Romance languages

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Originally spoken in southern, western and eastern Europe and parts of North Africa; now also most of the Americas. Official languages of half the countries in Africa and parts of Oceania.
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
Proto-language: Vulgar Latin
ISO 639-5: roa
Linguasphere: 51- (phylozone)
Glottolog: roma1334[1]

The Romance languages—occasionally called the Latin languages or, less often, the Romanic or Neo-Latin languages—are a group of languages descended from Vulgar Latin. They form a branch of the Italic languages within the Indo-European language family. The five most widely spoken Romance languages by number of native speakers are Spanish (386 million), Portuguese (216 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (25 million).[2] The largest have many non-native speakers; this is especially the case for French, which is in widespread use throughout Central and West Africa, Madagascar, and the Maghreb region.

The Romance languages evolved from Latin from the sixth to the ninth centuries. Today, there are more than 800 million native speakers worldwide, mainly in Europe and the Americas and many smaller regions scattered throughout the world, as well as large numbers of non-native speakers, and widespread use as lingua franca.[3] Because of the difficulty of imposing boundaries on a continuum, there are various counts of the Romance languages; Dalby lists 23 based on mutual intelligibility:

Ibero-Romance: Portuguese, Galician, Asturian-Leonese, Spanish, Aragonese;
Occitano-Romance: Catalan, Gascon, Occitan;
Gallo-Romance: Langues d'oïl (including French), Franco-Provençal;
Rhaeto-Romance: Romansh, Ladin, Friulian;
Italo-Romance: Venetian, Gallo-Italic languages, Corsican, Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian;
Dalmatian (extinct);
Romanian: Daco-Romanian, Istro-Romanian, Aromanian, and Megleno-Romanian.[4]

In several of these cases, more than one variety has been standardized, and is therefore considered a distinct language in the popular conception; this is true for example with Asturian and Leonese as well as Neapolitan and Sicilian.


Romance languages are the continuation of Vulgar Latin, the popular and colloquial sociolect of Latin spoken by soldiers, settlers and merchants of the Roman Empire, as distinguished from the classical form of the language spoken by the Roman upper classes, the form in which the language was generally written. Between 350 BC and AD 150, the expansion of the Empire, together with its administrative and educational policies, made Latin the dominant native language in continental Western Europe. Latin also exerted a strong influence in southeastern Britain, the Roman province of Africa, and the Balkans north of the Jireček Line.

During the Empire's decline, and after its fragmentation and collapse in the fifth century, varieties of Latin began to diverge within each local area at an accelerated rate and eventually evolved into a continuum of recognizably different typologies. The overseas empires established by Portugal, Spain, and France from the fifteenth century onward spread their languages to the other continents to such an extent that about two-thirds of all Romance language speakers today live outside Europe.

Despite other influences (e.g. substratum from pre-Roman languages, especially Continental Celtic languages; and superstratum from later Germanic or Slavic invasions), the phonology, morphology, and lexicon of all Romance languages are overwhelmingly evolved forms of Vulgar Latin. However, there are some notable differences between today's Romance languages and their Roman ancestor. With only one or two exceptions, Romance languages have lost the declension system of Latin and, as a result, have SVO sentence structure and make extensive use of prepositions.


Romance languages in Europe in the twenty-first century.

The term "Romance" comes from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, derived from Romanicus: for instance, in the expression romanice loqui, "to speak in Roman" (that is, the Latin vernacular), contrasted with latine loqui, "to speak in Latin" (Medieval Latin, the conservative version of the language used in writing and formal contexts or as a lingua franca), and with barbarice loqui, "to speak in Barbarian" (the non-Latin languages of the peoples living outside the Roman Empire).[5] From this adverb the noun romance originated, which applied initially to anything written romanice, or "in the Roman vernacular".

The word romance with the modern sense of romance novel or love affair has the same origin. In the medieval literature of Western Europe, serious writing was usually in Latin, while popular tales, often focusing on love, were composed in the vernacular and came to be called "romances".


Lexical and grammatical similarities among the Romance languages, and between Latin and each of them, are apparent from the following examples having the same meaning:

English: She always closes the window before she dines.

Latin (Ea) semper antequam cenat fenestram claudit.
Aragonese (Ella) zarra siempre a finestra antes de cenar.
Aromanian (Ea/Nâsa) încljidi/nkidi totna firida ninti di tsinâ.
Asturian (Ella) pieslla siempres la ventana enantes de cenar.
Bergamasque (Lé) la sèra sèmper sö la finèstra prima de senà.
Bolognese (Lî) la sèra sänper la fnèstra prémma ed dsnèr.
Catalan (Ella) sempre tanca la finestra abans de sopar.
Corsican (Ella/Edda) chjode sempre u purtellu nanzu di cenà.
Emilian (Lē) la sèra sèmpar sù la fnèstra prima ad snàr.
Extremaduran (Ella) afecha siempri la ventana antis de cenal.
Franco-Provençal (Le) sarre toltin/tojor la fenétra avan de goutâ/dinar/sopar.
French Elle ferme toujours la fenêtre avant de dîner/souper.
Friulian (Jê) e siere simpri il barcon prin di cenâ.
Galician (Ela) pecha/fecha sempre a fiestra/xanela antes de cear.
Italian (Ella/Lei) chiude sempre la finestra prima di cenare.
Judaeo-Spanish Eya serra syempre la ventana antes de senar.
Ladin (Ëra) stlüj dagnora la finestra impröma de cenè. (badiot) (Ëila) stluj for l viere dan maië da cëina (gherdëina)
Leonese (Eilla) pecha siempre la ventana primeiru de cenare.
Ligurian (Le) a saera sempre u barcun primma de cenà.
Lombard (west.) (Lee) la sara sù semper la finestra primma de disnà/scenà.
Magoua (Elle) à fàrm toujour là fnèt àvan k'à manj.
Mauritian creole Li touzur pou ferm lafnet avan (li) manze.
Milanese (Le) la sara semper sü la finestra prima de disnà.
Mirandese (Eilha) cerra siempre la bentana/jinela atrás de jantar.
Mozarabic Ella cloudet sempre la fainestra abante da cenare. (reconstructed)
Neapolitan Essa nzerra sempe 'a fenesta primma 'e magnà.
Norman Lli barre tréjous la crouésie devaunt de daîner.
Occitan (Ela) barra sempre/totjorn la fenèstra abans de sopar.
Picard Ale frunme tojours l’ creusèe édvint éd souper.
Piedmontese Chila a sara sèmper la fnestra dnans ëd fé sin-a/dnans ëd siné.
Portuguese Ela fecha sempre a janela antes de jantar/cear.
Romanian Ea închide întotdeauna fereastra înainte de a lua cina.
Romansh Ella clauda/serra adina la fanestra avant ch'ella tschainia.
Sardinian Issa sèrrat sémper[6]/sémpri[7] sa bentàna innantis de chenàre[6]/cenài.[7]
Sassarese Edda sarra sempri lu balchoni primma di zinà.
Sicilian Idda chiui sempri la finestra prima di pistiari/manciari.
Spanish (Ella) siempre cierra la ventana antes de cenar.
Umbrian Essa chjude sempre la finestra prima de cena'.
Venetian Eła ła sara/sera sempre ła fenestra vanti de xenàr/disnar.
Walloon Ele sere todi li finiesse divant di soper.

Some of the divergence comes from semantic change: where the same root word has developed different meanings. For example, the Portuguese word fresta is descended from Latin fenestra "window" (and is thus cognate to French fenêtre, Italian finestra, Romanian fereastra and so on), but now means "skylight" and "slit". Cognates may exist but have become rare, such as finiestra in Spanish, or dropped out of use entirely. The Spanish and Portuguese terms defenestrar meaning "to throw through a window" and fenestrado meaning "replete with windows" also have the same root, but are later borrowings from Latin.

Likewise, Portuguese also has the word cear, a cognate of Italian cenare and Spanish cenar, but uses it in the sense of "to have a late supper" in most varieties, while the preferred word for "to dine" is jantar (related to archaic Spanish yantar "to eat") because of semantic changes in the nineteenth century. Galician has both fiestra (from medieval fẽestra, the ancestor of standard Portuguese fresta) and the less frequently used ventá and xanela.

As an alternative to lei (originally the genitive form), Italian has the pronoun ella, a cognate of the other words for "she", but it is hardly ever used in speaking.

Spanish, Asturian and Leonese ventana and Mirandese and Sardinian bentana come from Latin ventus "wind" (cf. English window, etymologically 'wind eye'), and Portuguese janela, Galician xanela, Mirandese jinela from Latin *ianuella "small opening", a derivative of ianua "door".

Sardinian balcone (alternative for bentana) comes from Old Italian and is similar to other Romance languages such as French balcon (from Italian balcone), Portuguese balcão, Romanian balcon, Spanish balcón, Catalan balcó and Corsican balconi (alternative for purtellu).


Vulgar Latin

There is a shortage of documentary evidence about Vulgar Latin for the purposes of comprehensive research, and the literature is often hard to interpret or generalize upon. Many of its speakers were soldiers, slaves, displaced peoples and forced resettlers, more likely to be natives of conquered lands than natives of Rome.

It is believed that Vulgar Latin already had most of the features that are shared by all Romance languages, which distinguish them from Classical Latin, such as the almost complete loss of the Latin case system and its replacement by prepositions; the loss of the neuter gender and comparative inflections; replacement of some verb paradigms by innovations (e.g. the synthetic future gave way to an originally analytic strategy now typically formed by infinitive + evolved present indicative forms of 'have'); the use of articles; and the initial stages of the palatalization of the plosives /k/, /g/, and /t/.

To some scholars, this suggests that the form of Vulgar Latin that evolved into the Romance languages was around during the time of the Roman Empire (from the end of the first century BC), and was spoken alongside the written Classical Latin which was reserved for official and formal occasions. Other scholars argue that the distinctions are more rightly viewed as indicative of sociolinguistic and register differences normally found within any language.

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

During the political decline of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, there were large-scale migrations into the empire, and the Latin-speaking world was fragmented into several independent states. Central Europe and the Balkans were occupied by the Germanic and Slavic tribes, as well as by the Huns, which isolated the Vlachs from the rest of Latin Europe.

British Romance and African Romance, the forms of Vulgar Latin used in southeastern Britain and the Roman province of Africa, where it had been spoken by much of the urban population, disappeared in the Middle Ages (as did Pannonian Romance in what is now Hungary). But the Germanic tribes that had penetrated Italy, Gaul, and Hispania eventually adopted Latin/Romance and the remnants of Roman culture alongside existing inhabitants of those regions, and so Latin remained the dominant language there.

Early Romance

Over the course of the fourth to eighth centuries AD, Vulgar Latin, by this time highly dialectalized, broke up into discrete languages that were no longer mutually intelligible.[8]:5 Clear evidence of Latin change comes from the Reichenau Glosses, an eighth-century compilation of about 1,200 words from the fourth-century Latin Vulgate Bible (St. Jerome) that were no longer understandable along with their eighth-century equivalents in proto-Franco-Provençal. The following are some examples with reflexes in several modern, closely related Romance languages for comparison:

English Classical / 4th cent.
8th cent.
Franco-Provençal French Romansh Italian Spanish Portuguese Romanian Catalan
once semel una vice una fês une fois (ina giada) (una volta) una vez uma vez (odată) una vegada,
(un cop)
children liberos infantes enfants enfants unfants (bambini) "niños" (infantiles) (crianças) (copii) infants,
(nens, etc.)
to blow flare suflare soflar souffler suflar soffiare soplar soprar suflare (bufar)
to sing canere cantare çhantar chanter chantar cantare cantar cantar cântare cantar
best optimos meliores los mèljörs les meilleurs ils megliers i migliori los mejores os melhores (optimi,
cei mai buni)
els millors
beautiful pulcra bella bèla belle bella bella (hermosa),
bella "hermosa"
bela (frumoasă) (bonica),
in the mouth in ore in bucca en la boçhe dans la bouche in la bucca nella bocca en la boca na boca [9] (în gură) [10] a la boca
winter hiems hibernus hìvern hiver inviern inverno invierno inverno iarnă hivern

In all of the above examples, the words appearing in the fourth century Vulgate are the same words as would have been used in Classical Latin of c. 50 BC. It is likely that some of these words had already disappeared from casual speech; but if so, they must have been still widely understood, as there is no recorded evidence that the common people of the time had difficulty understanding the language.

By the eighth century, the situation was very different. During the late eighth century, Charlemagne, holding that "Latin of his age was by classical standards intolerably corrupt",[8]:6 successfully imposed Classical Latin as an artificial written vernacular for Western Europe. Unfortunately, this meant that parishioners could no longer understand the sermons of their priests, forcing the Council of Tours in 813 to issue an edict that priests needed to translate their speeches into the rustica romana lingua, an explicit acknowledgement of the reality of the Romance languages as separate languages from Latin.[8]:6 By this time, and possibly as early as the sixth century according to Price (1984),[8]:6 the Romance dialects had split apart enough to be able to speak of separate Gallo-Romance, Ibero-Romance, Italo-Romance and Eastern Romance languages. Some researchers have postulated that the major divergences in the spoken dialects began in the fifth century, as the formerly widespread and efficient communication networks of the Western Roman Empire rapidly broke down, leading to the total disappearance of the Western Roman Empire by the end of the century.[citation needed] Unfortunately, the critical period between the fifth and tenth centuries AD is poorly documented because little or no writing from the chaotic "Dark Ages" of the fifth through eighth centuries has survived, and writing after that time was in consciously classicized Medieval Latin, with vernacular writing only beginning in earnest in the eleventh or twelfth centuries.

Recognition of the vernaculars

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, some local vernaculars developed a written form and began to supplant Latin in many of its roles. In some countries, such as Portugal, this transition was expedited by force of law; whereas in others, such as Italy, many prominent poets and writers used the vernacular of their own accord – some of the most famous in Italy being Giacomo da Lentini and Dante Alighieri.

Uniformization and standardization

The invention of the printing press apparently slowed down the evolution of Romance languages from the sixteenth century on,[citation needed] and brought a tendency towards greater uniformity of standard languages within political boundaries, at the expense of other Romance languages and dialects less favored politically. In France, for instance, the dialect spoken in the region of Paris gradually spread to the entire country, and the Occitan of the south lost ground.

Modern status

Romance languages, twentieth century
Number of native speakers of each Romance language, as fractions of the total 690 million

The Romance language most widely spoken natively today is Spanish (Castilian), followed by Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician, all of which are official languages in at least one country. A few other languages have official status on a regional or otherwise limited level, for instance Friulan, Sardinian and Franco-Provençal in Italy; Romansh in Switzerland.

Romance languages in the World

French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian are also official languages of the European Union. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and Catalan are the official languages of the Latin Union; and French and Spanish are two of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Outside Europe, French, Portuguese and Spanish are spoken and enjoy official status in various countries that emerged from their respective colonial empires. French is one of the official languages of Canada, many countries in Africa, and some islands in the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

Spanish is a national, cultural and official language in much of South America, Central America, the islands of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean (except in Haiti where the official languages are French and Haitian Creole, a French creole, and Jamaica, where English and its Patois are spoken) and Mexico, and it is also the official language of Equatorial Guinea in Africa, and Easter Island in Oceania. Spanish is the most spoken Romance language in the world.

Portuguese is the second most spoken Romance language. In its original homeland, Portugal, it is spoken by virtually the entire population of more than 10 million. As the official language of Brazil, it is spoken by some 200 million people in that country, as well as by neighboring residents of eastern Paraguay and northern Uruguay, accounting for about half the population of South America. It is the official language of five African countries (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe), and is spoken as a first language by perhaps 14 million residents of that continent.[11] In Asia, Portuguese is co-official with other languages in East Timor and Macau, while most Portuguese-speakers in Asia—some 300,000[12]—are in Japan due to return immigration of Japanese Brazilians. In North America more than 700,000 people speak Portuguese as their home language.[13] In Oceania, Portuguese is the second most spoken Romance language, after French. Its closest relative, Galician, possesses official status in the autonomous community of Galicia in Spain, together with Spanish.

Although Italy also had some colonial possessions, its language did not remain official after the end of the colonial domination, resulting in Italian being spoken only as a minority or secondary language by immigrant communities in North, South America, Australia, and African countries notably former Italian colonies Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, where it is spoken by educated people and in commerce and government. Romania did not establish a colonial empire, but the language is spoken as a native language in Moldova, while it also spread to other countries in rest of Europe, especially the other Romance countries (most notably Italy and Spain), and elsewhere such as Israel, where it is a native language to five percent of the population,[14] and by many more as a secondary language; this is due to the large numbers of Romanian-born Jews who moved to Israel after World War II.[15]

The total native speakers of Romance languages are divided as follows (with their ranking within the languages of the world in brackets):[16][17]

Catalan is unusual in that it is not the main language of any nation-state, other than Andorra (a microstate between Spain and France), but nonetheless has been able to compete and even gain speakers at the expense of the dominant language of its nation (Spanish); in fact, Catalan is the only minority European language whose long-term survival is probably[18] not under threat. This is because unlike most minority-languages, Catalan has not remained linked to tradition and rural culture.

Catalan was used for high-level culture in the Middle Age and early modern times, and again from the twenty-first century. Besides it, a rich and lively popular culture (songs, literature, theatre, newspapers) has always existed and evolved in accordance with times. The result is a Catalan national feeling surviving the kingdoms union, and the belief that the Catalan language is a critical component of the separate ethnic identity of the Catalan people.[18][19] This has allowed them to resist the historic persecutions and high immigration rates as well as the assimilationist urges that are in the process of destroying most of the remaining minority-language communities, even those that have strong government support (e.g. Irish language speakers).

The remaining Romance languages survive mostly as spoken languages for informal contact. National governments have historically viewed linguistic diversity as an economic, administrative or military liability, as well as a potential source of separatist movements; therefore, they have generally fought to eliminate it, by extensively promoting the use of the official language, restricting the use of the "other" languages in the media, characterizing them as mere "dialects", or even persecuting them. As a result, all of these languages are considered endangered to varying degrees according to the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, ranging from "vulnerable" (e.g. Sicilian and Venetian) to "severely endangered" (Arpitan, most of the Occitan varieties).

Since the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, increased sensitivity to the rights of minorities has allowed some of these languages to start recovering their prestige and lost rights. Yet it is unclear whether these political changes will be enough to reverse the decline of minority Romance languages.

Classification and related languages

Chart of Romance languages based on structural and comparative criteria, not on socio-functional ones.
Eastern and Western Romance areas split by the La Spezia–Rimini Line

The classification of the Romance languages is inherently difficult, since most of the linguistic area can be considered a dialect continuum, and in some cases political biases can come into play. Along with Latin (which is not included among the Romance languages) and a few extinct languages of ancient Italy, they make up the Italic branch of the Indo-European family.

Classical Latin
Vulgar Latin
Continental Romance
Sardinian language
Italo-Western Romance
Eastern Romance
Western Romance
Balkan Romance
Albanian words

Proposed divisions

Extent of variation in development (very conservative to very innovatory)
("to sing")
Latin Nuorese
Spanish Brazilian
Romanian French
Infinitive cantāre [kanˈtare] [kanˈtar] [kɐ̃ˈtah] 1 [kənˈta] [kɨnˈta(re)] [ʃɑ̃ˈte]
Past Part. cantātum [kanˈtatu] [kanˈtaðo] [kɐ̃ˈtadu] [kənˈtat] [kɨnˈtat] [ʃɑ̃ˈte]
Gerund cantandō [kanˈtande] [kanˈtando] [kɐ̃ˈtɐ̃ndu] [kənˈtan] [kɨnˈtɨnd] [ʃɑ̃ˈtɑ̃]
1sg. indic. cantō [ˈkanto] [ˈkanto] [ˈkɐ̃tu] [ˈkantu] [ˈkɨnt] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
2sg. indic. cantās [ˈkantaza] [ˈkantas] [ˈkɐ̃tɐs] [ˈkantəs] [ˈkɨntsʲ] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
3sg. indic. cantat [ˈkantata] [ˈkanta] [ˈkɐ̃tɐ] [ˈkantə] [ˈkɨntə] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
1pl. indic. cantāmus [kanˈtamuzu] [kanˈtamos] [kɐ̃ˈtɐ̃mus] [kənˈtɛm] [kɨnˈtəm] [ʃɑ̃ˈtɔ̃]
2pl. indic. cantātis [kanˈtateze] [kanˈtais] [kɐ̃ˈtajs] [kənˈtɛw] [kɨnˈtatsʲ] [ʃɑ̃ˈte]
3pl. indic. cantant [ˈkantana] [ˈkantan] [ˈkɐ̃tɐ̃w̃] [ˈkantən] [ˈkɨntə] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
1sg. subj. cantem [ˈkante] [ˈkante] [ˈkɐ̃tʃi] [ˈkanti] [ˈkɨnt] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
2sg. subj. cantēs [ˈkanteze] [ˈkantes] [ˈkɐ̃tʃis] [ˈkantis] [ˈkɨntsʲ] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
3sg. subj. cantet [ˈkantete] [ˈkante] [ˈkɐ̃tʃi] [ˈkanti] [ˈkɨnte] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
1pl. subj. cantēmus [kanˈtemuzu] [kanˈtemos] [kɐ̃ˈtẽmus] [kənˈtɛm] [kɨnˈtəm] [ʃɑ̃ˈtjɔ̃]
2pl. subj. cantētis [kanˈtedeze] [kanˈteis] [kɐ̃ˈtejs] [kənˈtɛw] [kɨnˈtatsʲ] [ʃɑ̃ˈtje]
3pl. subj. cantent [ˈkantene] [ˈkanten] [ˈkɐ̃tẽj̃] [ˈkantin] [ˈkɨnte] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
2sg. impv. cantā [ˈkanta] [ˈkanta] [ˈkɐ̃tɐ] [ˈkantə] [ˈkɨntə] [ˈʃɑ̃t]
2pl. impv. cantāte [kanˈtate] [kanˈtað] [kɐ̃ˈtaj] [kənˈtɛw] [kɨnˈtatsʲ] [ʃɑ̃ˈte]
1 Also [ɾ̥ ɻ̝̊ x χ ħ] are all possible allophones of [h] in this position.

There are various schemes used to subdivide the Romance languages. Three of the most common schemes are as follows:

  • Italo-Western vs. Eastern vs. Southern. This is the scheme followed by Ethnologue, and is based primarily on the outcome of the ten monophthong vowels in Classical Latin. This is discussed more below.
  • West vs. East. This scheme divides the various languages along the La Spezia–Rimini Line, which runs across north-central Italy just to the north of the city of Florence (whose speech forms the basis of standard Italian). In this scheme, "East" includes the languages of central and southern Italy, and the Balkan Romance (or "Eastern Romance") languages in Romania, Greece, and elsewhere in the Balkans; "West" includes the languages of Portugal, Spain, France, northern Italy and Switzerland. Sardinian does not easily fit in this scheme.
  • "Conservative" vs. "innovatory". This is a non-genetic division whose precise boundaries are subject to debate. Generally, the Gallo-Romance languages (discussed further below) form the core "innovatory" languages, with standard French generally considered the most innovatory of all, while the languages near the periphery (which include Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian) are "conservative". Sardinian is generally acknowledged the most conservative Romance language, and was also the first language to split off genetically from the rest, possibly as early as the first century BC. Dante famously denigrated the Sardinians for the conservativeness of their speech, remarking that they imitate Latin "like monkeys imitate men".[20]

The main subfamilies that have been proposed by Ethnologue within the various classification schemes for Romance languages are:

  • Italo-Western, the largest group, which includes languages such as Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French.
  • Eastern Romance, which includes the Romance languages of Eastern Europe, such as Romanian.
  • Southern Romance, which includes a few languages with particularly archaic features, such as Sardinian and, partially, Corsican. This family is thought to have included the now-vanished Romance languages of Africa (or at least, they appear to have evolved their vowels in the same way).

The three-way division is made primarily based on the outcome of Vulgar Latin (Proto-Romance) vowels:

Outcome of Classical Latin vowels
Classical Latin Proto-Romance Italo-Western Eastern Romance Southern Romance
short A /a/ /a/ /a/ /a/
long A
short E /ɛ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ /e/
long E /e/ /e/ /e/
short I /ɪ/ /i/
long I /i/ /i/ /i/
short O /ɔ/ /ɔ/ /o/ /o/
long O /o/ /o/
short U /ʊ/ /u/ /u/
long U /u/ /u/

Italo-Western is in turn split along the so-called La Spezia–Rimini Line in northern Italy, which divides the central and southern Italian languages from the so-called Western Romance languages to the north and west. The primary characteristics dividing the two are:

  • Lenition of intervocalic stops, which happens to the northwest but not to the southeast.
  • Degemination of geminate stops (producing new intervocalic voiceless stops, after the old ones were lenited), which again happens to the northwest but not to the southeast.
  • Deletion of intertonic vowels (between the stressed syllable and either the first or last syllable), again in the northwest but not the southeast.
  • Use of plurals in /s/ in the northwest vs. plurals using vowel change in the southeast.
  • Development of palatalized /k/ before /e,i/ to /(t)s/ in the northwest vs. /tʃ/ in the southeast.
  • Development of /kt/, which develops to /xt/ > /it/ (sometimes progressing further to /tʃ/) in the northwest but /tt/ in the southeast.

In fact, the reality is somewhat more complex. All of the "southeast" characteristics apply to all languages southeast of the line, and all of the "northwest" characteristics apply to all languages in France and (most of) Spain. However, the Gallo‒Italic languages and the Rhaeto-Romance languages of Switzerland and Italy are somewhere in between. All of these languages do have the "northwest" characteristics of lenition and loss of gemination. However:

  • The Gallo‒Italic languages have vowel-changing plurals rather than /s/ plurals.
  • The Lombard language in north-central Italy and the Rhaeto-Romance languages have the "southeast" characteristic of /tʃ/ instead of /(t)s/ for palatalized /k/.
  • The Venetian language in northeast Italy and some of the Rhaeto-Romance languages have the "southeast" characteristic of developing /kt/ to /tt/.

On top of this, the ancient Mozarabic language in southern Spain, at the far end of the "northwest" group, had the "southeast" characteristics of lack of lenition and palatalization of /k/ to /tʃ/. Certain languages around the Pyrenees (e.g. some highland Aragonese dialects) also lack lenition, and northern French dialects such as Norman and Picard have palatalization of /k/ to /tʃ/ (although this is possibly an independent, secondary development, since /k/ between vowels, i.e. when subject to lenition, developed to /dz/ rather than /dʒ/, as would be expected for a primary development).

The usual solution to these issues is to create various nested subgroups. Western Romance is split into the Gallo-Iberian languages, in which lenition happens and which include nearly all the Western Romance languages, and the Pyrenean-Mozarabic group, which includes the remaining languages without lenition (and is unlikely to be a valid clade; probably at least two clades, one for Mozarabic and one for Pyrenean). Gallo-Iberian is split in turn into the Iberian languages (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese), and the larger Gallo-Romance languages (stretching from eastern Spain to northeast Italy).

Probably a more accurate description, however, would be to say that there was a focal point of innovation located in central France, from which a series of innovations spread out as areal changes. The La Spezia–Rimini Line represents the farthest point to the southeast that these innovations reached, corresponding to the northern chain of the Apennine Mountains, which cuts straight across northern Italy and forms a major geographic barrier to further language spread.

This would explain why some of the "northwest" features (almost all of which can be characterized as innovations) end at differing points in northern Italy, and why some of the languages in geographically remote parts of Spain (in the south, and high in the Pyrenees) are lacking some of these features. It also explains why the languages in France (especially standard French) seem to have innovated earlier and more completely than other Western Romance languages.

Many of the "southeast" features also apply to the Eastern Romance languages (particularly, Romanian), despite the geographic discontinuity. Examples are lack of lenition, maintenance of intertonic vowels, use of vowel-changing plurals, and palatalization of /k/ to /tʃ/. (Gemination is missing, which may be an independent development, and /kt/ develops into /pt/ rather than either of the normal Italo-Western developments.) This has led some researchers to postulate a basic two-way East-West division, with the "Eastern" languages including Romanian and central and southern Italian.

Sardinian does not fit into this picture at all. It is clear that Sardinian became linguistically independent from the remainder of the Romance languages at an extremely early date, possibly already by the first century BC. Sardinian contains a large number of archaic features, including total lack of palatalization of /k/ and /g/ and a large amount of vocabulary preserved nowhere else, including some items already archaic by the time of Classical Latin (first century BC).

Sardinian has plurals in /s/ but no lenition of voiceless consonants (at least in most conservative Nuorese dialects) and a number of innovations unseen elsewhere: most famously, its unique vowel system, but also development of /au/ to /a/, a peculiar sort of lenition that operates as a synchronic feature, and use of su < ipsum as an article (another archaic feature, also seen in the Catalan of the Balearic Islands and formerly more widespread in Occitano-Romance, known as article salat – the salat article, or literally the "salted" article).

Gallo-Romance languages

The Gallo-Romance languages are generally considered the most innovatory (least conservative) among the Romance languages. Northern France — the medieval area of the langue d'oïl, out of which modern French developed — was the epicenter. Characteristic Gallo-Romance features generally developed earliest and appear in their most extreme manifestation in the langue d'oïl, gradually spreading out from there along riverways and transalpine roads. It is not coincidental that the earliest vernacular Romance writing occurred in Northern France: Generally, the development of vernacular writing in a given area was forced by the almost total inability of Romance speakers to understand the Classical Latin that still served as the vehicle of writing and culture.

Gallo-Romance languages as a whole are usually characterized by the loss of all unstressed final vowels other than /-a/ (most significantly, final /-o/ and /-e/ were lost). However, when the loss of a final vowel would result in an impossible final cluster (e.g. /tr/), a prop vowel appears in place of the lost vowel, usually /e/. Generally, the same changes also occurred in final syllables closed by a consonant.

Furthermore, loss of /e/ in a final syllable was early enough in Primitive Old French that the Classical Latin third-singular /t/ was often preserved, e.g. venit "he comes" > /ˈvɛːnet/ (Romance vowel changes) > /ˈvjɛnet/ (diphthongization) > /ˈvjɛned/ (lenition) > /ˈvjɛnd/ (Gallo-Romance final vowel loss) > /ˈvjɛnt/ (final devoicing). Elsewhere, final vowel loss occurred later and/or unprotected /t/ was lost earlier (perhaps under Italian influence).

Gallo-Romance can be divided into four subgroups:

Other than southern Occitano-Romance, the Gallo-Romance languages are quite innovatory, with French and some of the Gallo-Italian languages rivaling each other for the most extreme phonological changes compared with conservative languages. For example, French sain, saint, sein, ceint, ceint meaning "healthy, holy, breast, (he) girds, (was) girded" (Latin sānum, sanctum, sinum, cinget, cinctum) are all pronounced /sɛ̃/; similarly cent, sent, sans, sang meaning "hundred, (he) feels, without, blood" (Latin centum, sentit, (ab)sentis, sanguen) are all pronounced /sɑ̃/.

In some ways, however, the Gallo-Romance languages are conservative. The older stages of many of the languages are famous for preserving a two-case system consisting of nominative and oblique, fully marked on nouns, adjectives and determiners, inherited almost directly from the Latin nominative and accusative cases and preserving a number of different declensional classes and irregular forms.

In the opposite of the normal pattern, the languages closest to the oïl epicenter preserve the case system the best, while languages at the periphery — near to languages that had long before lost the case system except on pronouns — lose it early. For example, the case system is well preserved in Old Occitan up through the thirteenth century or so but is totally lost in Old Catalan at the time, despite being virtually the same language at the time.

The Occitan group is known for an innovatory /ɡ/ ending on many subjunctive and preterite verbs, and an unusual development of [ð] (Latin intervocalic -d-), which in many varieties merges with [dz] (from intervocalic palatalized -c- and -ty-).

The following tables show two examples of the extensive phonological changes that French has undergone. (Compare modern Italian saputo, vita, even more conservative than the reconstructed Western Romance forms.)

Extensive reduction in French: sapūtum > su /sy/ "known"
Language Change Form Pronun.
Vulgar Latin -- saˈpūtum /saˈpuːtũː/
Western Romance vowel changes,
first lenition
Gallo-Romance loss of final vowels /saˈbuːd/
second lenition /saˈvuːð/
pre-French final devoicing,
loss of length
loss of /v/ near
rounded vowel
early Old French fronting of /u/ seüṭ /səˈyθ/
Old French loss of dental fricatives seü /səˈy/
French collapse of hiatus su /sy/
Extensive reduction in French: vītam > vie /vi/ "life"
Language Change Form Pronun.
Vulgar Latin -- vītam /ˈviːtãː/
Western Romance vowel changes,
first lenition
early Old French second lenition,
loss of length,
final /a/ to /ə/
viḍe /ˈviðə/
Old French loss of dental fricatives vie /ˈviə/
French loss of final schwa vie /vi/

Notable characteristics of the Gallo-Romance languages are:

  • Early loss of all final vowels other than /a/ — the defining characteristic, as noted above.
  • Further reductions of final vowels in Langue d'oïl and many Gallo-Italic languages, with the feminine /a/ and prop vowel /e/ merging into /ə/, which is often subsequently dropped.
  • Early, heavy reduction of unstressed vowels in the interior of a word (another defining characteristic). This, along with final vowel reduction, accounts for the lion's share of the extreme phonemic differences between the Northern and Central Italian dialects, which otherwise share a great deal of vocabulary and syntax.
  • Loss of final vowels phonemicized the long vowels that formerly were automatic concomitants of stressed open syllables. These phonemic long vowels are maintained directly in many Northern Italian dialects. Elsewhere, phonemic length was lost, but in the meantime many of the long vowels diphthongized, resulting in a maintenance of the original distinction. The langue d'oïl branch is again at the forefront of innovation, with no less than five of the seven long vowels diphthongizing (only high vowels were spared).
  • Front rounded vowels are present in all four branches. /u/ usually fronts to /y/, and secondary mid front rounded vowels often develop from long /oː/ and/or /ɔː/.
  • Extreme lenition (i.e. multiple rounds of lenition) occurs in many languages esp. in Langue d'oïl and many Gallo-Italian languages. Examples from French: ˈvītam > vie /vi/ "life"; *saˈpūtum > su /sy/ "known"; similarly vu /vy/ "seen" < *vidūtum, pu /py/ "been able" < *potūtum, eu /y/ "had" < *habūtum.
  • The Langue d'oïl, Swiss Rhaeto-Romance languages and many of the northern dialects of Occitan have a secondary palatalization of /k/ and /ɡ/ before /a/, producing different results from the primary Romance palatalization: e.g. centum "hundred" > cent /sɑ̃/, cantum "song" > chant /ʃɑ̃/.
  • Other than the Occitano-Romance languages, most Gallo-Romance languages are subject-obligatory (whereas all the rest of the Romance languages are pro-drop languages). This is a late development triggered by progressive phonetic erosion: Old French was still a null-subject language, and this only changed upon loss of secondarily final consonants in Middle French.

The Gallo-Italian and Italian Rhaeto-Romance languages have a number of features in common with the other Italian languages:

  • Loss of final /s/, which triggers raising of the preceding vowel (more properly, the /s/ "debuccalizes" to /j/, which is monophthongized into a higher vowel), e.g. /-as/ > /-e/, /-es/ > /-i/, hence Standard Italian plural cani < canes, subjunctive tu canti < tu cantes, indicative tu cante < tu cantas (now tu canti in Standard Italian, borrowed from the subjunctive); amiche "female friends" < amicas.[21]
  • Use of nominative -i for masculine plurals instead of accusative -os.

Pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages

Some Romance languages have developed varieties which seem dramatically restructured as to their grammars or to be mixtures with other languages. It is not always clear whether they should be classified as Romance, pidgins, creole languages, or mixed languages. Some other languages, such as English, are sometimes thought of as creoles of semi-Romance ancestry. There are several dozens of creoles of French, Spanish, and Portuguese origin, some of them spoken as national languages in former European colonies.

Creoles of French:

Creoles of Spanish:

Creoles of Portuguese:

Auxiliary and constructed languages

Latin and the Romance languages have also served as the inspiration and basis of numerous auxiliary and constructed languages, such as Interlingua, its reformed version Modern Latin, Latino sine flexione, Occidental, and Lingua Franca Nova, as well as languages created for artistic purposes only, such as Talossan. Because Latin is a very well attested ancient language, some amateur linguists have even constructed Romance languages that mirror real languages that developed from other ancestral languages. These include Brithenig (which mirrors Welsh), Breathanach[22] (mirrors Irish), Wenedyk (mirrors Polish), Þrjótrunn (mirrors Icelandic),[23] and Helvetian (mirrors German).[24]

Linguistic features

Basic features

Romance languages have a number of shared features across all languages:

  • Romance languages are moderately inflecting, i.e. there is a moderately complex system of affixes (primarily suffixes) that are attached to words to convey grammatical information such as number, gender, person, tense, etc. Verbs have much more inflection than nouns. The amount of synthesis is significantly more than English, but less than Classical Latin and much less than the oldest Indo-European languages (e.g. Ancient Greek, Sanskrit). Inflection is fusional, with a single affix representing multiple features (as contrasted with agglutinative languages such as Turkish or Japanese). For example, Portuguese amei "I loved" is composed of am- "love" and the fusional suffix -ei "first person, singular, preterite tense, indicative".
  • Romance languages have a fairly strict subject–verb–object word order, with predominant use of head-first (right-branching) constructions. Adjectives, genitives and relative clauses all follow their head noun, although (except in Romanian) determiners usually precede.
  • In general, nouns, adjectives and determiners inflect only according to grammatical gender (masculine or feminine) and grammatical number (singular or plural). Grammatical case is marked only on pronouns, as in English; case marking, as in English, is of the nominative–accusative type (rather than e.g. the ergative–absolutive marking of Basque or the split ergativity of Hindi). A significant exception, however, is Romanian, with two-case marking (nominative/accusative vs. genitive/dative) on nominal elements.
  • Verbs are inflected according to a complex morphology that marks person, number (singular or plural), tense, mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative), and sometimes aspect and/or gender. Grammatical voice (active, passive, middle/reflexive) and some grammatical aspects (in particular, the perfect aspect) are expressed using periphrastic constructions.
  • Most Romance languages are null subject languages (but modern French is not, as a result of the phonetic decay of verb endings).
  • All Romance languages have two articles (definite and indefinite), and many have in addition a partitive article (expressing the concept of "some"). In some languages (notably, French), the use of an article with a noun is nearly obligatory; it serves to express grammatical number (no longer marked on most nouns) and to cope with the extreme homophony of French vocabulary as a result of extensive sound reductions.
  • The phonology of most Romance languages is of moderate size with few unusual phonemes. Phonemic vowel length is uncommon. Some languages have developed nasal vowels and/or front rounded vowels.
  • Word accent is of the stress (dynamic) type, rather than making use of pitch (as in Ancient Greek and some modern Slavic languages), and is free, occurring more or less unpredictably on one of the last three syllables. In practice, the stress is largely predictable, due to the many morphological and phonological stress-related patterns.

Changes from Classical Latin

Case system

The most significant changes between Classical Latin and Proto-Romance (and hence all the modern Romance languages) relate to the reduction and loss of the Latin case system, and the corresponding syntactic changes that were triggered.

The case system was drastically reduced from the vigorous six-case system of Latin. Although four cases can be constructed for Proto-Romance nouns (nominative, accusative, combined genitive/dative, and vocative), the vocative is marginal and present only in Romanian (where it may be an outright innovation), and of the remaining cases, no more than two are present in any one language. Romanian is the only modern Romance language with case marking on nouns, with a two-way opposition between nominative/accusative and genitive/dative. Some of the older Gallo-Romance languages (in particular, Old French, Old Occitan, Old Sursilvan and Old Friulian, and in traces Old Catalan and Old Venetan) had an opposition between nominative and general oblique, and in Ibero-Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, as well as in Italian (see under Case), a couple of examples are found which preserve the old nominative (though some of them may be influenced by Latin) and indicate that they formerly had this opposition, as well.

The system of multiple noun declensions was also dramatically reduced; most modern languages have only three types (masculine -o, feminine -a, and an -e that can be either gender). As in English, case is preserved better on pronouns than elsewhere, with some pronouns marked for as many as four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) plus additional possessive and disjunctive forms.

Concomitant with the loss of cases, freedom of word order was greatly reduced. Classical Latin had a generally verb-final (SOV) but overall quite free word order, with a significant amount of word scrambling and mixing of left-branching and right-branching constructions. The Romance languages eliminated word scrambling and nearly all left-branching constructions, with most languages developing a rigid SVO, right-branching syntax. (Old French, however, had a freer word order due to the two-case system still present, as well as a predominantly verb-second word order developed under the influence of the Germanic languages.)

Some freedom, however, is allowed in the placement of adjectives relative to their head noun. In addition, some languages (e.g. Spanish, Romanian) have an "accusative preposition" (Romanian pe, Spanish "personal a") along with clitic doubling, which allows for some freedom in ordering the arguments of a verb.

The Romance languages developed grammatical articles where Latin had none. Articles are often introduced around the time a robust case system falls apart in order to disambiguate the remaining case markers (which are usually too ambiguous by themselves) and to serve as parsing clues that signal the presence of a noun (a function formerly served by the case endings themselves).

This was the pattern followed by the Romance languages: In the Romance languages that still preserved a functioning nominal case system (e.g. Romanian and Old French), only the combination of article and case ending serves to uniquely identify number and case (compare the similar situation in modern German). All Romance languages have a definite article (originally developed from ipse "self" but replaced in nearly all languages by ille "that (over there)") and an indefinite article (developed from ūnus "one"). Many also have a partitive article ( "of" + definite article).

Latin had a large number of syntactic constructions expressed through infinitives, participles, and similar nominal constructs. Examples are the ablative absolute, the accusative-plus-infinitive construction used for reported speech, gerundive constructions, and the common use of reduced relative clauses expressed through participles. All of these are replaced in the Romance languages by subordinate clauses expressed with finite verbs, making the Romance languages much more "verbal" and less "nominal" than Latin. Under the influence of the Balkan sprachbund, Romanian has progressed the furthest, largely eliminating the infinitive. (It is currently being revived, however, due to the increasing influence of other Romance languages.)

Other changes
  • Loss of phonemic vowel length, and change into a free-stressed language. Classical Latin had an automatically determined stress on the second or third syllable from the end, conditioned by vowel length; once vowel length was neutralized, stress was no longer predictable so long as it remained where it was (which it mostly did).
  • Development of a series of palatal consonants as a result of palatalization.
  • Loss of most traces of the neuter gender.
  • Development of a series of analytic perfect tenses, comparable to English "I have done, I had done, I will have done".
  • Loss of the Latin synthetic passive voice, replaced by an analytic construction comparable to English "it is/was done".
  • Loss of deponent verbs, replaced by active-voice verbs.
  • Replacement of the Latin future tense with a new tense formed (usually) by a periphrasis of infinitive + present tense of habēre "have", which usually contracts into a new synthetic tense. A corresponding conditional tense is formed in the same way but using one of the past-tense forms of habēre.
  • Numerous lexical changes. A number of words were borrowed from the Germanic languages and Celtic languages. Many basic nouns and verbs, especially those that were short and/or had irregular morphology, were replaced by longer derived forms with regular morphology. Throughout the medieval period, words were borrowed from Classical Latin in their original form (learned words) or in something approaching the original form (semi-learned words), often replacing the popular forms of the same words.



Every language has a different set of vowels from every other. Common characteristics are as follows:

  • Most languages have at least five monophthongs /a e i o u/. The parent language of most of the Italo-Western Romance languages (which includes the vast majority) actually had a seven-vowel system /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, which is kept in most Italo-Western languages. In some languages, like Spanish and Romanian, the phonemic status and difference between open-mid and close-mid vowels was lost. French has probably the largest inventory of monophthongs, with conservative varieties having 12 oral vowels /a ɑ ɛ e i ɔ o u œ ø y ə/ [25] and 4 nasal vowels /ɑ̃ ɛ̃ ɔ̃ œ̃/. European Portuguese also has a large inventory, with 9 oral monophthongs /a ɐ ɛ e i ɔ o u ɨ/, 5 nasal monophthongs /ɐ̃ ẽ ĩ õ ũ/, and a large number of oral and nasal diphthongs (see below). (The phonemic status of /ɐ ɨ/ is somewhat doubtful, however, and neither phoneme exists in Brazilian Portuguese).[26]
  • Some languages have a large inventory of falling diphthongs. These may or may not be considered as phonemic units (rather than sequences of vowel+glide), depending on their behavior. As an example, French, Spanish and Italian have occasional instances of putative falling diphthongs formed from a vowel plus a non-syllabic /i/ or /u/ (e.g. Spanish veinte /ˈbeinte/ "twenty", deuda /ˈdeuda/ [ˈdeuða] "debt"; French paille /paj/ "straw", caoutchouc /kawˈtʃu/ "rubber"; Italian lui /ˈlui/ "he", potei /poˈtei/ "I could"), but these are normally analyzed as sequences of vowel and glide. The diphthongs in Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan and Occitan, however, have various properties suggesting that they are better analyzed as unit phonemes. Portuguese, for example, has the diphthongs /aj ɐj ɛj ej ɔj oj uj aw ɛw ew iw (ow)/, where /ow/ (and to a lesser extent /ej/) appear only in some dialects. All except /aw ɛw/ appear frequently in verb and/or noun inflections. (Portuguese also has nasal diphthongs; see below.)
  • Among the major Romance languages, Portuguese and French have nasal vowel phonemes, stemming from nasalization before a nasal consonant followed by loss of the consonant (this occurred especially when the nasal consonant was not directly followed by a vowel). Originally, vowels in both languages were nasalized before all nasal consonants, but have subsequently become denasalized before nasal consonants that still remain (except in Brazilian Portuguese, where the pre-nasal vowels in words such as cama "bed", menos "less" remain highly nasalized). In Portuguese, nasal vowels are sometimes analyzed as phonemic sequences of oral vowels plus an underlying nasal consonant, but such an analysis is difficult in French because of the existence of minimal pairs such as bon /bɔ̃/ "good (masc.)", bonne /bɔn/ "good (fem.)". In both languages, there are fewer nasal than oral vowels. Nasalization triggered vowel lowering in French, producing the 4 nasal vowels /ɑ̃ ɛ̃ ɔ̃ œ̃/ (although most speakers nowadays pronounce /œ̃/ as /ɛ̃/). Vowel raising was triggered in Portuguese, however, producing the 5 nasal vowels /ɐ̃ ẽ ĩ õ ũ/. Vowel contraction and other changes also resulted in the Portuguese nasal diphthongs /ɐ̃w̃ õw̃ ɐ̃j̃ ẽj̃ õj̃ ũj̃/ (of which /ũj̃/ occurs in only one word, muito /mũj̃tu/ "much, many, very", and /ẽj̃ õw̃/ are actually final-syllable allophones of /ẽ õ/).
  • Most languages have fewer vowels in unstressed syllables than stressed syllables. This again reflects the Italo-Western Romance parent language, which had a seven-vowel system in stressed syllables (as described above) but only /a e i o u/ (with no low-mid vowels) in unstressed syllables. Some languages have seen further reductions: e.g. Standard Catalan has only [ə i u] in unstressed syllables. In French, on the other hand, any vowel may take prosodic stress.
  • Most languages have even fewer vowels in word-final unstressed syllables than elsewhere. For example, Old Italian allowed only /a e i o/, while the early stages of most Western Romance languages allowed only /a e o/. The Gallo-Romance languages went even farther, deleting all final vowels except /a/. Of these languages, French has carried things to the extreme by deleting all vowels after the accented syllable and uniformly accenting the final syllable (except for a more-or-less non-phonemic final unstressed [ə] that occasionally appears). Modern Spanish now allows final unstressed /i u/, and modern Italian allows final unstressed /u/, but they tend to occur largely in borrowed or onomatopoeic words, e.g. guru "guru", taxi "taxi", Spanish tribu "tribe" and espíritu "spirit" (loanwords from Classical Latin), Italian babau "bogeyman" (onomatopoeic, cf. English "boo!"). The apparent Spanish exception casi "almost" originates from Latin quasi "as if" < quam sī, and was probably influenced by si "if".
  • Phonemic vowel length is uncommon. Vulgar Latin lost the phonemic vowel length of Classical Latin and replaced it with a non-phonemic length system where stressed vowels in open syllables were long, and all other vowels were short. Standard Italian still maintains this system, and it was rephonemicized in the Gallo-Romance languages (including the Rhaeto-Romance languages) as a result of the deletion of many final vowels. Some northern Italian languages (e.g. Friulan) still maintain this secondary phonemic length, but in most languages the new long vowels were either diphthongized or shortened again, in the process eliminating phonemic length. French is again the odd man out: Although it followed a normal Gallo-Romance path by diphthongizing five of the seven long vowels and shortening the remaining two, it phonemicized a third vowel length system around 1300 AD in syllables formerly closed with an /s/ (still marked with a circumflex accent), and now is in the process of phonemicizing a fourth system as a result of lengthening before final voiced fricatives.


Most Romance languages have similar sets of consonants. The following is a combined table of the consonants of the five major Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian).


  • bold: Appears in all 5 languages.
  • italic: Appears in 3–4 languages.
  • (parentheses): Appears in 2 languages.
  • ((double parentheses)): Appears in only 1 language.

Notable changes:

  • Spanish has no phonemic voiced fricatives (however, [β ð ɣ] occur as allophones of /b d ɡ/ after a vowel and after certain consonants). The equivalent of /v/ merged with /b/, and all the rest became voiceless. It also lost /ʃ/, which became /x/ or /h/ in some other dialects.
  • The western languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese) all used to have the affricates /ts/, /dz/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/. By the fourteenth century or so, these all turned into fricatives except for Spanish and dialectal Portuguese /tʃ/. (Spanish /ts/ ended up becoming /θ/, at least in Northern and Central Spain; elsewhere, it merged with /s/, as in the other languages.) Romanian /dz/ likewise became /z/.
  • French, and recently most varieties of Spanish, have lost /ʎ/ (which merged with /j/). Romanian merged both /ʎ/ and /ɲ/ into /j/.

Most instances of most of the sounds below that occur (or used to occur, as described above) in all of the languages are cognate. However:

  • Although all of the languages have or used to have /tʃ/, almost none of these sounds are cognate between pairs of languages. The only real exception is many /tʃ/ between Italian and Romanian, stemming from Latin C- before E or I. Italian also has /tʃ/ from Vulgar Latin -CY-, and from -TY- following a consonant (elsewhere /ts/). Former French /tʃ/ is from Latin C- before A, either word-initial or following a consonant; Spanish /tʃ/ is from Latin -CT-, or from PL, CL following a consonant; former Portuguese /tʃ/ is from Latin PL, CL, FL, either word-initial or following a consonant.
  • Italian and former Romanian /dz/ (from some instances of Vulgar Latin -DY-) are not cognate with former western /dz/ (from lenition of /ts/).
Romance consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Interdental Dental/
Palatal Velar/
Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced Voiceless
Nasal m n ɲ
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Affricate (ts) ((dz)) ()
Fricative f v ((θ)) s z ʃ ʒ ((x)) ((h))
Rhotic ɾ,r (ʁ)
Lateral l (ʎ)
Approximant j w

Lexical stress

Word stress was rigorously predictable in classical Latin except in a very few exceptional cases, either on the penultimate syllable (second from last) or antepenultimate syllable (third from last), according to the syllable weight of the penultimate syllable. Stress in the Romance Languages mostly remains on the same syllable as in Latin, but various sound changes have made it no longer so predictable. Minimal pairs distinguished only by stress exist in some languages, e.g. Italian Papa [ˈ] "Pope" vs. papà [pa.ˈpa] "daddy", or Spanish imperfect subjunctive cantara [kan.ˈta.ɾa] "[if he] sang" vs. future cantará [kan.ta.ˈɾa] "[he] will sing".

Erosion of unstressed syllables following the stress has caused most Spanish and Portuguese words to have either penultimate or ultimate stress: e.g. Latin trēdecim "thirteen" > Spanish trece, Portuguese treze; Latin are "to love" > Spanish/Portuguese amar. Most words with antepenultimate stress are learned borrowings from Latin, e.g. Spanish/Portuguese fábrica "factory" (the corresponding inherited word is Spanish fragua, Portuguese frágua "forge"). This process has gone even farther in French, with deletion of all post-stressed vowels, leading to consistent, predictable stress on the last syllable: e.g. Latin Stephanum "Stephen" > Old French Estievne > French Étienne /e.ˈtjɛn/; Latin juvenis "young" > Old French juevne > French jeune /ʒœn/. This applies even to borrowings: e.g. Latin fabrica > French borrowing fabrique /fa.ˈbʀik/ (the inherited wor in this case being monosyllabic forge < Pre-French *fauriga).

Other than French (with consistent final stress), the position of the stressed syllable generally falls on one of the last three syllables. Exceptions may be caused by clitics or (in Italian) certain verb endings, e.g. Italian telefonano [teˈlɛ] "they telephone"; Spanish entregándomelo [en.tɾe.ˈɣ] "delivering it to me"; Italian mettiamocene [meˈtːjaː.mo.tʃ] "let's put some of it in there"; Portuguese dávamo-vo-lo [ˈda.vɐ] "we were giving it to you". Stress on verbs is almost completely predictable in Spanish and Portuguese, but less so in Italian.

Nominal morphology

Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns can be marked for gender, number and case. Adjectives and pronouns must agree in all features with the noun they are bound to.


The Romance languages inherited from Latin two grammatical numbers, singular and plural; there is no trace of a dual number.


Most Romance languages have two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. The gender of animate nouns is generally natural (i.e. nouns referring to men are generally masculine, and vice-versa), but for nonanimate nouns it is arbitrary.

Although Latin had a third gender (neuter), there is little trace of this in most languages. The biggest exception is Romanian, where there is a productive class of "neuter" nouns, which include the descendants of many Latin neuter nouns and which behave like masculines in the singular and feminines in the plural, both in the endings used and in the agreement of adjectives and pronouns (e.g. un deget "one finger" vs. două degete "two fingers", cf. Latin digitus, pl. digiti).

Such nouns arose because of the identity of the Latin neuter singular -um with the masculine singular, and the identity of the Latin neuter plural -a with the feminine singular. A similar class exists in Italian, although it is no longer productive (e.g. il dito "the finger" vs. le dita "the fingers", l'uovo "the egg" vs. le uova "the eggs"). (A few isolated nouns in Latin had different genders in the singular and plural, but this was an unrelated phenomenon; this is similarly the case with a few French nouns, such as amour, délice, orgue.)

Spanish also has vestiges of the neuter in two demonstrative adjectives: eso, aquello (both meaning "that [one]"), the pronoun ello (meaning "it") and the article lo (used to intensify adjectives). Portuguese also has neuter demonstrative adjectives: "isto", "isso", "aquilo" (meaning "this [near me]", "this/that [near you]", "that [far from the both of us]").


Latin had an extensive case system, where all nouns were declined in six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, dative, genitive, and ablative) and two numbers. Adjectives were additionally declined in three genders, leading to potentially 36 (6 * 2 * 3) different endings per adjective. In practice, some category combinations had identical endings to other combinations, but a basic adjective like bonus "good" still had 14 distinct endings.

Spanish pronoun inflections
Case "I" "thou" "oneself" "he" "she" "we"
Nominative yo él ella nosotros
Accusative me te se lo la nos
Dative me te se le le nos
Genitive mío tuyo suyo suyo; de él suyo; de ella nuestro
Possessive mi tu su su su nuestro
Disjunctive ti él ella nosotros
With con conmigo contigo consigo con él con ella con nosotros
(archaic connosco)

In all Romance languages, this system was drastically reduced. In most modern Romance languages, in fact, case is no longer marked at all on nouns, adjectives and determiners, and most forms are derived from the Latin accusative case. Much like English, however, case has survived somewhat better on pronouns.

Most pronouns have distinct nominative, accusative, genitive and possessive forms (cf. English "I, me, mine, my"). Many also have a separate dative form, a disjunctive form used after prepositions, and (in some languages) a special form used with the preposition con "with" (a conservative feature inherited from Latin forms such as mēcum, tēcum, nobiscum).

Spanish inflectional classes
"boy" "girl" "man" "woman"
Singular chico chica hombre mujer
Plural chicos chicas hombres mujeres

The system of inflectional classes is also drastically reduced. The basic system is most clearly indicated in Spanish, where there are only three classes, corresponding to the first, second and third declensions in Latin: plural in -as (feminine), plural in -os (masculine), plural in -es (either masculine or feminine). The singular endings exactly track the plural, except the singular -e is dropped after certain consonants.

The same system underlines many other modern Romance languages, such as Portuguese, French and Catalan. In these languages, however, further sound changes have resulted in various irregularities. In Portuguese, for example, loss of /l/ and /n/ between vowels (with nasalization in the latter case) produces various irregular plurals (nação – nações "nation(s)"; hotel – hotéis "hotel(s)").

In French and Catalan, loss of /o/ and /e/ in most unstressed final syllables has caused the -os and -es classes to merge. In French, merger of remaining /e/ with final /a/ into [ə], and its subsequent loss, has completely obscured the original Romance system, and loss of final /s/ has caused most nouns to have identical pronunciation in singular and plural, although they are still marked differently in spelling (e.g. femme – femmes "woman – women", both pronounced /fam/).

Romanian noun inflections
Definiteness Case "boy" "girl"
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Indefinite Nominative
băiat băieți fată fete
băiat băieți fete fete
Vocative băiatule, băiete băietilor fato (fată) fetelor
Definite Nominative
băiatul băieții fata fetele
băiatului băieților fetei fetelor

Noun inflection has survived in Romanian somewhat better than elsewhere.[27]:399 Determiners are still marked for two cases (nominative/accusative and genitive/dative) in both singular and plural, and feminine singular nouns have separate endings for the two cases. In addition, there is a separate vocative case, and the combination of noun with a following clitic definite article produces a separate set of "definite" inflections for nouns.

The inflectional classes of Latin have also survived more in Romanian than elsewhere, e.g. om – oameni "man – men" (Latin homohomines); corp – corpuri "body – bodies" (Latin corpuscorpora). (Many other exceptional forms, however, are due to later sound changes or analogy, e.g. casă – case "house(s)" vs. lună – luni "moon(s)"; frate – fraţi "brother(s)" vs. carte – cărţi "book(s)" vs. vale – văi "valley(s)".)

In Italian, the situation is somewhere in between Spanish and Romanian. There are no case endings and relatively few classes, as in Spanish, but noun endings are generally formed with vowels instead of /s/, as in Romanian: amico – amici "friend(s) (masc.)", amica – amiche "friend(s) (fem.)"; cane – cani "dog(s)". The masculine plural amici is thought to reflect the Latin nominative plural rather than accusative plural -ōs (Spanish -os); however, the other plurals are thought to stem from special developments of Latin -ās and -ēs.

Evolution of case in various Romance languages (Latin bonus "good")
Case Latin Spanish Old French[8]:100 Old Sursilvan[27]:367 Romanian[27]:402
Masculine singular Nominative bonus bueno buens buns bun
Vocative bone
Accusative bonum buen biVn
Genitive bonī
Dative bonō
Ablative bonō
Masculine plural Nominative bonī buenos buen biVni buni
Vocative bonī
Accusative bonōs buens buns
Genitive bonōrum
Dative bonīs
Ablative bonīs
Feminine singular Nominative bona buena buene buna bună
Vocative bona
Accusative bonam
Genitive bonae bune
Dative bonae
Ablative bonā
Feminine plural Nominative bonae buenas buenes bunas bune
Vocative bonae
Accusative bonās
Genitive bonārum
Dative bonīs
Ablative bonīs

A different type of noun inflection survived into the medieval period in a number of western Romance languages (Old French, Old Occitan, and the older forms of a number of Rhaeto-Romance languages). This inflection distinguished nominative from oblique, grouping the accusative case with the oblique, rather than with the nominative as in Romanian.

The oblique case in these languages generally inherits from the Latin accusative; as a result, masculine nouns have distinct endings in the two cases while most feminine nouns do not.

A number of different inflectional classes are still represented at this stage. For example, the difference in the nominative case between masculine li voisins "the neighbor" and li pere "the father", and feminine la riens "the thing" vs. la fame "the woman", faithfully reflects the corresponding Latin inflectional differences (vicīnus vs. pater, fēmina vs. rēs).

A number of synchronically quite irregular differences between nominative and oblique reflect direct inheritances of Latin third-declension nouns with two different stems (one for the nominative singular, one for all other forms), most with of which had a stress shift between nominative and the other forms: li ber – le baron "baron" (babanem); la suer – la seror "sister" (sororsorem); li prestre – le prevoire "priest" (presbyterpresbyterem); li sire – le seigneur "lord" (seniorseniōrem); li enfes – l'enfant "child" (infānsinfantem).[28]:36–39

A few of these multi-stem nouns derive from Latin forms without stress shift, e.g. li om – le ome "man" (hohominem). All of these multi-stem nouns refer to people; other nouns with stress shift in Latin (e.g. amorarem "love") have not survived. Interestingly, some of the same nouns with multiple stems in Old French and/or Old Occitan have come down in Italian in the nominative rather than the accusative (e.g. uomo "man" < ho, moglie "wife" < mulier), suggesting that a similar system existed in pre-literary Italian.

The modern situation in Sursilvan (one of the Rhaeto-Romance languages) is unique in that the original nominative/oblique distinction has been reinterpreted as a predicative/attributive distinction:[27]:381

  • il hotel ej vɛɲiws natsionalizaws "the hotel has been nationalized"
  • il hotel natsionalizaw "the nationalized hotel"

Pronouns, determiners

As described above, case marking on pronouns is much more extensive than for nouns. Determiners (e.g. words such as "a", "the", "this") are also marked for case in Romanian.

Most Romance languages have the following sets of pronouns and determiners:

  • Personal pronouns, in three persons and two genders.
  • A reflexive pronoun, used when the object is the same as the subject. This approximately corresponds to English "-self", but separate forms exist only in the third person, with no number marking.
  • Definite and indefinite articles, and in some languages, a partitive article that expresses the concept of "some".
  • A two-way or three-way distinction among demonstratives. Many languages have a three-way distinction of distance (near me, near you, near him) not paralleled in current English, but formerly present as "this/that/yon".
  • Relative pronouns and interrogatives, with the same forms used for both (similar to English "who" and "which").
  • Various indefinite pronouns and determiners (e.g. Spanish algún "some", alguien "someone", algo "something"; ningún "no", nadie "no one"; todo "every"; cada "each"; mucho "much/many/a lot", poco "few/little"; otro "other/another"; etc.).

Personal pronouns

Unlike in English, a separate neuter personal pronoun ("it") generally does not exist, but both singular and plural third person distinguish masculine from feminine. Also, as described above, case is marked on pronouns even though it is not usually on nouns, similar to English. As in English, there are forms for nominative case (subject pronouns), oblique case (object pronouns), and genitive case (possessive pronouns); in addition, third-person pronouns distinguish accusative and dative. There is also an additional set of possessive determiners, distinct from the genitive case of the personal pronoun; this corresponds to the English difference between "my, your" and "mine, yours".

Development from Latin

The Romance languages do not retain the Latin third-person personal pronouns, but have innovated a separate set of third-person pronouns by borrowing the demonstrative ille ("that (over there)"), and creating a separate reinforced demonstrative by attaching a variant of ecce "behold!" (or "here is ...") to the pronoun.

Similarly, in place of the genitive of the Latin pronouns, the Romance languages adopted the reflexive possessive, which then serves indifferently as both reflexive and non-reflexive possessive. Note that the reflexive, and hence the third-person possessive, is unmarked for the gender of the person being referred to. Hence, although gendered possessive forms do exist — e.g. Portuguese seu (masc.) vs. sua (fem.) — these refer to the gender of the object possessed, not the possessor.

The gender of the possessor needs to be made clear by a collocation such as French la voiture à lui/elle, Portuguese o carro dele/dela, literally "the car of him/her". (In spoken Brazilian Portuguese, these collocations are the usual way of expressing the third-person possessive, since the former possessive seu carro now has the meaning "your car".)

The same demonstrative ille was borrowed to create the definite article (see below), which explains the similarity in form between personal pronoun and definite article. When the two are different, it is usually because of differing degrees of phonetic reduction. Generally, the personal pronoun is unreduced (beyond normal sound change), while the article has suffered various amounts of reduction, e.g. Spanish ella "she" < illa vs. la "the (fem.)" < -la < illa.

Clitic pronouns

Object pronouns in Latin were normal words, but in the Romance languages they have become clitic forms, which must stand adjacent to a verb and merge phonologically with it. Originally, object pronouns could come either before or after the verb; sound change would often produce different forms in these two cases, with numerous additional complications and contracted forms when multiple clitic pronouns cooccurred.

Catalan still largely maintains this system with a highly complex clitic pronoun system. Most languages, however, have simplified this system by undoing some of the clitic mergers and requiring clitics to stand in a particular position relative to the verb (usually after imperatives, before other finite forms, and either before or after non-finite forms depending on the language).

When a pronoun cannot serve as a clitic, a separate disjunctive form is used. These result from dative object pronouns pronounced with stress (which causes them to develop differently from the equivalent unstressed pronouns), or from subject pronouns.

Most Romance languages are null subject languages. The subject pronouns are used only for emphasis and take the stress, and as a result are not clitics. In French, however (as in Friulian and in some Gallo-Italian languages of northern Italy), verbal agreement marking has degraded to the point that subject pronouns have become mandatory, and have turned into clitics. These forms cannot be stressed, so for emphasis the disjunctive pronouns must be used in combination with the clitic subject forms. Friulian and the Gallo-Italian languages have actually gone further than this and merged the subject pronouns onto the verb as a new type of verb agreement marking, which must be present even when there is a subject noun phrase. (Some non-standard varieties of French treat disjunctive pronouns as arguments and clitic pronouns as agreement markers.[29])

Familiar–formal distinction

In medieval times, most Romance languages developed a distinction between familiar and polite second-person pronouns (a so-called T-V distinction), similar to the former English distinction between familiar "thou" and polite "you". As in English, this generally developed by appropriating the plural second-person pronoun to serve in addition as a polite singular. French is still at this stage, with familiar singular tu vs. formal or plural vous. In cases like this, the pronoun requires plural agreement in all cases whenever a single affix marks both person and number (as in verb agreement endings and object and possessive pronouns), but singular agreement elsewhere where appropriate (e.g. vous-même "yourself" vs. vous-mêmes "yourselves").

Many languages, however, innovated further in developing an even more polite pronoun, generally composed of a noun phrase (e.g. Portuguese vossa mercê "your mercy", progressively reduced to vossemecê, vosmecê and finally você) and taking third-person singular agreement. A plural equivalent was created at the same time or soon after (Portuguese vossas mercês, reduced to vocês), taking third-person plural agreement. Spanish innovated similarly, with usted(es) from earlier vuestra(s) merced(es).

In Portuguese and Spanish (as in other languages with similar forms), the "extra-polite" forms in time came to be the normal polite forms, and the former polite (or plural) second-person vos knocked down to a familiar form, either becoming a familiar plural (as in European Spanish) or a familiar singular (as in many varieties of Latin American Spanish). In the latter case, it either competes with the original familiar singular tu (as in Guatemala), displaces it entirely (as in Argentina), or is itself displaced (as in Mexico, except in Chiapas). In American Spanish, the gap created by the loss of familiar plural vos was filled by originally polite ustedes, with the result that there is no familiar/polite distinction in the plural, just as in the original tu/vos system.

A similar path was followed by Italian and Romanian. Romanian uses dumneavoastră "your lordship", while Italian the former polite phrase sua eccellenza "your excellency" has simply been supplanted by the corresponding pronoun Ella or Lei (literally "she", but capitalized when meaning "you"). As in European Spanish, the original second-person plural voi serves as familiar plural. (In Italy, during fascist times leading up to World War II, voi was resurrected as a polite singular, and discarded again afterwards, although it remains in some southern dialects.)

Portuguese innovated again in developing a new extra-polite pronoun o senhor "the sir", which in turn downgraded você. Hence, modern European Portuguese has a three-way distinction between "familiar" tu, "equalizing" você and "polite" o senhor. (The original second-person plural vós was discarded centuries ago in speech, and is used today only in translations of the Bible, where tu and vós serve as universal singular and plural pronouns, respectively.)

Brazilian Portuguese, however, has diverged from this system, and most dialects simply use você (and plural vocês) as a general-purpose second person pronoun, combined with te (from tu) as the clitic object pronoun. The form o senhor is sometimes used in speech, but only in situations where an English speaker would say "sir" or "ma'am". The result is that second-person verb forms have disappeared, and the whole pronoun system has been radically realigned. However that is the case only in the spoken language of central and southern Brazil, with the northern areas of the country still largely preserving the second person verb form and the "tu" and "você" distinction.


Latin had no articles as such. The closest definite article was the non-specific demonstrative is, ea, id meaning approximately "this/that/the". The closest indefinite articles were the indefinite determiners aliquī, aliqua, aliquod "some (non-specific)" and certus "a certain".

Romance languages have both indefinite and definite articles, but none of the above words form the basis for either of these. Usually the definite article is derived from the Latin demonstrative ille ("that"), but some languages (e.g. Sardinian, and some dialects spoken around the Pyrenees) have forms from ipse (emphatic, as in "I myself"). The indefinite article everywhere is derived from the number ūnus ("one").

Some languages, e.g. French and Italian, have a partitive article that approximately translates as "some". This is used either with mass nouns or with plural nouns — both cases where the indefinite article cannot occur. A partitive article is used (and in French, required) whenever a bare noun refers to specific (but unspecified or unknown) quantity of the noun, but not when a bare noun refers to a class in general. For example, the partitive would be used in both of the following sentences:

  • I want milk.
  • Men arrived today.

But neither of these:

  • Milk is good for you.
  • I hate men.

The sentence "Men arrived today", however, (presumably) means "some specific men arrived today" rather than "men, as a general class, arrived today" (which would mean that there were no men before today). On the other hand, "I hate men" does mean "I hate men, as a general class" rather than "I hate some specific men".

As in many other cases, French has developed the farthest from Latin in its use of articles. In French, nearly all nouns, singular and plural, must be accompanied by an article (either indefinite, definite, or partitive) or demonstrative pronoun. Due to pervasive sound changes, most nouns are pronounced identically in the singular and plural, and there is often heavy homonymy between nouns and identically pronounced words of other classes.

For example, all of the following are pronounced /sɛ̃/: sain "healthy"; saint "saint, holy"; sein "breast"; ceins "(you) put on, gird"; ceint "(he) puts on, girds"; ceint "put on, girded"; and the equivalent noun and adjective plural forms sains, saints, seins, ceints. The article helps identify the noun forms saint or sein, and distinguish singular from plural; likewise, the mandatory subject of verbs helps identify the verb ceint. In more conservative Romance languages, neither articles nor subject pronouns are necessary, since all of the above words are pronounced differently. (In Italian, for example, the equivalents are sano, santo, seno, cingi, cinge, cinto, sani, santi, seni, cinti, where all vowels and consonants are pronounced as written, and s and c are clearly distinct from each other.)

Latin, at least originally, had a three-way distinction among demonstrative pronouns (hic iste ille) corresponding to first, second and third persons. Such a distinction is not reflected in modern English, but formerly existed as "this" vs. "that" vs. "yon(der)". In urban Latin of Rome, iste came to have a specifically derogatory meaning, but this innovation apparently did not reach the provinces and is not reflected in the modern Romance languages. A number of these languages still have such a three-way distinction, although hic has been lost and the other pronouns have shifted somewhat in meaning. For example, Spanish has este "this" vs. ese "that (near you)" vs. aquel (fem. aquella) "that (over yonder)". The Spanish pronouns derive, respectively, from Latin iste ipse accu-ille, where accu- is an emphatic prefix derived from eccum "behold it!", possibly with influence from atque "and".[30]

Reinforced demonstratives such as accu-ille became necessary once ille came to be used as an article as well as a demonstrative. Such forms were often created even when not strictly needed to distinguish otherwise ambiguous forms. Italian, for example, has both questo "this" (eccu-istum) and quello "that" (eccu-illum), in addition to dialectal codesto "that (near you)" (eccu-tē-istum). French generally prefers forms derived from bare ecce "behold", as in the pronoun ce "this one/that one" (earlier ço, from ecce-hoc) and the determiner ce/cet "this/that" (earlier cest, from ecce-istum).

Reinforced forms are likewise common in locative adverbs (words such as English here and there), based on related Latin forms such as hic "this" vs. hīc "here", hāc "this way", and ille "that" vs. illīc "there", illāc "that way". Here again French prefers bare ecce while Spanish and Italian prefer eccum (French ici "here" vs. Spanish aquí, Italian qui). In western languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, doublets and triplets arose such as Portuguese aqui, acá, cá "(to) here" (accu-hīc, accu-hāc, eccu-hāc). From these, a prefix a- was extracted, from which forms like "there (near you)" (a-(i)bi) and ali "there (over yonder)" (a-(i)llīc) were created; compare Catalan neuter pronouns açò (acce-hoc) "this", això (a-(i)psum-hoc) "that (near you)", allò (a-(i)llum-hoc) "that (yonder)".

Subsequent changes often reduced the number of demonstrative distinctions. Standard Italian, for example, has only a two-way distinction "this" vs. "that", as in English, with second-person and third-person demonstratives combined. In Catalan, however, a former three-way distinction aquest, aqueix, aquell has recently been reduced differently, with first-person and second-person demonstratives combined. Hence aquest means either "this" or "that (near you)"; on the phone, aquest is used to refer both to speaker and addressee.

Old French had a similar distinction to Italian (cist/cest vs. cil/cel), both of which could function as either adjectives or pronouns. Modern French, however, has no distinction between "this" and "that": ce/cet, cette < cest, ceste is only an adjective, and celui, celle < cel lui, celle is only a pronoun, and both forms indifferently mean either "this" or "that". (The distinction between "this" and "that" can be made, if necessary, by adding the suffixes -ci "here" or -là "there", e.g. cette femme-ci "this woman" vs. cette femme-là "that woman", but this is rarely done except when specifically necessary to distinguish two entities from each other.)

Verbal morphology

Correspondence between Latin and Romance tenses
Latin Portuguese Spanish Catalan Occitan French Rhaeto-Romance Italian Romanian Sardinian
Present indicative Present indicative
Present subjunctive Present subjunctive
Imperfect indicative Imperfect indicative
Imperfect subjunctive Personal infinitive Imperfect subjunctive /
Personal infinitive
Future indicative eres ("you are") future of "to be"
in Old French
Perfect indicative Preterite Simple preterite (literary except in Valencian) Preterite Simple past (literary) Preterite (Tuscan Standard Italian);[31]
Literary Remote Past
(Regional Standard Italian in North); Preterite/Perfect
(Regional Standard Italian in South)
Simple past (literary except in the Oltenian dialect) In Old Sardinian;
only traces in modern lang
Perfect subjunctive
Pluperfect indicative Literary pluperfect Imperfect subjunctive (-ra form) Second conditional
in Old Occitan
Second preterite
in very early Old French
(Sequence of Saint Eulalia)[32]
Pluperfect subjunctive Imperfect subjunctive Pluperfect indicative
Future perfect Future subjunctive
(very much alive)
Future subjunctive
possible traces of
future subjunctive
in Old Occitan[33]
possible traces of
future subjunctive
in Old Italian
New future infinitive+habeo voleo+infinitive voleo+infinitive
New conditional infinitive+habebam infinitive+habuisset infinitive+habuit habeo+infinitive
(split apart from
in eighteenth-century Romanian)
Preterite vs. present perfect
(in speech)
preterite only
(present perfect exists,
but has different meaning)
both both (but usually an analytic preterite
vado+infinitive is used)
 ? present perfect only present perfect only both (Tuscan Standard Italian);[31]
present perfect only
(Regional Standard Italian in North);
preference for preterite
(Regional Standard Italian in South)
present perfect only present perfect only

Verbs have many conjugations, including in most languages:

  • A present tense, a preterite, an imperfect, a pluperfect, a future tense and a future perfect in the indicative mood, for statements of fact.
  • Present and preterite subjunctive tenses, for hypothetical or uncertain conditions. Several languages (for example, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish) have also imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives, although it is not unusual to have just one subjunctive equivalent for preterit and imperfect (e.g. no unique subjunctive equivalent in Italian of the so-called passato remoto). Portuguese, and until recently Spanish, also have future and future perfect subjunctives, which have no equivalent in Latin.
  • An imperative mood, for direct commands.
  • Three non-finite forms: infinitive, gerund, and past participle.
  • Distinct active and passive voices, as well as an impersonal passive voice.
  • Note that, although these categories are largely inherited from Classical Latin, many of the forms are either newly constructed or inherited from different categories (e.g. the Romance imperfect subjunctive most commonly is derived from the Latin pluperfect subjunctive, while the Romance pluperfect subjunctive is derived from a new present perfect tense with the auxiliary verb placed in the imperfect subjunctive).

Several tenses and aspects, especially of the indicative mood, have been preserved with little change in most languages, as shown in the following table for the Latin verb dīcere (to say), and its descendants.

Infinitive Indicative Subjunctive Imperative
Present Preterite Imperfect Present Present
Latin dīcere dīcit dīxit dicēbat dīcat/dīcet dīc
Aragonese dicir diz dició deciba/diciba diga diz
Asturian dicir diz dixo dicía diga di
Catalan dir diu/dit digué/va dir/dit deia digui/diga digues
Corsican dice/dici disse/dissi dicia dica/dichi
Emilian dîr dîs l'à détt / dgé dgeva dégga
Franco-Provençal dire di djéve dijisse/dzéze dète
French dire1 dit dit disait dise dis
Galician dicir di dixo dicía diga di
Italian di(ce)re dice disse diceva dica
Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) dezir dize disho dezía diga dezí
Leonese dicire diz dixu dicía diga di
Lombard dis ha dii diseva disa
Mirandese dir diś à dit dgiva diga
Neapolitan dicere dice dicette diceva diche dije
Occitan díser/dire ditz diguèt disiá diga diga
Picard dire dit disoait diche
Piedmontese dis dìsser2, l'ha dit disìa disa dis
Portuguese dizer diz disse dizia diga diz3
Romanian a zice, zicere4 zice zise zicea zică zi
Romansh dir di ha ditg discheva5 dia di
Sardinian nàrrer6 nàrat at naràdu naraìat/nàbat nérzat/nìet nàra
Sicilian dìciri dici dissi dicìa dica7 dici
Spanish decir dice dijo decía diga di
Venetian dir dise disea diga dì/disi
Walloon dire dit a dit dijheut dixhe di
Basic meaning to say he says he said he was saying he says say [thou]
1The spelling is conservative. Note the pronunciations: dire /diʁ/, dit /di/, disait /dizɛ/, dise /diz/, dis /di/.
2Until the eighteenth century.
3With the disused variant dize.
4long infinitive
5In modern times, scheva.
6Derived from the unrelated Latin verb narrāre "to tell (a story)". Note also the pronunciations: narrer /ˈnarrere/, narat /ˈnarada/, at naradu /a nnaˈradu/, naraiat /narˈaiada/, nabat /ˈnabata/, nerzat /ˈnertsada/, niet /ˈniete/, nara /ˈnara/.
7Sicilian now uses imperfect subjunctive dicissi in place of present subjunctive.

The main tense and mood distinctions that were made in classical Latin are generally still present in the modern Romance languages, though many are now expressed through compound rather than simple verbs. The passive voice, which was mostly synthetic in classical Latin, has been completely replaced with compound forms.

  • Owing to sound changes which made it homophonous with the preterite, the Latin future indicative tense was dropped, and replaced with a periphrasis of the form infinitive + present tense of habēre (to have). Eventually, this structure was reanalysed as a new future tense.
  • In a similar process, an entirely new conditional form was created.
  • While the synthetic passive voice of classical Latin was abandoned in favour of periphrastic constructions, most of the active voice remained in use. However, several tenses have changed meaning, especially subjunctives. For example:
    • The Latin pluperfect indicative became a conditional in Sicilian, and an imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.
    • The Latin pluperfect subjunctive developed into an imperfect subjunctive in all languages except Romansh, where it became a conditional, and Romanian, where it became a pluperfect indicative.
    • The Latin preterite subjunctive, together with the future perfect indicative, became a future subjunctive in Old Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician.
    • The Latin imperfect subjunctive became a personal infinitive in Portuguese and Galician.
  • Many Romance languages have two verbs "to be". One is derived from Vulgar Latin *essere < Latin esse "to be" with an admixture of forms derived from sedēre "to sit", and is used mostly for essential attributes; the other is derived from stāre "to stand", and mostly used for temporary states. This development is most notable in Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan. In French, Italian and Romanian, the derivative of stāre largely preserved an earlier meaning of "to stand/to stay", although in modern Italian, stare is used in a few constructions where English would use "to be", as in sto bene "I am well". In Old French, the derivatives of *essere and stāre were estre and ester, respectively. In modern French, estre persists as être "to be" while ester has been lost as a separate verb; but the former imperfect of ester is used as the modern imperfect of être (e.g. il était "he was"), replacing the irregular forms derived from Latin (e.g. ere(t), iere(t) < erat). In Italian, the two verbs share the same past participle, stato. sedēre persists most notably in the future of *essere (e.g. Spanish/Portuguese/French/etc. ser-, Italian sar-), although in Old French the future is a direct derivation from Latin, e.g. (i)ert "he will be" < erit. See Romance copula for further information.

For a more detailed illustration of how the verbs have changed with respect to classical Latin, see Romance verbs.

  • During the Renaissance, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and a few other Romance languages developed a progressive aspect which did not exist in Latin. In French, progressive constructions remain very limited, the imperfect generally being preferred, as in Latin.
  • Many Romance languages now have a verbal construction analogous to the present perfect of English. In some, it has taken the place of the old preterite (at least in the vernacular); in others, the two coexist with somewhat different meanings (cf. English I did vs. I have done). A few examples:
    • preterite only: Galician, Asturian, Sicilian, Leonese, Portuguese, some dialects of Spanish;
    • preterite and present perfect: Catalan, Occitan, standard Spanish;
    • present perfect predominant, preterite now literary: French, Romanian, several dialects of Italian.
    • present perfect only: Romansh

Note that in Catalan, the synthetic preterite is predominantly a literary tense, except in Valencian; but an analytic preterite (formed using an auxiliary vadō, which in other languages signals the future) persists in speech, with the same meaning. In Portuguese, a morphological present perfect does exist but has a different meaning (closer to "I have been doing"), and is rare in practice.

The following are common features of the Romance languages (inherited from Vulgar Latin) that are different from Classical Latin:

  • Adjectives generally follow the noun they modify.
  • The normal clause structure is SVO, rather than SOV, and is much less flexible than in Latin.
  • Many Latin constructions involving nominalized verbal forms (e.g. the use of accusative plus infinitive in indirect discourse and the use of the ablative absolute) were dropped in favor of constructions with subordinate clause. Exceptions can be found in Italian, for example, Latin tempore permittente > Italian tempo permettendo; L. hoc facto > I. ciò fatto.



Romance languages have borrowed heavily, though mostly from other Romance languages. However, some, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and French, have borrowed heavily from other language groups. Vulgar Latin borrowed first from indigenous languages of the Roman empire, and during the Germanic folk movements, from Germanic languages, especially Gothic. Notable examples are *blancus "white", replacing native albus (but Romansh alv, Dalmatian jualb, Romanian alb); *guerra "war", replacing native bellum; and the words for the cardinal directions, where cognates of English "north", "south", "east" and "west" replaced the native words septentriō, merīdiēs (also "noon; midday nap"; cf. Romanian meriză), oriens, and occidens. (See History of French – The Franks.) Some Celtic words were incorporated into the core vocabulary, partly for words with no Latin equivalent (betulla "birch", camisia "shirt", cerevisia "beer"), but in some cases replacing Latin vocabulary (gladius "sword", replacing ensis; cambiāre "to exchange", replacing mūtāre except in Romanian and Portuguese; carrus "cart", replacing currus; pettia "piece", largely displacing pars (later resurrected) and eliminating frustum). Many Greek words also entered the lexicon. e.g. spatha "sword" (replacing gladius which shifted to "iris", cf. French épée, Spanish espada, Italian spada and Romanian spadă); cara "face" (partly replacing faciēs); colpe "blow" (replacing ictus, cf. Spanish golpe, French coup); cata "each" (replacing quisque); common suffixes *-ijāre/-izāre (French oyer/-iser, Spanish -ear/-izar, Italian -eggiare/-izzare, etc.), -ista.

Lexical innovation

Many basic nouns and verbs, especially those that were short and/or had irregular morphology, were replaced by longer derived forms with regular morphology. Nouns, and sometimes adjectives, were often replaced by diminutives, e.g. auris "ear" > auricula (orig. "outer ear") > oricla (Sardinian origra, Italian orecchia/o, Portuguese orelha, etc.); avis "bird" > avicellus (orig. "chick, nestling") > aucellu (Occitan aucèl, Friulian ucel, French oiseau, etc.); caput "head" > capitium (Portuguese cabeça, Spanish cabeza, French chevet "headboard"; but reflexes of caput were retained also, sometimes without change of meaning); vetus "old" > vetulus > veclus (Dalmatian vieklo, Italian vecchio, Portuguese velho, etc.). Sometimes augmentative constructions were used instead: piscis "fish" > Old French peis > peisson (orig. "big fish") > French poisson. Verbs were often replaced by frequentative constructions: canere "to sing" > cantāre; iacere "to throw" > iactāre > *iectāre (Italian gettare, Portuguese jeitar, Spanish echar, etc.); iuvāre > adiūtāre (Italian aiutare, Spanish ayudar, French aider, etc.); vēnārī "hunt" > replaced by *captiāre "to hunt", frequentative of capere "to seize" (Italian cacciare, Portuguese caçar, Romansh catschar, French chasser, etc.).

Many Classical Latin words became archaic or poetic and were replaced by more colloquial terms: equus "horse" > caballus (orig. "nag") (but equa "mare" remains, cf. Spanish yegua); domus "house" > casa (orig. "hut"); ignis "fire" > focus (orig. "hearth"); strāta "street" > rūga (orig. "furrow") or callis (orig. "footpath") (but strāta is continued in Italian strada). In some cases, terms from common occupations became generalized: invenīre "to find" > Ibero-Romance (f)afflāre (orig. "to sniff out", in hunting, cf. Spanish hallar, Portuguese achar); advenīre "to arrive" > Ibero-Romance plicāre (orig. "to fold (sails)", cf. Spanish llegar, Portuguese chegar), elsewhere arripāre (orig. "to harbor at a riverbank", cf. Italian arrivare, French arriver) (advenīre is continued with the meaning "happen", cf. French avenir) . The same thing sometimes happened to religious terms, due to the pervasive influence of Christianity: loquī "to speak" > parabolāre (orig. "to tell parables", cf. Occitan paraular, French parler) or fabulārī (orig. "to tell stories", cf. Spanish hablar, Portuguese falar), based on Jesus' way of speaking in parables.

Many prepositions were used as verbal particles to make new roots and verb stems, e.g. Italian estrarre "to extract" from Latin ex- "out of" and trahere "to pull" (Italian trarre), or to augment already existing words, e.g. French coudre, Italian cucire, Portuguese coser "to sew", from cōnsuere "to sew up", from suere "to sew", with total loss of the bare stem. Many prepositions weakened and commonly became compounded, e.g. de ex > French dès "as of", ab ante > Italian avante "forward". Some words derived from phrases, e.g. Portuguese agora, Spanish ahora "now" < hāc hōrā "at this hour"; French avec "with" (prep.) < Old French avuec (adv.) < ab hoc "away from that"; Spanish tamaño, Portuguese tamanho "size" < tam magnum "so big"; Italian codesto "this, that" (near you) < Old Italian cotevesto < eccum tibi istum approx. "here's that thing of yours"; Portuguese você "you"[34] < vosmecê < vossemecê < Old Portuguese vossa mercee "your mercy".[35]

A number of common Latin words that have disappeared in many or most Romance languages have survived either in the periphery or in remote corners (especially Sardinia). For example, Latin caseum "cheese" in the more outer places (Portuguese queijo, Romansh caschiel, Sardinian càsu, Romanian caş), but in the central areas has been replaced by formāticum, originally "moulded (cheese)" (French fromage, Occitan/Catalan formatge, Italian formaggio); similarly (com)edere "to eat (up)", which survives as Spanish/Portuguese comer but elsewhere is replaced by mandūcāre, originally "to chew" (French manger, Italian mangiare, Romanian mâncare). In some cases, one language happens to preserve a word displaced elsewhere, e.g. Italian ogni "everything" < omnes, displaced elsewhere by tōtum, originally "whole"; Friulian vaî "to cry" < flere "to weep"; Vegliote otijemna "fishing pole" < antenna "yardarm". Sardinian in particular preserves many words entirely lost elsewhere, e.g. emmo "yes" < immo "rather/yes/no", mannu "big" < magnus,[36] narare "to say" < narrāre "to tell", and domo "house" < (abl.) domō "at home". Sardinian even preserves some words that were already archaic in Classical Latin, e.g. àchina "grape" < acinam.


During the Middle Ages, scores of words were borrowed directly from Classical Latin (so-called latinisms), either in their original form (learned loans) or in a somewhat nativized form (semi-learned loans). These introduced many doublets, e.g. Latin fragilis > French fragile "fragile" (learned) vs. frêle "frail" (inherited); Latin fabrica "craft, manufacture" > French fabrique "factory" (learned) vs. forge "forge" (inherited), Spanish fábrica "factory" (learned) vs. fragua "forge" (inherited); Latin ferrum > Spanish fierro (learned) vs. hierro (inherited) both mean "iron"; Latin lēgālis "legal" > French légal "legal" (learned) vs. loyal "loyal" (inherited), Spanish legal "legal" (learned) vs. leal "loyal" (inherited); advōcātus "advocate" > French avocat "barrister (attorney)" (learned) vs. avoué "solicitor (attorney)" (inherited); Latin polīre "to polish" > Portuguese polir "to polish" (learned) vs. puir "to wear thin" (inherited). Sometimes triplets arise: Latin articulus "joint" > Portuguese artículo "joint, knuckle" (learned), artigo "article" (semi-learned), artelho "ankle" (inherited; archaic and dialectal). In many cases, the learned word simply displaced the original popular word, e.g. Spanish crudo "crude" (Old Spanish cruo); French légume "vegetable" (Old French leüm); Portuguese flor "flower" (Old Portuguese chor). The learned loan always looks more like the original than the inherited word does, since regular sound change has been bypassed; likewise, it usually has a meaning closer to the original.

Borrowing from Classical Latin has produced a large number of suffix doublets. Examples from Spanish (learned form first): -ción vs. -zon; -cia vs. -za; -ificar vs. -iguar; -izar vs. -ear; -mento vs. -miento; -tud (< nominative -tūdō) vs. -dumbre (< accusative -tūdine); -ículo vs. -ejo; etc. Similar examples can be found in all the other Romance languages.

This borrowing also introduced large numbers of classical prefixes in their original form (dis-, ex-, post-, trans-) and reinforced many others (re-, popular Spanish/Portuguese des- < dis-, popular French dé- < dis-, popular Italian s- < ex-). Many Greek prefixes and suffixes (hellenisms) also found their way into the lexicon: tele-, poli-/poly-, meta-, pseudo-, -scope/scopo, -logie/logia/logía, etc.

Sound changes


Significant sound changes affected the consonants of the Romance languages.


There was a tendency to eliminate final consonants in Vulgar Latin, either by dropping them (apocope) or adding a vowel after them (epenthesis).

Many final consonants were rare, occurring only in certain prepositions (e.g. ad "towards", apud "at, near (a person)"), conjunctions (sed "but"), demonstratives (e.g. illud "that (over there)", hoc "this"), and nominative singular noun forms, especially of neuter nouns (e.g. lac "milk", mel "honey", cor "heart"). Many of these prepositions and conjunctions were replaced by others, while the nouns were regularized into forms that avoided the final consonants (e.g. *lacte, *mele, *core).

Final -m was dropped in Vulgar Latin. Even in Classical Latin, final -am, -um (accusative endings) was often elided in poetic meter, suggesting the m was weakly pronounced, probably marking the nasalisation of the vowel before it. This nasal vowel lost its nasalization in the Romance languages except in monosyllables, where it became /n/ (cf. Spanish quien < quem, French rien < rem).

As a result, only the following final consonants occurred in Vulgar Latin:

  • Final -t in third-person singular verb forms, and -nt (often reduced to -n) in third-person plural verb forms.
  • Final -s in a large number of morphological endings (verb endings -ās/-ēs/-īs/-is, -mus, -tis; nominative singular -us/-is; plural -ās/-ōs/-ēs) and certain other words (trēs "three", crās "tomorrow", etc.).
  • Final -n in some monosyllables (from earlier -m), and where -nt reduced to -n.
  • Final -r, -d in some prepositions (e.g. ad, per), which were proclitic forms that attached phonologically to the following word.
  • Very occasionally, final -c, e.g. Occitan oc "yes" < hoc (possibly protected by a final epenthetic vowel at one point).

Final -t was eventually dropped in many languages, although this often occurred several centuries after the Vulgar Latin period. For example, the reflex of -t was dropped in Old French and Old Spanish only around AD 1100. In Old French, this occurred only when a vowel still preceded the consonant. Hence venit "he comes" > Old French vient, and the /t/ was never dropped. (It survives to this day in liaison forms, e.g. vient-il? "is he coming?" /vjɛ̃ti(l)/.)

In Italo-Romance and Eastern Romance, eventually all final consonants were either dropped or protected by an epenthetic vowel, except in clitic forms (e.g. prepositions con, per). Modern Italian still has almost no consonant-final words, although Romanian has resurfaced them through later loss of final /u/. For example, amās "you love" > ame > ami; amant "they love" > *aman > amano. On the evidence of "sloppily written" Langobardic documents, however, the loss of final /s/ did not occur till the seventh or eighth century AD, after the Vulgar Latin period, and the presence of many former final consonants is betrayed by the syntactic gemination (raddoppiamento sintattico) that they trigger. It is also thought that /s/ became /j/ rather than simply disappearing: nōs > noi "we", s(ed)ēs > sei "you are", crās > crai "tomorrow" (southern Italian). In unstressed syllables, the resulting diphthongs were simplified: amīcās > /aˈmikai/ > amiche /aˈmike/ "(female) friends", where nominative amīcae should produce **amice rather than amiche (masculine amīcī > amici not **amichi).

Central Western Romance languages eventually regained a large number of final consonants through the general loss of final /e/ and /o/, e.g. Catalan llet "milk" < lactem, foc "fire" < focum, peix "fish" < piscem. In French, most of these secondary final consonants were lost, but tertiary final consonants later arose through the loss of /ə/ < -a. Hence masculine frigidum "cold" > Old French /froit/ > froid /fʁwa/, feminine frigidam > Old French /froidə/ > froide /fʁwad/.


Palatalization was one of the most important processes affecting consonants in Vulgar Latin. This eventually resulted in a whole series of "palatal" and/or postalveolar consonants in most Romance languages, e.g. Italian /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /ts/, /dz/, /ɲ/, /ʎ/.

The following historical stages occurred:

Stage Environment Consonants affected Result Languages affected
1 before /j/ (from -e,i- in hiatus) /t/, /d/ /tsʲ/, /jj~dzʲ~ddʒʲ/ all
2 all remaining, except labial consonants /ttʃʲ~ttsʲ/ < -ky-, /jj~ddʒʲ/ < -gy-, /ɲɲ/, /ʎʎ/, /Cʲ/ all except Sardinian
3 before /i/ /k/, /g/ /tʃʲ~tsʲ/, /j~dʒʲ/ all except Sardinian
4 before /e/ all except Sardinian and Dalmatian
5 before /a/ /tɕ~tʃʲ/, /dʑ~dʒʲ/ north-central Gallo-Romance (e.g. French, northern Occitan); Rhaeto-Romance

Note how the environments become progressively less "palatal", and the languages affected become progressively fewer.

The outcomes of palatalization depended on the historical stage, the consonants involved, and the languages involved. The primary division is between the Western Romance languages, with /ts/ resulting from palatalization of /k/, and the remaining languages (Italo-Romance and Eastern Romance) with /tʃ/ resulting. It is often suggested that /tʃ/ was the original result in all languages, with /tʃ/ > /ts/ a later innovation in the Western Romance languages. Evidence of this is the fact that Italian has both /ttʃ/ and /tts/ as outcomes of palatalization in different environments, while Western Romance has only /(t)ts/. Even more suggestive is the fact that Mozarabic, in southern Spain, had /tʃ/ as the outcome despite being in the "Western Romance" area and geographically disconnected from the remaining /tʃ/ areas; this suggests that Mozarabic was an outlying "relic" area where the change /tʃ/ > /ts/ failed to reach. (Northern French dialects, such as Norman and Picard, also had /tʃ/, but this may be a secondary development, i.e. due to a later sound change /ts/ > /tʃ/.) Note that /ts,dz,dʒ/ eventually became /s,z,ʒ/ in most Western Romance languages. Thus Latin caelum (sky, heaven), pronounced [ˈkailu(m)] with an initial [k], became Italian cielo [ˈtʃɛlo], Romanian cer [tʃer], Spanish cielo [ˈθjelo]/[ˈsjelo], French ciel [sjɛl], Catalan cel [ˈsɛɫ], and Portuguese céu [ˈsɛw].

The outcome of palatalized /d/ and /g/ is less clear:

  • Original /j/ has the same outcome as palatalized /g/ everywhere.
  • Romanian fairly consistently has /z/ < /dz/ from palatalized /d/, but /dʒ/ from palatalized /g/.
  • Italian inconsistently has /ddz~ddʒ/ from palatalized /d/, and /ddʒ/ from palatalized /g/.
  • Most other languages have the same results for palatalized /d/ and /g/: consistent /dʒ/ initially, but either /j/ or /dʒ/ medially (depending on language and exact context). But Spanish has /j/ initially except before /o/, /u/; nearby Gascon is similar.

This suggests that palatalized /d/ > /dʲ/ > either /j/ or /dz/ depending on location, while palatalized /g/ > /j/; after this, /j/ > /(d)dʒ/ in most areas, but Spanish and Gascon (originating from isolated districts behind the western Pyrenees) were relic areas unaffected by this change.

In French, the outcomes of /k/ palatalized by /e,i,j/ and by /a/ were different: centum "hundred" > cent /sɑ̃/ but cantum "song" > chant /ʃɑ̃/.

The original outcomes of palatalization must have continued to be phonetically palatalized even after they had developed into alveolar/postalveolar/etc. consonants. This is clear from French, where all originally palatalized consonants triggered the development of a following glide /j/ in certain circumstances (most visible in the endings -āre, -ātum/ātam). In some cases this /j/ came from a consonant palatalized by an adjoining consonant after the late loss of a separating vowel. For example, mansiōnātam > /masʲoˈnata/ > masʲˈnada/ > /masʲˈnʲæðə/ > early Old French maisnieḍe /maisˈniɛðə/ "household". Similarly, mediētātem > /mejeˈtate/ > /mejˈtade/ > /mejˈtæðe/ > early Old French meitieḍ /mejˈtʲɛθ/ > modern French moitié /mwaˈtje/ "half". In both cases, phonetic palatalization must have remained in primitive Old French at least through the time when unstressed intertonic vowels were lost (c. eighth century AD?), well after the fragmentation of the Romance languages.

The effect of palatalization is indicated in the writing systems of almost all Romance languages, where the letters c g have the "hard" pronunciation [k ɡ] in most situations, but a "soft" pronunciation (e.g. French/Portuguese [s ʒ], Italian/Romanian [tʃ dʒ]) before e i y. (Because Middle English was originally written by scribes speaking Norman French, the English spelling system has the same peculiarity.) This has the effect of keeping the modern spelling similar to the original Latin spelling, but complicates the relationship between sound and letter. In particular, the hard sounds must be written differently before e i y (e.g. Italian ch gh, Portuguese qu gu), and likewise for the soft sounds when not before these letters (e.g. Italian ci gi, Portuguese ç j). Furthermore, in Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and Brazilian Portuguese, the use of u to signal the hard pronunciation before e i y means that a different spelling is also needed to signal the sounds /kw ɡw/ before these letters (Spanish cu gü, Catalan, Occitan and Brazilian Portuguese qü gü).[37] This produces a number of orthographic alternations in verbs whose pronunciation is entirely regular. The following are examples of corresponding first-person plural indicative and subjunctive in a number of regular Portuguese verbs: marcamos marquemos "we mark"; caçamos cacemos "we hunt"; chegamos cheguemos "we arrive"; averiguamos averigüemos "we verify"; adequamos adeqüemos "we adapt"; oferecemos ofereçamos "we offer"; dirigimos dirijamos "we drive" erguemos ergamos "we raise"; delinquimos delincamos "we commit a crime".


Stop consonants shifted by lenition in Vulgar Latin.

The voiced labial consonants /b/ and /w/ (represented by b and v, respectively) both developed a fricative [β] as an intervocalic allophone.[38] This is clear from the orthography; in medieval times, the spelling of a consonantal v is often used for what had been a b in Classical Latin, or the two spellings were used interchangeably. In many Romance languages (Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.), this fricative later developed into a /v/; but in others (Spanish, Galician, some Catalan and Occitan dialects, etc.) reflexes of /b/ and /w/ simply merged into a single phoneme.

Several other consonants were "softened" in intervocalic position in Western Romance (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Northern Italian), but normally not phonemically in the rest of Italy (except some cases of "elegant" or Ecclesiastical words), nor apparently at all in Romanian. The dividing line between the two sets of dialects is called the La Spezia–Rimini Line and is one of the most important isoglosses of the Romance dialects. The changes (instances of diachronic lenition) are as follows:

Single voiceless plosives became voiced: -p-, -t-, -c- > -b-, -d-, -g-. Subsequently, in some languages they were further weakened, either becoming fricatives or approximants, [β̞], [ð̞], [ɣ˕] (as in Spanish) or disappearing entirely (as /t/ and /k/, but not /p/, in French). The following example shows progressive weakening of original /t/: e.g. vītam > Italian vita [ˈvita], Portuguese vida [ˈvidɐ] (European Portuguese [ˈviðɐ]), Spanish vida [ˈbiða], French vie [vi]. These sound changes may be due in part to the influence of Continental Celtic languages.

  • The voiced plosives /d/ and /ɡ/ tended to disappear.
  • The plain sibilant -s- [s] was also voiced to [z] between vowels, although in many languages its spelling has not changed. (In Spanish, intervocalic [z] was later devoiced back to [s]; [z] is only found as an allophone of /s/ before voiced consonants in Modern Spanish.)
  • The double plosives became single: -pp-, -tt-, -cc-, -bb-, -dd-, -gg- > -p-, -t-, -c-, -b-, -d-, -g- in most languages. In French spelling, double consonants are merely etymological, except for -ll- after -i (pronounced [ij]), in most cases.
  • The double sibilant -ss- [sː] also became phonetically single [s], although in many languages its spelling has not changed.

Consonant length is no longer phonemically distinctive in most Romance languages. However some languages of Italy (Italian, Sardinian, Sicilian, and numerous other varieties of central and southern Italy) do have long consonants like /ɡɡ/, /dd/, /bb/, /kk/, /tt/, /pp/, /ll/, /mm/, /nn/, /ss/, and to a lesser extent /rr/, etc., where the doubling indicates a short hold before the consonant is released, in many cases with distinctive lexical value: e.g. note /ˈnɔ.te/ (notes) vs. notte /ˈnɔt.te/ (night), cade /ˈ (s/he, it falls) vs. cadde /ˈ (s/he, it fell). They may even occur at the beginning of words in Romanesco, Neapolitan and Sicilian, and are occasionally indicated in writing, e.g. Sicilian cchiù (more), and ccà (here). In general, the consonants /b/, /ts/, and /dz/ are long at the start of a word, while the archiphoneme |R| is realised as a trill /r/ in the same position.

A few languages have regained secondary geminate consonants. The double consonants of Piedmontese exist only after stressed /ə/, written ë, and are not etymological: vëdde (Latin vidēre, to see), sëcca (Latin sicca, dry, feminine of sech). In standard Catalan and Occitan, there exists a geminate sound /lː/ written ŀl (Catalan) or ll (Occitan), but it is usually pronounced as a simple sound in colloquial (and even some formal) speech in both languages.


In Western Romance, an epenthetic or prosthetic vowel was inserted at the beginning of any word that began with /s/ and another consonant: spatha "sword" > Spanish/Portuguese espada, Catalan espasa, Old French espeḍe > modern épée; Stephanum "Stephen" > Spanish Esteban, Catalan Esteve, Portuguese Estêvão, Old French Estievne > modern Étienne; status "state" > Spanish/Portuguese estado, Catalan estat, Old French estat > modern état; spiritus "spirit" > Spanish espíritu, Portuguese espírito, Catalan esperit, French esprit. Epenthetic /e/ in Western Romance languages was also probably influenced by Continental Celtic languages. While Western Romance words undergo word-initial epenthesis, cognates in Italian do not: spatha > spada, Stephanum > Stefano, status > stato, spiritus > spirito. In Italian, syllabification rules were preserved instead by vowel-final articles, thus feminine spada as la spada, but instead of rendering the masculine *il spaghetto, lo spaghetto came to be the norm. Though receding at present, Italian once had an epenthetic /i/ if a consonant preceded such clusters, so that 'in Switzerland' was in /i/Svizzera. Some speakers still use the prosthetic /i/, and it is fossilized in a few set phrases as per iscritto 'in writing' (although in this case it has probably survived due to the influence of the separate word iscritto < Latin īnscrīptus).

Stressed vowels

Loss of vowel length, reorientation

Evolution of the stressed vowels in early Romance
Classical Proto-
Sardinian Sicilian
Acad.1 Roman IPA Acad.1 IPA IPA
ī long i /iː/ /i/ [i(ː)] i /i/ /i/ /i/
ȳ long y /yː/
i (ĭ) short i /i/ [ɪ] /ɪ/ [ɪ(ː)] /e/
y (y̆) short y /y/
ē long e /eː/ /e/ [e(ː)] /e/
œ oe /oj/ > /eː/
e (ĕ) short e /e/ [ɛ] /ɛ/ [ɛ(ː)] ę /ɛ/ /ɛ/
æ ae /aj/ > [ɛː]
ā long a /aː/ /a/ [a(ː)] a /a/
a (ă) short a /a/
o (ŏ) short o /o/ [ɔ] /ɔ/ [ɔ(ː)] ǫ /ɔ/ /o/ /ɔ/
ō long o /oː/ /o/ [o(ː)] /o/ /u/
(a few words)
au /aw/ > /oː/
u (ŭ) short u /u/ [ʊ] /ʊ/ [ʊ(ː)] /u/
ū long u /uː/ /u/ [u(ː)] u /u/
(most words)
au /aw/ au /aw/
1 Traditional academic transcription in Latin and Romance studies, respectively.

One profound change that affected Vulgar Latin was the reorganisation of its vowel system. Classical Latin had five short vowels, ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ, and five long vowels, ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, each of which was an individual phoneme (see the table in the right, for their likely pronunciation in IPA), and four diphthongs, ae, oe, au and eu (five according to some authors, including ui). There were also long and short versions of y, representing the rounded vowel /y(ː)/ in Greek borrowings, which however probably came to be pronounced /i(ː)/ even before Romance vowel changes started.

There is evidence that in the imperial period all the short vowels except a differed by quality as well as by length from their long counterparts.[39] So, for example ē was pronounced close-mid /eː/ while ĕ was pronounced open-mid /ɛ/, and ī was pronounced close /iː/ while ĭ was pronounced near-close /ɪ/.

During the Proto-Romance period, phonemic length distinctions were lost. Vowels came to be automatically pronounced long in stressed, open syllables (i.e. when followed by only one consonant), and pronounced short everywhere else. This situation is still maintained in modern Italian: cade [ˈkaːde] "he falls" vs. cadde [ˈkadde] "he fell".

The Proto-Romance loss of phonemic length originally produced a system with nine different quality distinctions in monophthongs, where only original /ă ā/ had merged. Soon, however, many of these vowels coalesced:

  • The simplest outcome was in Sardinian,[40] where the former long and short vowels in Latin simply coalesced, e.g. /ĕ ē/ > /e/, /ĭ ī/ > /i/: This produced a simple five-vowel system /a e i o u/.
  • In most areas, however (technically, the Italo-Western languages), the near-close vowels /ɪ ʊ/ lowered and merged into the high-mid vowels /e o/. As a result, Latin pira "pear" and vēra "true", came to rhyme (e.g. Italian and Spanish pera, vera, and Old French poire, voire). Similarly, Latin nucem (from nux "nut") and vōcem (from vōx "voice") become Italian noce, voce, Portuguese noz, voz, and French noix, voix. This produced a seven-vowel system /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, still maintained in conservative languages such as Italian and Portuguese, and lightly transformed in Spanish (where /ɛ/ > /je/, /ɔ/ > /we/).
  • In the Eastern Romance languages (particularly, Romanian), the front vowels /ĕ ē ĭ ī/ evolved as in the majority of languages, but the back vowels /ŏ ō ŭ ū/ evolved as in Sardinian. This produced an unbalanced six-vowel system: /a ɛ e i o u/. In modern Romanian, this system has been significantly transformed, with /ɛ/ > /je/ and with new vowels /ə ɨ/ evolving, leading to a balanced seven-vowel system with central as well as front and back vowels: /a e i ə ɨ o u/.
  • Sicilian is sometimes described as having its own distinct vowel system. In fact, Sicilian passed through the same developments as the main bulk of Italo-Western languages. Subsequently, however, high-mid vowels (but not low-mid vowels) were raised in all syllables, stressed and unstressed; i.e. /e o/ > /i u/. The result is a five-vowel /a ɛ i ɔ u/.

The Proto-Romance allophonic vowel-length system was rephonemicized in the Gallo-Romance languages as a result of the loss of many final vowels. Some northern Italian languages (e.g. Friulan) still maintain this secondary phonemic length, but most languages dropped it by either diphthongizing or shortening the new long vowels.

French phonemicized a third vowel system around AD 1300 as a result of the sound change /VsC/ > /VhC/ > /VːC/ (where V is any vowel and C any consonant). This vowel length was eventually lost by around AD 1700, but the former long vowels are still marked with a circumflex. A fourth vowel length system, still non-phonemic, has now arisen: All nasal vowels as well as the oral vowels /ɑ o ø/ (which mostly derive from former long vowels) are pronounced long in all stressed closed syllables, and all vowels are pronounced long in syllables closed by the voiced fricatives /v z ʒ ʁ vʁ/. This system in turn has been phonemicized in some non-standard dialects (e.g. Haitian Creole), as a result of the loss of final /ʁ/.

Latin diphthongs

The Latin diphthongs ae and oe, pronounced /ai/ and /oi/ in earlier Latin, were early on monophthongized.

ae became /ɛː/ by the first century AD at the latest. Although this sound was still distinct from all existing vowels, the neutralization of Latin vowel length eventually caused its merger with /ɛ/ < short e: e.g. caelum "sky" > French ciel, Spanish/Italian cielo, Portuguese céu /sɛw/, with the same vowel as in mele "honey" > French/Spanish miel, Italian miele, Portuguese mel /mɛl/. A few words show an early merger of ae with /eː/, as in praeda > Gallo-Romance /preːða/ > French proie "prey" (vs. the expected form *priée).

oe generally merged with /eː/: poenam "pain" > Italo-Romance /pena/ > Spanish/Italian pena, French peine. There are relatively few such outcomes, since oe was rare in Classical Latin (most original instances had become Classical ū, as in Old Latin oinos "one" > Classical ūnus[41]).

au merged with ō in the popular speech of Rome already by the first century BC. A number of authors remarked on this explicitly, e.g. Cicero's taunt that the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher had changed his name from Claudius to ingratiate himself with the masses. This change never penetrated far from Rome, however, and the pronunciation /au/ was maintained for centuries in the vast majority of Latin-speaking areas, although it eventually developed into some variety of o in many languages. For example, Italian and French have /ɔ/ as the usual reflex, but this post-dates diphthongization of /ɔ/ and the French-specific palatalization /ka/ > /tʃa/ (hence causa > French chose, Italian cosa /kɔza/ not *cuosa). Spanish has /o/, but Portuguese spelling maintains ou, only recently developed to /o/ (and still /ou/ in some dialects). Occitan, Romanian, southern Italian dialects, and many other minority Romance languages still have /au/. A few common words, however, show an early merger with ō, evidently reflecting a generalization of the popular Roman pronunciation: e.g. French queue, Italian coda /koda/, Occitan coa, Romanian coadă (all meaning "tail") must all derive from cōda rather than Classical cauda.[42] Similarly, Portuguese orelha, Romanian ureche (both "ear") must derive from oricla rather than Classical auris, and the form oricla is in fact reflected in the Appendix Probi (but Occitan aurelha reflects auricla, possibly influenced by a reflex of auris).

Further developments


An early process that operated in all Romance languages to varying degrees was metaphony (vowel mutation), conceptually similar to the umlaut process so characteristic of the Germanic languages. Depending on the language, certain stressed vowels were raised (or sometimes diphthongized) either by a final /i/ or /u/ or by a directly following /j/. Metaphony is most extensive in the Italo-Romance languages, and applies to nearly all languages in Italy; however, it is absent from Tuscan, and hence from standard Italian. In many languages affected by metaphony, a distinction exists between final /u/ (from most cases of Latin -um) and final /o/ (from Latin , -ud and some cases of -um, esp. masculine "mass" nouns), and only the former triggers metaphony.

Some examples:

  • In Servigliano, in the Marches of Italy, stressed /ɛ e ɔ o/ are raised to /e i o u/ before final /i/ or /u/:[43] /ˈmetto/ "I put" vs. /ˈmitti/ "you put" (< *metti < *mettes < Latin mittis); /moˈdɛsta/ "modest (fem.)" vs. /moˈdestu/ "modest (masc.)"; /ˈkwesto/ "this (neut.)" (< Latin eccum istud) vs. /ˈkwistu/ "this (masc.)" (< Latin eccum istum).
  • Calvallo, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, is similar, but the low-mid vowels /ɛ ɔ/ are diphthongized to /je wo/ rather than raised:[44] /ˈmette/ "he puts" vs. /ˈmitti/ "you put", but /ˈpɛnʒo/ "I think" vs. /ˈpjenʒi/ "you think".
  • Metaphony also occurs in most northern Italian dialects, but only by (usually lost) final *i; apparently, final *u was lowered to *o (usually lost) before metaphony could take effect.
  • Some of the Astur-Leonese dialects, in northern Spain, have the same distinction between final /o/ and /u/ as in the Central-Southern Italian languages, with /u/ triggering metaphony.[45] The plural of masculine nouns in these dialects ends in -os, which does not trigger metaphony, unlike in the singular (vs. Italian plural -i, which does trigger metaphony).
  • Sardinian has allophonic raising of mid vowels /ɛ ɔ/ to [e o] before final /i/ or /u/. This has been phonemicized in the Campidanese dialect as a result of the raising of final /e o/ to /i u/.
  • Raising of /ɔ/ to /o/ occurs sporadically in Portuguese in the masculine singular, e.g. porco /ˈporku/ "pig" vs. porcos /ˈpɔrkus/ "pig". It is thought that Old Portuguese at one point had singular /u/ vs. plural /os/, exactly as in modern Astur-Leonese.[45]
  • In all of the Western Romance languages, final /i/ (primarily occurring in the first-person singular of the preterite) raised mid-high /e o/ to /i u/, e.g. Portuguese fiz "I did" (< *fidzi < *fedzi < Latin fēcī) vs. fez "he did" (< *fedze < Latin fēcit). Old Spanish similarly had fize "I did" vs. fezo "he did" (-o by analogy with amó "he loved"), but subsequently generalized stressed /i/, producing modern hice "I did" vs. hizo "he did". The same thing happened prehistorically in Old French, yielding fis "I did", fist "he did" (< *feist < Latin fēcit).

A number of languages diphthongized some of the free vowels, especially the low-mid vowels /ɛ ɔ/:

  • Spanish consistently diphthongized all low-mid vowels /ɛ ɔ/ > /je we/ except for before certain palatal consonants (which raised the vowels to high-mid before diphthongization took place).
  • Romanian similarly diphthongized /ɛ/ to /je/ (the corresponding vowel /ɔ/ did not develop from Proto-Romance).
  • Italian diphthongized /ɛ/ >/jɛ/ and /ɔ/ >/wɔ/ in open syllables (in the situations where vowels were lengthened in Proto-Romance).
  • French similarly diphthongized /ɛ ɔ/ in open syllables (when lengthened), along with /a e o/: /aː ɛː eː ɔː oː/ > /ae ie ei uo ou/ > OF /e je oi we eu/ > modern /e je wa œ œ/.
  • French also diphthongized /ɛ ɔ/ before palatalized consonants, especially /j/. Further development was as follows: /ɛj/ > /iej/ > /i/; /ɔj/ > /uoj/ > early OF /uj/ > modern /ɥi/.
  • Catalan diphthongized /ɛ ɔ/ before /j/ from palatalized consonants, just like French, with similar results: /ɛj/ > /i/, /ɔj/ > /uj/.

These diphthongizations had the effect of reducing or eliminating the distinctions between low-mid and high-mid vowels in many languages. In Spanish and Romanian, all low-mid vowels were diphthongized, and the distinction disappeared entirely. Portuguese is the most conservative in this respect, keeping the seven-vowel system more or less unchanged (but with changes in particular circumstances, e.g. due to metaphony). Other than before palatalized consonants, Catalan keeps /ɔ o/ intact, but /ɛ e/ split in a complex fashion into /ɛ e ə/ and then coalesced again in the standard dialect (Eastern Catalan) in such a way that most original /ɛ e/ have reversed their quality to become /e ɛ/.

In French and Italian, the distinction between low-mid and high-mid vowels occurred only in closed syllables. Standard Italian more or less maintains this. In French, /e/ and /ɛ/ merged by the twelfth century or so, and the distinction between /ɔ/ and /o/ was eliminated without merging by the sound changes /u/ > /y/, /o/> /u/. Generally this led to a situation where both [e,o] and [ɛ,ɔ] occur allophonically, with the high-mid vowels in open syllables and the low-mid vowels in closed syllables. This is still the situation in modern Spanish, for example. In French, however, both [e/ɛ] and [o/ɔ] were partly rephonemicized: Both /e/ and /ɛ/ occur in open syllables as a result of /aj/ > /ɛ/, and both /o/ and /ɔ/ occur in closed syllables as a result of /al/ > /au/ > /o/.

French also had numerous falling diphthongs from a /j/ spit out before a palatalized sound, including any sound that underwent any of the palatalization processes in Proto-Romance or later: e.g. pacem "peace" > PWR *padʲzʲe > OF paiz /paits/; punctum "point" > PWR *ponjtʲo > *poɲtʲo > OF point. During the Old French period, /l/ before a consonant vocalized to /w/, producing many new falling diphthongs: e.g. dulcem "sweet" > PWR *doltʲsʲe > OF dolz > douz /douts/; fallit "it lacks" > OF falt > faut "it is necessary"; bellum "beautiful" > OF beau /bɛaw/. By the end of the Middle French period, all of these falling diphthongs disappeared and were replaced by either monophthongs or rising diphthongs: proto OF /aj ɛj jɛj ej jej wɔj oj uj al ɛl el il ɔl ol ul/ > early OF /aj ɛj i ej yj oj yj aw ɛaw ew i ɔw ow y/ > modern spelling ai ei i oi ui oi ui au eau eu i ou ou u > modern French /ɛ ɛ i wa ɥi wa ɥi o o ø i u u y/.


In both French and Portuguese, nasal vowels eventually developed from sequences of a vowel followed by a nasal consonant (/m/ or /n/). Originally, all vowels in both languages were nasalized before any nasal consonants, and nasal consonants not immediately followed by a vowel were eventually dropped. In French, nasal vowels before remaining nasal consonants were subsequently denasalized, but not before causing the vowels to lower somewhat, e.g. dōnat "he gives" > OF dune /dunə/ > donne /dɔn/, fēminam > femme /fam/. Other vowels remained diphthongized, and were dramatically lowered: fīnem "end" > fin /fɛ̃/ (often pronounced [fæ̃]); linguam "tongue" > langue /lɑ̃ɡ/; ūnum "one" > un /œ̃/, /ɛ̃/.

In Portuguese, /n/ between vowels was dropped, and the resulting hiatus eliminated through vowel contraction of various sorts, often producing diphthongs: manum, *manōs > PWR *manu, ˈmanos "hand(s)" > mão, mãos /mɐ̃w̃, mɐ̃w̃s/; canem, canēs "dog(s)" > PWR *kane, ˈkanes > *can, ˈcanes > cão, cães /kɐ̃w̃, kɐ̃j̃s/; ratiōnem, ratiōnēs "reason(s)" > PWR *raˈdʲzʲone, raˈdʲzʲones > *raˈdzon, raˈdzones > razão, razões /χaˈzɐ̃w̃, χaˈzõj̃s/ (Brazil), /ʁaˈzɐ̃ũ, ʁɐˈzõj̃s/ (Portugal). Sometimes the nasalization was eliminated: lūna "moon" > Old Portuguese lũa > lua; vēna "vein" > Old Portuguese vẽa > veia. Nasal vowels that remained actually tend to be raised (rather than lowered, as in French): fīnem "end" > fim /fĩ/; centum "hundred" > PWR tʲsʲɛnto > cento /ˈsẽtu/; pontem "bridge" > PWR pɔnte > ponte /ˈpõtʃi/ (Brazil), /ˈpõtɨ/ (Portugal). In Portugal, vowels before a nasal consonant have become denasalized, but in Brazil they remain heavily nasalized.

Front-rounded vowels

Characteristic of the Gallo-Romance languages and Rhaeto-Romance languages are the front rounded vowels /y ø œ/. All of these languages show an unconditional change /u/ > /y/, e.g. lūnam > French lune /lyn/, Occitan /ˈlyno/. Many of the languages in Switzerland and Italy show the further change /y/ > /i/. Also very common is some variation of the French development /ɔː oː/ (lengthened in open syllables) > /we ew/ > /œ œ/, with mid back vowels diphthongizing in some circumstances and then re-monophthongizing into mid-front rounded vowels. (French has both /ø/ and /œ/, with /ø/ developing from /œ/ in certain circumstances.)

Unstressed vowels

Evolution of unstressed vowels in early Italo-Western Romance
Latin Proto-
Stressed Non-final
Original Later
IPA Acad.1 IPA
a,ā /a/ a /a/ /a/ /ə/
e,ae /ɛ/ ę /ɛ/ /e/ /e/ /e/ ∅; /e/ (prop) ∅; /ə/ (prop)
ē,oe /e/ /e/
i,y /ɪ/
ī,ȳ /i/ i /i/ /i/
o /ɔ/ ǫ /ɔ/ /o/ /o/ /o/
ō,(au) /o/ /o/
u /ʊ/ /u/
ū /u/ u /u/
(most words)
/aw/ au /aw/ N/A
1 Traditional academic transcription in Romance studies.

There was more variability in the result of the unstressed vowels. Originally in Proto-Romance, the same nine vowels developed in unstressed as stressed syllables, and in Sardinian, they coalesced into the same five vowels in the same way.

In Italo-Western Romance, however, vowels in unstressed syllables were significantly different from stressed vowels, with yet a third outcome for final unstressed syllables. In non-final unstressed syllables, the seven-vowel system of stressed syllables developed, but then the low-mid vowels /ɛ ɔ/ merged into the high-mid vowels /e o/. This system is still preserved, largely or completely, in all of the conservative Romance languages (e.g. Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan).

In final unstressed syllables, results were somewhat complex. One of the more difficult issues is the development of final short -u, which appears to have been raised to /u/ rather than lowered to /o/, as happened in all other syllables. However, it is possible that in reality, final /u/ comes from long * < -um, where original final -m caused vowel lengthening as well as nasalization. Evidence of this comes from Rhaeto-Romance, in particular Sursilvan, which preserves reflexes of both final -us and -um, and where the latter, but not the former, triggers metaphony. This suggests the development -us > /ʊs/ > /os/, but -um > /ũː/ > /u/.[46]

Examples of evolution of final unstressed vowels:
From least- to most-changed languages
English Latin Proto-Italo-Western1 Conservative
Central Italian1
Italian Spanish Catalan Old French
a, e, i, o, u a, e, i, o, u a, e, i, o a, e/-, o a, -/e e, -/e
one (fem.) ūnam ˈuna una una una una une
door portam ˈpɔrta pɔrta porta puerta porta porte
seven septem ˈsɛtte sɛtte sette siete set set
sea mare ˈmare mare mare mar mar mer
peace pācem ˈpatʃe pace pace paz pau paiz
part partem ˈparte parte parte parte part part
mother mātrem ˈmatre matre madre madre mare meḍre
twenty vīgintī veˈenti vinti venti veinte vint vint
four quattuor ˈkwattro quattro quattro cuatro quatre quatre
eight octō ˈɔkto ɔtto otto ocho vuit huit
when quandō ˈkwando quando quando cuando quan quant
fourth quartum ˈkwartu quartu quarto cuarto quart quart
one (masc.) ūnum ˈunu unu uno uno un un
port portum ˈpɔrtu portu porto puerto port port
1 These columns use IPA symbols /ɔ, ɛ/ to indicate open-mid vowels.

The original five-vowel system in final unstressed syllables was preserved as-is in some of the more conservative central Italian languages, but in most languages there was further coalescence:

  • In Tuscan (including standard Italian), final /u/ merged into /o/.
  • In the Western Romance languages, final /i/ eventually merged into /e/ (although final /i/ triggered metaphony before that, e.g. Spanish hice, Portuguese fiz "I did" < *fize < Latin fēcī). Conservative languages like Spanish largely maintain that system, but drop final /e/ after certain single consonants, e.g. /r/, /l/, /n/, /d/, /z/ (< palatalized c).
  • In the Gallo-Romance languages (part of Western Romance), final /o/ and /e/ were dropped entirely unless that produced an impossible final cluster (e.g. /tr/), in which case a "prop vowel" /e/ was added. This left only two final vowels: /a/ and prop vowel /e/. Catalan preserves this system.
  • Loss of final stressless vowels in Venetian shows a pattern intermediate between Central Italian and the Gallo-Italic branch, and the environments for vowel deletion vary considerably depending on the dialect. In table above final /e/ is uniformly absent in mar, absent in some dialects in part(e) /part(e)/ and set(e) /sɛt(e)/, but retained in mare (< Latin mātrem) as a relic of the earlier cluster *dr.
  • In primitive Old French (one of the Gallo-Romance languages), these two remaining vowels merged into /ə/.

Various later changes happened in individual languages, e.g.:

  • In French, most final consonants were dropped, and then final /ə/ was also dropped. The /ə/ is still preserved in spelling as a final silent -e, whose main purpose is to signal that the previous consonant is pronounced, e.g. port "port" /pɔʁ/ vs. porte "door" /pɔʁt/. These changes also eliminated the difference between singular and plural in most words: ports "ports" (still /pɔʁ/), portes "doors" (still /pɔʁt/). Final consonants reappear in liaison contexts (in close connection with a following vowel-initial word), e.g. nous /nu/ "we" vs. nous avons /nuz-aˈvɔ̃/ "we have", il fait /il fɛ/ "he does" vs. fait-il?" /fɛt-il/ "does he?".
  • In Portuguese, final unstressed /o/ and /u/ were apparently preserved intact for a while, since final unstressed /u/, but not /o/ or /os/, triggered metaphony (see above). Final-syllable unstressed /o/ was raised in preliterary times to /u/, but always still written o. At some point (perhaps in late Old Portuguese), final-syllable unstressed /e/ was raised to /i/ (but still written e); this remains in Brazilian Portuguese, but has developed to /ɨ/ in European Portuguese.
  • In Catalan, final unstressed /as/ > /es/. In many dialects, unstressed /o/ and /u/ merge into /u/ as in Portuguese, and unstressed /a/ and /e/ merge into /ə/. However, some dialects preserve the original five-vowel system, most notably standard Valencian.

Intertonic vowels

The so-called intertonic vowels are those unstressed vowels not either initial or final, i.e. those vowels that are between the initial or final syllable and the tonic (i.e. stressed) syllable, hence intertonic. Intertonic vowels were the most subject to loss or modification. Already in Vulgar Latin, intertonic vowels between a single consonant and a following /r/ or /l/ tended to drop: vétulum "old" > veclum > Italian vecchio, French vieil, Spanish viejo, Portuguese velho. But many languages ultimately dropped almost all intertonic vowels.

Generally, those languages south and east of the La Spezia–Rimini Line (Romanian and Central-Southern Italian) maintained intertonic vowels, while those to the north and west (Western Romance) dropped all except /a/. Standard Italian generally maintained intertonic vowels, but typically raised unstressed /e/ > /i/. Examples:

  • septimā́nam "week" > Italian settimana, Romanian săptămână but Spanish/Portuguese semana, French semaine, Catalan setmana, Piedmontese sman-a
  • quattuórdecim "fourteen" > Italian quattordici, Venetian cuatòrdexe, Lombard and Piedmontese quatòrdes, but Spanish catorce, Portuguese/French quatorze
  • *metípsimum, *med-, *-īps- "self" > Italian medesimo but Venetian medemo, Lombard medemm, Old Spanish meïsmo (> modern mismo), Old Portuguese meesmo (> modern mesmo), Old French meḍesme (> modern même)[47]
  • bonitā́tem "goodness" > Italian bonità or bontà, Romanian bunătate but Spanish bondad, Portuguese bondade, Old French bonté
  • collocā́re "to place" > Spanish colgar "to hang", French coucher "to lie (down), sleep"
  • commūnicā́re "to take communion" > Romanian cuminecare but Portuguese comungar, Spanish comulgar, Old French comungier
  • carricā́re "to carry (in a chariot)" > Portuguese/Catalan carregar but Spanish/Occitan cargar "to load", French charger, Lombard cargà/caregà, Venetian carigar/cargar(e) "to load"
  • fábricam "forge" > /*fawrɡa/ > Spanish fragua, Portuguese frágua, Catalan farga, French forge
  • disjējūnā́re "to breakfast" > Old French disner > French dîner "to dine" (but disjējū́nat > Old French desjune "he dines" > French (il) déjeune "he eats lunch")
  • adjūtā́re "to help" > Italian aiutare, Romanian ajuta but French aider, Lombard aidà/aiuttà (Spanish ayudar, Portuguese ajudar based on stressed forms, e.g. ayuda/ajuda "he helps"; cf. Old French aidier "to help" vs. aiue "he helps")

Portuguese is more conservative in maintaining some intertonic vowels other than /a/: e.g. *offerḗscere "to offer" > Portuguese oferecer vs. Spanish ofrecer, French offrir (< *offerīre); -ā́bilem "-able" > Italian -evole, Portuguese -ável vs. Spanish/French -able. French, on the other hand, drops even intertonic /a/ after the stress: Stéphanum "Stephen" > Spanish Esteban but Old French Estievne > French Étienne. Many cases of /a/ before the stress also ultimately dropped in French: sacraméntum "sacrament" > Old French sairement > French serment "oath".

Writing systems

The Romance languages for the most part have kept the writing system of Latin, adapting it to their evolution. One exception was Romanian before the nineteenth century, where, after the Roman retreat, literacy was reintroduced through the Romanian Cyrillic alphabet, a Slavic influence. A Cyrillic alphabet was also used for Romanian (Moldovan) in the USSR. The non-Christian populations of Spain also used the scripts of their religions (Arabic and Hebrew) to write Romance languages such as Ladino and Mozarabic in aljamiado.


Spelling of results of palatalization and related sounds
Sound Spanish Portuguese French Italian Romanian
/k/, not + e, i, y c
palatalized /k/ (/tʃ/~/s/~/θ/), + e, i, y c
palatalized /k/ (/tʃ/~/s/~/θ/), not + e, i, y z ç ci
/kw/, not + e, i, y cu qu
/k/ + e, i (inherited) qu ch
/kw/ + e, i (learned) cu qu[48]
/g/, not + e, i, y g
palatalized /k, g/
(/dʒ/~/ʒ/~/x/), + e, i, y
palatalized /k, g/
(/dʒ/~/ʒ/~/x/), not + e, i, y
j g(e) gi
/gw/, not + e ,i gu
/g/ + e, i (inherited) gu gh
/gw/ + e, i (learned) gu[49]
(former) /ʎ/ ll lh il(l) gli
/ɲ/ ñ nh gn

The Romance languages are written with the classical Latin alphabet of 23 letters – A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Y, Z – subsequently modified and augmented in various ways. In particular, the single Latin letter V split into V (consonant) and U (vowel), and the letter I split into I and J. The Latin letter K and the new letter W, which came to be widely used in Germanic languages, are seldom used in most Romance languages – mostly for unassimilated foreign names and words. Indeed in Italian prose *kilometro is properly chilometro. Catalan eschews importation of "foreign" letters more than most languages. Thus Wikipedia becomes Viquipèdia in Catalan but remains Wikipedia in Spanish.

While most of the 23 basic Latin letters have maintained their phonetic value, for some of them it has diverged considerably; and the new letters added since the Middle Ages have been put to different uses in different scripts. Some letters, notably H and Q, have been variously combined in digraphs or trigraphs (see below) to represent phonetic phenomena that could not be recorded with the basic Latin alphabet, or to get around previously established spelling conventions. Most languages added auxiliary marks (diacritics) to some letters, for these and other purposes.

The spelling rules of most Romance languages are fairly simple, but subject to considerable regional variation. The letters with most conspicuous phonetic variations, between Romance languages or with respect to Latin, are:

B, V: Merged in Spanish and most dialects of Catalan, where both letters are pronounced as either [b] or [β] (similar to v) depending on position, with no relationship between sound and spelling.
C: Generally a "hard" [k], but "soft" (fricative or affricate) before e, i, or y.
G: Generally a "hard" [ɡ], but "soft" (fricative or affricate) before e, i, or y. In some languages, like Spanish, the hard g is pronounced as a fricative [ɣ] after vowels. In Romansch, the soft g is a voiced palatal plosive [ɟ] or a voiced alveolo-palatal affricate [dʑ].
H: Silent in most languages; used to form various digraphs. But represents [h] in Romanian, Walloon and Gascon Occitan.
J: Represents a fricative in most languages, or the palatal approximant [j] in Romansh and in several of the languages of Italy. Italian does not use this letter in native words. Usually pronounced like the soft g (except in Romansch and the languages of Italy).
Q: As in Latin, its phonetic value is that of a hard c, and in native words it is always followed by a (sometimes silent) u. Romanian does not use this letter in native words.
S: Generally voiceless [s], but voiced [z] between vowels in most languages. In Spanish, Romanian, Galician and several varieties of Italian, however, it is always pronounced voiceless. At the end of syllables, it may represent special allophonic pronunciations. In Romansh, it also stands for a voiceless or voiced fricative, [ʃ] or [ʒ], before certain consonants.
W: No Romance language uses this letter in native words, with the exception of Walloon.
X: Its pronunciation is rather variable, both between and within languages. In the Middle Ages, the languages of Iberia used this letter to denote the voiceless postalveolar fricative [ʃ], which is still the case in Modern Catalan and Portuguese. With the Renaissance the classical pronunciation [ks] – or similar consonant clusters, such as [ɡz], [ɡs], or [kθ] – were frequently reintroduced in latinisms and hellenisms. In Venetian it represents [z], and in Ligurian the voiced postalveolar fricative [ʒ]. Italian does not use this letter in native words.
Y: This letter is not used in most languages, with the prominent exceptions of French and Spanish, where it represents [j] before vowels (or various similar fricatives such as the palatal fricative [ʝ], in Spanish), and the vowel or semivowel [i] elsewhere.
Z: In most languages it represents the sound [z]. However, in Italian it denotes the affricates [dz] and [ts] (which are two separate phonemes, but rarely contrast; among the few examples of minimal pairs are razza "ray" with [ddz], razza "race" with [tts]); in Romansh the voiceless affricate [ts]; and in Galician and Spanish it denotes either the voiceless dental fricative [θ] or [s].

Otherwise, letters that are not combined as digraphs generally have the same sounds as in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), whose design was, in fact, greatly influenced by the Romance spelling systems.

Digraphs and trigraphs

Since most Romance languages have more sounds than can be accommodated in the Roman Latin alphabet they all resort to the use of digraphs and trigraphs – combinations of two or three letters with a single sound value. The concept (but not the actual combinations) is derived from Classical Latin, which used, for example, TH, PH, and CH when transliterating the Greek letters "θ", "ϕ" (later "φ"), and "χ". These were once aspirated sounds in Greek before changing to corresponding fricatives, and the H represented what sounded to the Romans like an /ʰ/ following /t/, /p/, and /k/ respectively. Some of the digraphs used in modern scripts are:

CI: used in Italian, Romance languages in Italy and Romanian to represent /tʃ/ before A, O, or U.
CH: used in Italian, Romance languages in Italy, Romanian, Romansh and Sardinian to represent /k/ before E or I; /tʃ/ in Occitan, Spanish, Astur-leonese and Galician; [c] or [tɕ] in Romansh before A, O or U; and /ʃ/ in most other languages. In Catalan it is used in some old spelling conventions for /k/.
DD: used in Sicilian and Sardinian to represent the voiced retroflex plosive /ɖ/. In recent history more accurately transcribed as DDH.
DJ: used in Walloon and Catalan for /dʒ/.
GI: used in Italian, Romance languages in Italy and Romanian to represent /dʒ/ before A, O, or U, and in Romansh to represent [ɟi] or /dʑi/ or (before A, E, O, and U) [ɟ] or /dʑ/
GH: used in Italian, Romance languages in Italy, Romanian, Romansh and Sardinian to represent /ɡ/ before E or I, and in Galician for the voiceless pharyngeal fricative /ħ/ (not standard sound).
GL: used in Romansh before consonants and I and at the end of words for /ʎ/.
GLI: used in Italian and Romansh for /ʎ/.
GN: used in French, Italian, Romance languages in Italy and Romansh for /ɲ/, as in champignon or gnocchi.
GU: used before E or I to represent /ɡ/ or /ɣ/ in all Romance languages except Italian, Romance languages in Italy, Romansh, and Romanian (which use GH instead).
IG: used at the end of word in Catalan for /tʃ/, as in maig, safareig or enmig.
IX: used between vowels or at the end of word in Catalan for /ʃ/, as in caixa or calaix.
LH: used in Portuguese and Occitan /ʎ/.
LL: used in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Astur-leonese, Norman and Dgèrnésiais, originally for /ʎ/ which has merged in some cases with /j/. Represents /l/ in French unless it follows I (i) when it represents /j/ (or /ʎ/ in some dialects). It's used in Occitan for a long /ll/
L·L: used in Catalan for a geminate consonant [ɫɫ].
NH: used in Portuguese and Occitan for /ɲ/, used in official Galician for /ŋ/ .
N-: used in Piedmontese and Ligurian for /ŋ/ between two vowels.
NN: used in Leonese for /ɲ/,
NY: used in Catalan for /ɲ/.
QU: represents [kw] in Italian, Romance languages in Italy, and Romansh; [k] in French, Astur-leonese (normally before e or i); [k] (before e or i) or [kw] (normally before a or o) in Occitan, Catalan and Portuguese; [k] in Spanish (always before e or i).
RR: used between vowels in several languages (Occitan, Catalan, Spanish...) to denote a trilled /r/ or a guttural R, instead of the flap /ɾ/.
SC: used before E or I in Italian and Romance languages in Italy for /ʃ/, and in French, Portuguese, Catalan and American Spanish as /s/ in words of certain etymology (notice this would be /θ/ in standard peninsular Spanish)
SCH: used in Romansh for [ʃ] or [ʒ].
SCI: used in Italian and Romance languages in Italy to represent /ʃ/ before A, O, or U.
SH: used in Aranese Occitan for /ʃ/.
SS: used in French, Portuguese, Piedmontese, Romansh, Occitan, and Catalan for /s/ between vowels.
TS: used in Catalan for /ts/.
TG: used in Romansh for [c] or [tɕ]. In Catalan is used for /dʒ/ before E and I, as in metge or fetge.
TH: used in Jèrriais for /θ/; used in Aranese for either /t/ or /tʃ/.
TJ: used between vowels and before A, O or U, in Catalan for /dʒ/, as in sotjar or mitjó.
TSCH: used in Romansh for [tʃ].
TX: used at the beginning or at the end of word or between vowels in Catalan for /tʃ/, as in txec, esquitx or atxa.
TZ: used in Catalan for /dz/.

While the digraphs CH, PH, RH and TH were at one time used in many words of Greek origin, most languages have now replaced them with C/QU, F, R and T. Only French has kept these etymological spellings, which now represent /k/ or /ʃ/, /f/, /ʀ/ and /t/, respectively.

Double consonants

Gemination, in the languages where it occurs, is usually indicated by doubling the consonant, except when it does not contrast phonemically with the corresponding short consonant, in which case gemination is not indicated. In Jèrriais, long consonants are marked with an apostrophe: S'S is a long /zz/, SS'S is a long /ss/, and T'T is a long /tt/. Phonemic contrast of geminates vs. single consonants is widespread in Italian, and normally indicated in the traditional orthography: fatto /fatto/ 'done' vs. fato /fato/ 'fate, destiny'; cadde /kadde/ 's/he, it fell' vs. cade /kade/ 's/he, it falls'. The double consonants in French orthography, however, are merely etymological. In Catalan, the gemination of the l is marked by a punt volat = flying pointl·l.


Romance languages also introduced various marks (diacritics) that may be attached to some letters, for various purposes. In some cases, diacritics are used as an alternative to digraphs and trigraphs; namely to represent a larger number of sounds than would be possible with the basic alphabet, or to distinguish between sounds that were previously written the same. Diacritics are also used to mark word stress, to indicate exceptional pronunciation of letters in certain words, and to distinguish words with same pronunciation (homophones).

Depending on the language, some letter-diacritic combinations may be considered distinct letters, e.g. for the purposes of lexical sorting. This is the case, for example, of Romanian ș ([ʃ]) and Spanish ñ ([ɲ]).

The following are the most common use of diacritics in Romance languages.

  • Vowel quality: the system of marking close-mid vowels with an acute accent, é, and open-mid vowels with a grave accent, è, is widely used (e.g. Catalan, French, Italian). Portuguese, however, uses the circumflex (ê) for the former, and the acute (é), for the latter. Some minority Romance languages use an umlaut (diaeresis mark) in the case of ä, ö, ü to indicate fronted vowel variants, as in German. Centralized vowels (/ɐ/, /ǝ/) are indicated variously (â in Portuguese, ă/î in Romanian, ë in Piedmontese, etc.). In French, Occitan and Romanian, these accents are used whenever necessary to distinguish the appropriate vowel quality, but in the other languages, they are used only when it is necessary to mark unpredictable stress, or in some cases to distinguish homophones.
  • Vowel length: French uses a circumflex to indicate what was formerly a long vowel (although nowadays this rather indicates a difference in vowel quality, if it has any effect at all on pronunciation). This same usage is found in some minority languages.
  • Nasality: Portuguese marks nasal vowels with a tilde (ã) when they occur before other written vowels and in some other instances.
  • Palatalization: some historical palatalizations are indicated with the cedilla (ç) in French, Catalan, Occitan and Portuguese. In Spanish and several other world languages influenced by it, the grapheme ñ represents a palatal nasal consonant.
  • Separate pronunciation: when a vowel and another letter that would normally be combined into a digraph with a single sound are exceptionally pronounced apart, this is often indicated with a diaeresis mark on the vowel. This is particularly common in the case of /gw/ before e or i, because plain gu in this case would be pronounced /g/. This usage occurs in Spanish, French, Catalan and Occitan, and formerly (prior to the 2009 spelling reform) in Brazilian Portuguese. French also uses the diaeresis on the second of two adjacent vowels to indicate that both are pronounced separately, as in Noël "Christmas" and haïr "to hate".
  • Stress: the stressed vowel in a polysyllabic word may be indicated with an accent, when it cannot be predicted by rule. In Italian, Portuguese and Catalan, the choice of accent (acute, grave or circumflex) may depend on vowel quality. When no quality needs to be indicated, an acute accent is normally used (ú), but Italian and Romansh use a grave accent (ù). Portuguese puts a diacritic on all stressed monosyllables that end in a e o as es os, to distinguish them from unstressed function words: chá "tea", más "bad (fem. pl.)", "seat (of government)", "give! (imperative)", mês "month", "only", nós "we" (cf. mas "but", se "if/oneself", de "of", nos "us").
  • Homophones: words (especially monosyllables) that are pronounced exactly or nearly the same way and are spelled identically, but have different meanings, can be differentiated by a diacritic. Typically, if one of the pair is stressed and the other isn't, the stressed word gets the diacritic, using the appropriate diacritic for notating stressed syllables (see above). Portuguese does this consistently as part of notating stress in certain monosyllables, whether or not there is an unstressed homophone (see examples above). Spanish also has many pairs of identically-pronounced words distinguished by an acute accent on the stressed word: si "if" vs. "yes", mas "but" vs. más "more", mi "my" vs. "me", se "oneself" vs. "I know", te "you (object)" vs. "tea", que/quien/cuando/como "that/who/when/how" vs. qué/quién/cuándo/cómo "what?/who?/when?/how?", etc. Catalan has some pairs where both words are stressed, and one is distinguished by a vowel-quality diacritic, e.g. os "bone" vs. ós "bear". When no vowel-quality needs distinguishing, French and Catalan use a grave accent (which is otherwise unused in the languages): French ou "or" vs. "where", French la "the" vs. "là "there", Catalan ma "my" vs."hand".

Upper and lower case

Most languages are written with a mixture of two distinct but phonetically identical variants or "cases" of the alphabet: majuscule ("uppercase" or "capital letters"), derived from Roman stone-carved letter shapes, and minuscule ("lowercase"), derived from Carolingian writing and Medieval quill pen handwriting which were later adapted by printers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In particular, all Romance languages presently capitalize (use uppercase for the first letter of) the following words: the first word of each complete sentence, most words in names of people, places, and organizations, and most words in titles of books. The Romance languages do not follow the German practice of capitalizing all nouns including common ones. Unlike English, the names of months, days of the weeks, and derivatives of proper nouns are usually not capitalized: thus, in Italian one capitalizes Francia ("France") and Francesco ("Francis"), but not francese ("French") or francescano ("Franciscan"). However, each language has some exceptions to this general rule.

Vocabulary comparison

The tables below provide a vocabulary comparison that illustrates a number of examples of sound shifts that have occurred between Latin and Romance languages, along with a selection of minority languages. Words are given in their conventional spellings. In addition, for French the actual pronunciation is given, due to the dramatic differences between spelling and pronunciation. (French spelling approximately reflects the pronunciation of Old French, c. 1200 AD.)

English Latin Sardinian
Romanian Sicilian[51][52][53] Italian Venetian Emilian Lombard Piedmontese[54] Friulian[55] Romansh French Occitan[56] Catalan Aragonese[57] Spanish Asturian[58] Portuguese
man homō, hominem ómine om omu uomo om(en)o òm(en) om(en) òm om um homme
òme home ombre, ome hombre home homem
woman, wife mulier, mulierem muzère muiere mugghieri moglie mojer miee/fomna mojé muîr muglier OF moillier OOc mólher (nom.) /
molhér (obj.)
muller muller mujer muyer mulher
son fīlium fìzu fiu figghiu figlio fiol fiö/bagaj fieul fi figl, fegl fils /fis/ filh fill fillo hijo fíu filho
water aquam àbba apǎ acqua acqua acua aqua agua/ova/eiva eva aghe aua eau /o/ aiga aigua aigua, augua agua agua água
fire focum fócu foc focu fuoco fogo foeugh fögh feu fûc fieu feu /fø/ fuòc foc fuego fuego fueu fogo
rain pluviam próida ploaie chiuvuta[59] pioggia pióva pioeuva piöa pieuva ploe plievgia pluie /plɥi/ pluèja pluja plebia lluvia lluvia chuva
land terram tèrra teren terra terra tera tera tera tèra tiere terra/tiara terre /tɛʁ/ tèrra terra tierra tierra tierra terra
sky caelum chélu cer celu cielo çiél cel/sel cel cîl tschiel ciel /sjɛl/ cèl cel zielo cielo cielu céu
high altum àrtu înalt autu alto alto alt volt/ot àut alt aut haut[60] /o/ n-aut alt alto alto altu alto
new novum nóbu nou novu nuovo nóvo noeuv nöf neuv gnove nov neuf /nœf/ nòu nou nuebo nuevo nuevu novo
horse caballum càdhu cal cavaddu cavallo cavało cavall cavâl/caàl caval ĉhaval chaval cheval
caval cavall caballo caballo caballu cavalo
dog canem cane câine cani cane can can/ca can cjan chaun chien
can ca can can can cão
do facere fàchere face(re) fari fare far far faire /fɛʁ/ far/fàser fer fer hacer facer fazer
milk lactem làte lapte latti latte late latt lacc/lat làit lat latg lait /lɛ/ lach llet leit leche lleche leite
eye oculum > *oclum ócru ochi occhiu occhio ocio ögg eucc, euj voli egl oeil /œj/ uèlh ull güello ojo güeyu olho
ear auriculam > *oriclam orícra ureche ricchi orecchio orécia uregia/ureja orija orele ureglia oreille
aurelha orella orella oreja oreya orelha
linguam límba limbǎ lingua lingua léngua lengua lengua lenga lenghe lingua langue /lɑ̃ɡ/ lenga llengua luenga lengua llingua língua
hand manum manu mână manu mano man man man man maun main /mɛ̃/ man man mano mano mão [mɐ̃w̃]
skin pellem pèdhe piele peddi pelle pełe pell pel pel piel pel peau /po/ pèl pell piel piel piel pele
I ego dègo eu ju/jè io (mi)[61] (mì)[61] (mi/mé)[61] i(/mi)[61] jo jau je /ʒǝ/ ieu/jo jo yo yo yo eu
our nostrum nóstru nostru nostru nostro nostro noster nòst nòst nestri noss notre /nɔtʁ/ nòstre nostre nuestro nuestro nuesu,[62] nuestru nosso[62]
three trēs tres trei tri tre tre trii trii (m)/
tre (f)
trè tre trais trois /tʁwa/ tres tres tres tres trés três
four quattuor >
bàttoro patru quattru quattro cuatro quater quatr cuatri quat(t)er quatre /katʁ/ quatre quatre cuatre, cuatro cuatro cuatro quatro
five quīnque >
chímbe cinci cincu cinque çincue cinch/sinch/sich sinch cinc tschintg cinq /sɛ̃k/ cinc cinc zinco, zingo cinco cinco, cincu cinco
six sex ses şase sie sei sìe ses ses sîs sis six /sis/ sièis sis seis/sais seis seis seis
seven septem sète şapte setti sette sete set set set siet se(a)t, siat sept /sɛt/ sèt set siet(e) siete siete sete
eight octō òto opt ottu otto oto vot eut vot ot(g), och huit /ɥit/ uèch vuit güeito, ueito ocho ocho oito
nine novem nòbe nouă novi nove nove nöf neuv nûv no(u)v neuf /nœf/ nòu nou nueu nueve nueve nove
ten decem dèche zece deci dieci diéxe des/dis des dîs diesch dix /dis/ dètz deu diez diez diez dez
English Latin Sardinian Romanian Sicilian Italian Venetian Emilian Lombard Piedmontese Friulian Romansh French Occitan Catalan Aragonese Spanish Asturian Portuguese

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Romance". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007/2010
  3. ^ [M. Paul Lewis, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth Edition]
  4. ^ David Dalby, 1999/2000, The Linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities. Observatoire Linguistique, Linguasphere Press. Volume 2. Oxford.[1]
  5. ^ Ilari, Rodolfo (2002). Lingüística Românica. Ática. p. 50. ISBN 85-08-04250-7. 
  6. ^ a b Logudorese (north) Sardinian
  7. ^ a b Campidanese (south) Sardinian
  8. ^ a b c d e Price, Glanville (1984). The French language: past and present. London: Grant and Cutler Ltd. 
  9. ^ "Na" is a contraction of "em" (in) + "a" (the), the form "em a" is never used, it is always replaced by "na". The same happens with other prepositions: "de" (of) + o/a/os/as (singular and plural forms for "the" in masculine and feminine) = do, da, dos, das; etc.
  10. ^ Related terms are îmbuca (verb) meaning to put in mounth and cavitatea bucala scientific term for mouth
  11. ^ See Portuguese in Africa.
  12. ^ See Portuguese in Asia and Oceania.
  13. ^ See List of countries where Portuguese is an official language.
  14. ^ 1993 Statistical Abstract of Israel reports 250,000 speakers of Romanian in Israel, while the 1995 census puts the total figure of the Israeli population at 5,548,523
  15. ^ "Reports of about 300,000 Jews who left the country after WW2". Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  16. ^ "Encarta Dictionary". Microsoft Encarta 2006. Retrieved 2009-11-16. 
  17. ^ "Ethnologue". SIL Haley. 
  18. ^ a b Gabancho, Patricia (2007). El preu de ser catalans. Una cultura mil•lenària en vies d'extinció [The price of beeing catalans. A thousand-years-old culture on the way to extinction] (in catalan). Barcelona: Editorial Meteora. ISBN 978-8-4956-2353-9. 
  19. ^ Vilar, Pierre (2008) [1962]. "II". Catalogne dans l'Espagne Moderne. Recherches sur les fondements économiques des structures nationales [Catalonia in modern Spain. A research on economic groundworks of national structures] (in French) 1. Paris: Flammarion. ISBN 978-2-08-210649-8. 
  20. ^ "Sardos etiam, qui non Latii sunt sed Latiis associandi videntur, eiciamus, quoniam soli sine proprio vulgari esse videntur, gramaticam tanquam simie homines imitantes: nam domus nova et dominus meus locuntur." ("Let us ignore the Sardinians, then, who are not Latins but appear to be associated with them, because they alone seem to lack their own common tongue, rather imitating (Latin) grammar as monkeys do men: For they say 'domus nova' and 'dominus meus'.") It is unclear whether this indicates that Sardinian still had a two-case system at the time; modern Sardinian lacks grammatical case.
  21. ^ Note the palatalization in masculine amici /aˈmitʃi/ but lack of palatalization in amiche /aˈmike/; this proves that feminine -e cannot come from Latin ae, which became /ɛː/ by the first-century AD and would certainly have triggered palatalization.
  22. ^ "Eall fhoil de Bhreathanach". Archived from the original on June 10, 2008. 
  23. ^ Henrik Theiling (2007-10-28). "Þrjótrunn: A North Romance Language: History". Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  24. ^ "Relay 10/R – Jelbazech". 2004-08-28. Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  25. ^ /ə/ can occur only in unstressed syllables, and it tends to be rounded [ɵ̞]; it is replaced by [ø] when stressed.
  26. ^ /ɐ/ developed as the allophone of /a/ before nasals and under low stress, and the two are still nearly in complementary distribution. A few minimal pairs like falamos /fɐˈlɐmuʃ/ "we speak" vs. falámos /fɐˈlamuʃ/ "we spoke" seem to clearly indicate that /ɐ/ must be a phoneme, but other analyses are possible. /ɨ/, which developed from earlier /e/ in unstressed syllables, is even more doubtful.
  27. ^ a b c d Harris, Martin; Vincent, Nigel (1988). The Romance Languages. London: Routledge. 
  28. ^ Kibler, William W. (1984). An introduction to Old French. New York: Modern Language Association of America. 
  29. ^ Henri Wittmann. "Le français de Paris dans le français des Amériques." PDF (52.1 KB), Proceedings of the International Congress of Linguists 16.0416 (Paris, 20–25 juillet 1997). Oxford: Pergamon (CD edition).
  30. ^ ipse originally meant "self", as in ego ipse or egomet ipse "I myself". ipse later shifted to mean "the" (still reflected in Sardinian and in the Catalan spoken in the Balearic Islands), and still later came to be a demonstrative pronoun. From -met ipse the emphatic (superlative) form metipsimum was created, later evolving into medisimum and eventually Spanish mismo, French même, Italian medesimo, which replaced both Latin ipse "self" and idem "same". The alternative form metipse eventually produced Catalan mateix, Old Portuguese medês. The normal Italian equivalent, however, is stesso, derived from the combination iste-ipse.
  31. ^ a b Accademia della Crusca On the use of the passato remoto (in Italian)[dead link]
  32. ^ Cf. auret "she had" < Latin habuerat, voldrent "they wanted" < Latin voluerant. Not clearly distinct in meaning from the first (normal) preterite, cf. the parallel lines por o fut presentede "for this reason she was presented" (fut = first preterite, from Latin fuit) vs. por o's furet morte "for these reasons she was killed" (furet = second preterite, from Latin fuerat) in the same poem.
  33. ^ Paden, William D. 1998. An Introduction to Old Occitan. Modern Language Association of America. ISBN 0-87352-293-1. (NEED PAGE NUMBER)
  34. ^ Originally formal, now equalizing or informal.
  35. ^ Likewise Spanish usted < vuestra merced, Catalan vostè < vostra mercè.
  36. ^ magnum also survives in Spanish tamaño, Portuguese tamanho "size" < tam magnum "so big".
  37. ^ Notice the current Portuguese spelling (Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement of 1990) abolished the use of the diaeresis for this purpose.
  38. ^ Pope (1934).
  39. ^ Allen (2003) states: "There appears to have been no great difference in quality between long and short a, but in the case of the close and mid vowels (i and u, e and o) the long appear to have been appreciably closer than the short." He then goes on to the historical development, quotations from various authors (from around the second century AD), as well as evidence from older inscriptions where "e" stands for normally short i, and "i" for long e, etc.
  40. ^ Technically, Sardinian is one of the Southern Romance languages. The same vowel outcome occurred in a small strip running across southern Italy (the Lausberg Zone), and is thought to have formerly occurred in the Romance languages of northern Africa.
  41. ^ Palmer (1954).
  42. ^ cauda would produce French *choue, Italian *[kɔda], Occitan *cauza (or similar), Romanian *caudă.
  43. ^ Kaze, Jeffery W. (1991). "Metaphony and Two Models for the Description of Vowel Systems". Phonology 8 (1): 163–170. JSTOR 4420029. 
  44. ^ Calabrese, Andrea. "Metaphony". Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  45. ^ a b Penny, Ralph (1994). "Continuity and Innovation in Romance: Metaphony and Mass-Noun Reference in Spain and Italy". The Modern Language Review 89 (2): 273–281. JSTOR 3735232. 
  46. ^ Note that the outcome of -am -em -om would be the same regardless of whether lengthening occurred, and that -im was already rare in Classical Latin, and appears to have barely survived in Proto-Romance. The only likely survival is in "-teen" numerals such as trēdecim "thirteen" > Italian tredici. This favors the vowel-lengthening hypothesis -im > /ĩː/ > /i/; but notice unexpected decem > Italian dieci (rather than expected *diece). It is possible that dieci comes from *decim, which analogically replaced decem based on the -decim ending; but it is also possible that the final /i/ in dieci represents an irregular development of some other sort and that the process of analogy worked in the other direction.
  47. ^ Aurelio M. Espinosa, "Metipsimus in Spanish and French", Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 26, pp. 356-378.
  48. ^ Formerly in Brazilian Portuguese
  49. ^ Formerly in Brazilian Portuguese
  50. ^ "Ditzionàriu Online". Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  51. ^ "Sicilian–English Dictionary". 2010-06-15. Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  52. ^ "Dictionary Sicilian – Italian". Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  53. ^ "Indo-European Languages". Retrieved 2013-09-18. 
  54. ^ "Grand Dissionari Piemontèis / Grande Dizionario Piemontese". Retrieved 2013-09-17. 
  55. ^ "Dictionary English–Friulian Friulian–English". Retrieved 2011-07-31. 
  56. ^ Beaumont (2008-12-16). "Occitan–English Dictionary". Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  57. ^ "English Aragonese Dictionary Online". Glosbe. Retrieved 2013-09-18. 
  58. ^ "English Asturian Dictionary Online". Glosbe. Retrieved 2013-09-18. 
  59. ^ Developed from *pluviūtam.
  60. ^ Initial h- due to contamination of Germanic *hauh "high". Although no longer pronounced, it reveals its former presence by inhibiting elision of a preceding schwa, e.g. le haut "the high" vs. l'eau "the water".
  61. ^ a b c d Cognate with Latin , not ego. Note that this parallels the state of affairs in Celtic, where the cognate of ego is not attested anywhere, and the use of the accusative form cognate to has been extended to cover the nominative, as well.
  62. ^ a b Developed from an assimilated form *nossum rather than from nostrum.



  • Harris, Martin; Vincent, Nigel (1988). The Romance Languages. London: Routledge. 
  • Posner, Rebecca (1996). The Romance Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Alkire, Ti; Rosen, Carol (2010). Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Sound Changes:

  • Boyd-Bowman, Peter (1980). From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 


  • Holtus, Günter; Metzeltin, Michael; Schmitt, Christian (1988–1005). Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik. (LRL, 12 volumes). Tübingen: Niemeyer. 


  • Price, Glanville (1971). The French language: present and past. Edward Arnold. 
  • Kibler, William W. (1984). An introduction to Old French. New York: Modern Language Association of America. 


  • Williams, Edwin B. (1968). From Latin to Portuguese, Historical Phonology and Morphology of the Portuguese Language (2nd ed.). University of Pennsylvania. 


  • Penny, Ralph (2002). A History of the Spanish Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Lapesa, Rafael (1981). Historia de la Lengua Española. Madrid: Editorial Gredos. 
  • Vicente, Alonso Zamora (1967). Dialectología Española (2nd ed.). Madrid: Editorial Gredos. 


  • Devoto, Giacomo; Giacomelli, Gabriella (2002). I Dialetti delle Regioni d'Italia (3rd ed.). Milano: RCS Libri (Tascabili Bompiani). 
  • Devoto, Giacomo (1999). Il Linguaggio d'Italia. Milano: RCS Libri (Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli). 

External links