, in which case they are SOV.

We have, of course, not looked at a fifth national Latin-based language, namely Romanian, nor at some important regional languages such as Catalan and Sardinian. Romanian is notable because the definite article follows the noun; it also derives significant vocabulary and some grammatical forms from the Slavic languages which now surround it almost entirely. Catalan is significantly reduced phonologically (although not to the same extent as Standard French), and exhibits some marked distinction in the use of articles and the prominent form of some prepositions (e.g. amb ‘with’). Sardinian is the most conservative Latin-based language of all, maintaining even the hard <c> (i.e. /k/) sound in all circumstances, as Classical Latin did (e.g. Classical Latin Caesar was pronounced as modern German Kaiser).

Because much language study in the English-speaking world has been focused on the Classics, and particularly Latin, a lot of assumptions about languages are made based on it – which is peculiar, because English is a Germanic, not a Latinate, language. Notions such as three tenses, two genders, subjunctives, personal pronoun objects preceding verbs and so on are indeed common to a lot of the first languages English speakers learn (most obviously Spanish and French), but they are not in fact the norm and they are not a feature of Germanic languages (such as English itself).

Speaking of which, let us start on those next week…



One thought on “How to learn languages – Latinate languages

  1. […] are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in […]

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