5 Questions on Romance Languages with Lelia Glass

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The most romantic day of the year is quickly approaching. On February 14, people across the world will celebrate the ones they love for Valentine’s Day. As stores fill their shelves with red, heart-shaped candy boxes and restaurants prepare extravagant menus for two, the School of Modern Languages invites you to celebrate a different kind of romance—the Romance languages!

Lelia Glass is the coordinator of the linguistics program and assistant professor of linguistics in the School of Modern Languages. We asked her to share the origins of Romance languages and how students at Georgia Tech can get involved with a Romance language beyond just the romantic season.

1. What are the Romance languages? 

To step back, some languages are historically related to each other. This means that a group of people in the past all spoke the same language, then over time were separated for long enough that their ways of speaking drifted apart and split into two different languages. A language family is a group of languages that all share a common ancestor. We can group languages into families by comparing their words and looking for similarities and systematic correspondences. We would eventually want to reconstruct or identify the ancestor language and propose a series of systematic changes over time that give rise to the observed present-day data. This type of historical reconstruction can be supported by evidence from historical written records and archaeology. 

The Romance languages are a group of cousin languages within the larger Indo-European language family. Romance languages are historically descended from Latin. Today, the Romance languages include (from greatest number of present-day speakers to least) Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian, along with smaller languages such as Catalan and Romanian. English is not a Romance language, but English borrowed a lot of French words after Francophone Normans invaded England in 1066, so we share some vocabulary with Romance languages. 

2. Why are they called “Romance” languages and what classifies them as Romance languages linguistically? 

They’re called Romance languages because they descend from the Latin language spoken in Rome. You can see that the Romance languages are related by looking at Swadesh lists (named for the linguist Morris Swadesh), a list of everyday words like I, you, one, two, three, bird, fish, and so on which are likely to be old words rather than borrowings or new coinages. The Romance words for one, two, and three are uno, dos, tres (Spanish); un, deux, trois (French); um, dois, tres (Portuguese), and uno, due, tre (Italian). You can see that these words share quite a lot of sounds in common, which is evidence that they descend from a common ancestor. 

Romance languages share with English a basic subject-verb-object word order, but they generally use more complex markings on verbs for subject-verb agreement and tense. Romance languages also mark gender on nouns and adjectives. For example, in French my beautiful neighbor is mon beau voisin if the neighbor is masculine and ma belle voisine if the neighbor is feminine. The pronoun ‘my’ (mon/ma), the adjective ‘beautiful’ (beau/belle), and the noun ‘neighbor’ (voisin/voisine) take different forms depending on the gender of the person being described. 

3. Are Romance languages more romantic than other languages?  

Linguists aim to describe language without making any subjective judgments about value or aesthetics. There is no objective metric for beauty or romance, so when people say, for example, that “French is a beautiful/romantic language,” they really mean that they subjectively associate Francophone culture—its food, art, literature, and cities—with aesthetic value. That can become problematic if you explore the implication that some other languages (or the cultures associated with them) are less beautiful/romantic. It’s great to appreciate the diverse cultures associated with Romance languages and to find romance and excitement there, but linguists would say that these subjective judgments are aesthetic rather than scientific. 

4. Will learning one Romance language help you know another? 

Yes!  Romance languages share a lot of vocabulary with one another, as well as grammar, so knowing one Romance language absolutely helps you learn another one. 

5. How can students get involved with Romance languages at Georgia Tech? 

We offer both Spanish and French in the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. We’ve offered Portuguese before, too, but not consistently. If you’ve already had some experience with a language, you can take a placement test to find the right level for you. We also offer linguistics classes for people interested in the science of language in general.  

In the School of Modern Languages, our 1000- and 2000-level language classes focus on vocabulary and grammar, while our 3000- and 4000-level classes use the language as a medium to study the history, art, society, and linguistics associated with that language and its speakers (like a college course taught in a country where that language is used). We also offer faculty-led summer study-abroad programs, so that students can use the language to experience different cultures abroad.  

Our classes are generally small and discussion-based, so they can be a great place to connect with people and maybe even spark romance—whether between students or between a student and their intellectual interest! 


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