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I am a native Romanian and I can master more or less only English, French and Italian - while Spanish and Bulgarian are transparent to me: but German is not - nor Latin!

It seems to me obvious that the following is true: at least for a native speaker of any Romance language any other Romance language seems closer than Latin and much easier to master, in some cases very easy - like Toscan/Italian for a Romanian (maybe Napolitan would be even easier), maybe Spanish/Castilian for an Italian and Portuguese.

I was able to understand 80% of a spoken (standard) Italian communication at the TV very quickly after first exposed to it in my adolescence. Written text in French and Italian was rather easy to understand also, so learning these languages was easy (reading Montaigne and Leopardi is another matter).

Not to mention that English is also easy to learn - and in some cases other non-Latin languages may seem easier.

I am not talking about good grasp of the declination and conjugation and all other aspects that supposedly make Latin difficult, but mostly about understanding a body of written or spoken (descriptive, non-technical) text.

Is that impression misleading? - I mean: is it just because we don't hear people enough speaking and singing in Latin like they do in Spanish or French, because we are not exposed to Latin? (I remember having started in my childhood to understand Bulgarian after having been exposed by particular political circumstances more to Bulgarian than to Romanian television, just as later I've "started" to understand Italian and Spanish movies. - Would it have been the same for me with Latin if a Ciceronian-speaking TV had existed?)

If I would make a comparison with Darwinian evolution, where birds have evolved from reptiles, while all Romance languages are like birds, more or less similar to each other, Latin looks more like a crocodile than like a bird. I can explain why Bulgarian seemed familiar enough to me and English even more (Romanian has a lot of Slavic words, Bulgarian has borrowed some from Romanian, both languages share features of the so called Balkanische Sprachbund, and English is full of French and Latin words and has a simple grammar): but how come a Latin text is hardly more transparent to me than a German text?

If my impression isn't misleading, is that because all Romance languages have evolved from a common source (some stage/type of vulgar Latin, mostly unwritten)? Would that be closer to each of them than they are to each other?

And how could that have covered all the space from Portuguese to Romanian? Isn't vulgar/colloquial parlance always very local?

Have all these languages converged somehow and become similar by some rules of language development? Is it that they just have become simpler, reduced to more accessible common denominators?

What is the main reason?

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    As a native speaker of English, I find Romance languages much easier to learn than Latin. With just a little study of Italian, I can often guess my way through written Italian. Latin has required much more study, and I still get lost in the grammar of a native sentence much more easily. I await with interest an answer to your question!
    – Ben Kovitz
    Sep 30, 2022 at 20:47
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    What divides the Romance languages from each other? Porous national borders, a few hundred kilometres here or there. What unites them? A shared history, cultural and religious context, trade and travel, etc. (This is particularly true for the Western group, to a lesser degree for Romanian; but Romanian consciously oriented itself towards French & Italian in the 19th century and imported a great deal of vocabulary.) What divides the Romance languages from Latin? Twenty centuries. I see no reason to expect them to be closer to Latin than to each other! Sep 30, 2022 at 22:20
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    @SebastianKoppehel - 20 centuries have fractured enormously the Romance area, the uniformity is recent, and still the closeness between them all is great. Why didn't local diversity made them more foreign to each other and what is the common ground for that if not Latin itself which seems rather foreign (within the explanation of the question)? The 20 centuries is a long enough time to bring huge divergence (Germanic, Slavic, Arab impact could have made them drift apart more): what factors kept so close the idioms of shepherds of Moldavia and ...Sicily? (not travel, commerce or religion!)
    – cipricus
    Oct 1, 2022 at 3:00
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    I don't know about that. There was plenty of cross-border movement in Spain, France, Italy, and England since the High Middle Ages. As far as those locales in Sardinia, this can all be graphed out with network theory to see just how far distant antiquity is from modernity. I think you'll find that we're far closer today than back then. We've actually discussed this a bit in chat before. Like Sebastian, I think a shared experience and familiarity with other languages shapes our cognitive processes in ways that are alien to the ancient Romans.
    – cmw
    Oct 1, 2022 at 3:54
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    You can follow the conversation a little bit here and later a link to a controversial idea by Whorf here.
    – cmw
    Oct 1, 2022 at 3:59

2 Answers 2

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I will give a brief answer: because Latin has obsolete features in grammar, phonetics, and syntax, and even some archaic or outright obsolete vocabulary. Sure, you could get some glimpses of what is being said with the right word order and more familiar words, but too much is foreign to Romance languages: like indirect statements, gerundives, supines, fear clauses, just to name a few that don't have inherited equivalents. Latin comes from a different time and culture; the Romance languages are derived mostly from a later form of Latin, structured from Christian trends plus regional influences throughout the medieval era.

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  • The later (popular and simplified) form of Latin inherited by all Romance languages seems to be common to them, covering the whole empire, and thus seems to be rather old itself. My impression is that it "emerged" as such a unitary phenomenon after the fall of the empire that it must have been well established by then, only it was recorded in writing much later. Can we imagine that the Classical Latin was already during Roman times mostly a written and elitist language, and that the common base of modern Romance goes deeper in the past?
    – cipricus
    Oct 5, 2022 at 18:55
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    It's certainly an interesting thought, it's one I had thought of for a long time. Latin probably was a rather homogeneous language by the Western Roman Empire's end, and seemed to have splintered off shortly thereafter due to the shift from a central empire to separate feudal systems. There is an interesting webpage about how Latin was already changing by the time of Constantine the Great and how Christianity played a part in Late Latin. Oct 5, 2022 at 23:24
  • I think the splint was much early, not after the fall of the Romans, but with the very establishment of the classic Latin spoken by the elites and transmitted by writing (what we call Latin - mostly continued in Medieval Latin) which was never that of the 99% of the people. I see this popular Latin even more homogeneous than just the Western empire: covering also the lands between Italy and Romania (and part of Greece where until recently there were many East Romance speakers) but absent in lands of older culture: Africa and the Middle East. Regional differences must have existed though.
    – cipricus
    Oct 6, 2022 at 10:16
  • It is incredible that most of the map of the Roman Empire in Europe is still Romance speaking, excepting marginal Germanic lands and the Slavic land in the Balkans - which was very different until (more or less) recently.
    – cipricus
    Oct 6, 2022 at 10:26
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First if all, you ask:

I mean: is it just because we don't hear people enough speaking and singing in Latin like they do in Spanish or French, because we are not exposed to Latin?

That seems quite likely; the presence of Italian, for example, in the general cultural atmosphere of Europe today will probably have a great influence in making it intellegible to speakers of other languages (Romance or not), while I believe the relatedness of Italian and Romanian has relatively little to do with how easy it appears to you to get a handle on Italian.

The reason I believe so is as follows. Your experience as a Romanian speaker is not entirely unexpected. A study (1) of mutual intellegibility of various European languages found that Romanian-Italian intellegibility (listener language always first) is among the best among the Romance languages, with even listeners with minimal exposure answering more than 40 % of questions correctly (listeners in this case had to guess beeped-out words). On the other hand, the Italian-Romanian intellegibility was the lowest among the Romance languages (10.6 % answered correctly overall). While Italian seems fairly easy to Romanians, Romanian might as well be Chinese to Italians! If relatedness were the greatest factor, we would expect more symmetry; the asymmetry points to cultural factors. (Another example is the low intellegibility of Danish to German speakers, whereas Danish speakers understood German very well and they had not even a column for "minimal exposure" speakers in that case – the reason being that German used to be a mandatory school subject in Denmark for many decades.)

When this is so, it seems hardly surprising that Italian is easier to understand than Latin.

(1) C. Gooskens etc.: Mutual intelligibility between closely related languages in Europe, International Journal of Multilingualism (2017), online (I strongly recommend clicking "View PDF")

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  • The asymmetry of understanding between Romanian and Italian can be explained by the very development of the two languages: Italian contains enough "Romanian" elements that make Italian accessible to Romanians (and very few elements unfamilar in Romanian), but Romanian contains enough "non-Italian" elements for it to be less accessible to Italians. As for cultural exposure, I don't understand what exactly do you mean. What exposure to Italian had Romanians until recently?
    – cipricus
    Nov 6, 2022 at 18:14
  • There is asymetry between Romanian and all the rest, not just Italian, and the reason is this: All Romance languages have non-Latin words, but in the West many of these are common too all (as most have been taken by all the rest, including Romanian, from French), while in the East, in Romanian (Aromanian, etc) most non-Latin words are of Slavic origin and are absent in the rest of Romance.
    – cipricus
    Nov 8, 2022 at 18:31

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