R is for Romance languages

The most common Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and Catalan. Other lesser-known ones include Occitan, Galician, Asturian, Sicilian, Corsican and Sardinian. In all there are about 35 living Romance languages. Sadly their name comes from the word Roman and not the word romantic.

The Romance languages are the ones that evolve from vulgar Latin. Vulgar here means common, ie the version of Latin actually spoken by the common people, compared to the classical Latin of the church and of the elite. Originally vulgar Latin and classical Latin were mutually intelligible, but over time vulgar Latin evolved into the various Romance languages and the people were no longer able to understand classical Latin.

Most Romance languages have lost some of the more difficult aspects of Latin, such as declensions and cases. Because of this they have a much stricter subject-verb-object word order, and they make more use of prepositions.

There are about 800 million speakers of Romance languages in the world and most of them are in Europe, Africa and the Americas. In Europe the places where Romance languages are spoken roughly equates to the boundaries of the Western Roman empire.

And to return to the statement in the first paragraph about the Romance coming from Roman and not romantic, there is a link between the words. Back in those days, “serious” literature was written in classical Latin. Popular tales, such as love stories, were written in the common (ie  Romance) language, and so they came to be called romances.

Related posts: Q is for Quechua   S is for…

P is for Proto-Indo-European

Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of many of the India and European languages spoken today. Little is known about it, because it wasn’t a written language, but linguists have traced languages backwards, using their knowledge of how languages evolve, to reconstruct what PIE probably sounded like.

Because there are no written records, nobody even knows for sure how long ago it was spoken, or where it originated, but the theory is that it dates back to between 5000 and 2500 BC and that the speakers lived around the Black Sea area. From there they probably migrated across Europe and Asia and the language evolved in different ways to the languages we speak today.

I came across this article a while back and found it fascinating. Have a look and listen to what Proto-Indo-European was probably like! Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European – Archaeology Magazine.

Related posts:  O is for Ojibwe      Q is for Quechua

N is for Norwegian

NMost people don’t realise this, but Norwegian is actually two languages not one! Both are official languages of the country.

Bokmål is the most common with 80 to 95% of the population speaking this as their first language. It is based on Danish but with a Norwegian flavour, and stems from when Norway was ruled by Denmark, with Danish being the language of the elite, used in courts and for other administrative purposes. Bokmål, which means “book language”, has evolved separately from Danish, and although they are mutually intelligible, they are two separate languages now.

Nynorsk (new Norwegian) is the language spoken by the remainder of the population. This language is based on the way the rural population spoke rather than how the ruling classes spoke.

The two languages together have about 5 million speakers. Both languages are taught in school, but students can choose which one they specialise in. An idea was put forward in the past to unify the two languages to create one Norwegian language, but it never really took off.

If you fancy leaning a little Norwegian, try this free course from FutureLearn.

Related posts:  M is for Maori    O is for Ojibwe

Endangered languages

Earlier this year I did a FutureLearn course about multilingualism, during which we had to consider the role of minority languages. I’ve also been reading up on some of the lesser known languages for my A-Z of languages series. As a result of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much effort should be put into keeping vulnerable languages alive.

As anybody who has read this blog know, I love languages. They have fascinated me ever since I was 3 when I first realised that there were languages other than English out there. At school I begged my friends to teach me some words of Urdu, and I used to carry round a note book so that if I came across foreign words in books, I could write them down and learn them. I’ve studied living languages (French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Arabic amongst others) and I have O’ and A’ levels in “dead languages” (Ancient Greek and Latin). I’ve listened enraptured as a tour guide explained Egyptian hieroglyphics to me, and every time I go to Wales, I look at the Welsh language information boards, even though I don’t understand them. I say all this as context to my musings……

I was actually shocked to discover that in a country as small as the UK, there are ten languages on the UNESCO endangered list, ranging from vulnerable to already extinct. Some I was aware of (Welsh, Cornish, Manx), others I had never even heard of (Norn and various versions of Channel Island French).  My first thought was that it was sad that we have already lost some of these languages, and that it would be lovely to revive those that have become extinct, and to boost those in danger to ensure their survival. After all, these languages are as much a part of our culture and history as castles and stone circles.

But how do you find the resources to revive 10 different languages? If you can’t afford to protect them all, how do you choose? What makes one language worth saving over another?

And in a country that is criticised for its poor language skills and its people’s inability to communicate with others in their own language, can we really justify spending time and money keeping languages alive artificially? Would we not be better to dedicate our time and energy learning the languages that are useful for international trade and relations?

In an ideal world I’d love to learn them all ten languages, and then teach them to others to restore a rich tapestry of language to our beautiful islands, Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world though, and I only have the time and energy to learn one more language properly, and for my own personal circumstances that has to be the non-endangered German.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also enjoy Should schools teach EAL children their home language?

Start a Conversation

ChatterbagsIan and I bought these fabulous bags to let people know which languages we can communicate in – very important for a language teacher and a tour guide. If you see us out and about carrying them, do come up and say hello in any of the languages we ticked.

If you want your own bag to start your own conversations, check out ChatterBags.