What Are the Romance Languages?

The Romance languages of today, including Italian, Spanish and French, evolved out of Latin dialects in the Roman Empire.

Aug 30, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what are the romance languages


The Romance languages have little to do with actual romance; instead, they are a series of national languages derived from ancient Roman times, when Latin was the predominant spoken word. As the Romans began to travel and form smaller communities across Europe, various different dialects of Latin slowly evolved, which were collectively known as ‘Vulgar Latin’. From Vulgar Latin, each dialect became its own national language, and it is these groups of languages with the same root back to Roman Latin that we now know today as the Romance languages.


The term Romance evolved from the Roman term ‘Romanice loqui’, meaning speak in Roman. While there are 44 different Romance languages around the world today, these in our list below are the most widely spoken of them all, with a brief history of each.



spain kingdoms before ferdinand and isabella
Map of Spain in 1360, via the University of Texas, Austin


Of all the Romance languages, Spanish is the most spoken. In fact, more than 75% of the Spanish language today is derived from Latin roots. Tracing the exact roots of any language is a tricky business, but experts believe Spanish can be traced back to the rustic Latin of Cantabria. From here, the kingdom of Castile, once a small, provincial village, expanded increasingly towards the south. By the 14th century, Castile had taken over much of the Peninsula apart from Portugal, Navarre, Aragon and Granada.


The modern nation-state of Spain was formed when Castile and Aragon were unified in 1479. When Christopher Columbus travelled from Spain to America during the 15th century, he took the Spanish variant of Latin into the Americas, thus turning Spanish into an important world language. Today, there are around 460 million people who speak Spanish as a first language.

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vasco da gama statue
A statue of Vasco da Gama in his birth town of Sines in Portugal


Portuguese is another Romantic language with roots in Vulgar Latin. Predominantly spoken in Portugal and Brazil, it shares many similarities with Spanish. Today there are approximately 270 million Portuguese speakers, making it the second most spoken of all the Romantic languages. Portuguese evolved out of communities living in the Western Iberian Peninsula, which was taken over by Germanic people following the collapse of the Roman Empire, whose dialects influenced the formation of Portuguese. During the 14th to 16th centuries, the Portuguese language spread across Asia, Africa and the Americas as people began travelling and settling in new locations.



celts history map
Map of tribes of Gaul


The third most spoken Romance language, French, is widespread throughout much of the world today. The language grew out of Vulgar Latin variants from the region of Gaul, and its earliest evolution is often known as Gallo-Romance. French also absorbed influences from Celtic languages such as Gallia Belgica and the Germanic language of Frankish invaders. During the 13th century, when the Duchy of Normandy was incorporated into French lands, Norman words became integrated into the French language. Meanwhile, in the 16th century, King Francois I declared that French should be the official language of the French kingdom, signaling the beginning of modern French as we now know it. Today are 76 million native French speakers, and many more who have French as a second, or third language. 



birth of renaissance begin duomo di firenze florence italy
birth of renaissance begin duomo di firenze florence italy


Of all the Romance languages, Italian is one which has remained most true to its Latin roots. As with most languages, different regions have their own dialects, but the predominant branch is known today as Tuscan Italian. During and after Roman times, different variants of Vulgar Latin existed across much of Italy. But it was thanks to the 14th and 15th century writers Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, who wrote in Tuscan Italian, that this vernacular became more popular, and it was chosen by the Italian government as the official Italian language in 1861, as part of a widespread attempt to unify the nation. Today Italian in all its vernacular variants is spoken by around 85 million people worldwide. 



the modern romania
February 11th, 1866 – The Modern Romania by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1866, in the Muzeul Memorial Gheorghe Tattarescu, Bucharest


The Romanian language is spoken by around 26 million people today. Part of the Eastern Romance sub-branch of Romance languages, Romanian is largely reserved for Romania and its surrounding countries, namely Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine. The roots of the Romanian language of today can be traced back to the Roman provinces of Southeastern Europe, particularly Dacia, which Romans began conquering during the second century. Here Latin became interspersed with the Slavic and Uralic populations, out of which eventually emerged Romanian.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.