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Indo-European Languages

Italic Family

Vijay John and Jonathan Slocum

The Italic languages are divided into three main groups: Sabellic (Osco-Umbrian) languages, Latino-Faliscan languages, and Romance languages. The only surviving Italic languages are the Romance languages. Sabellic languages were originally spoken in Italy until they were replaced by Latin; the Latino-Faliscan languages include Latin and Faliscan (another extinct language, see below). The Romance languages are descended from Latin, and though they are the only surviving members of the Italic family, this is not to say that all Romance languages are still "living languages." One example of an extinct Romance language is Dalmatian (see below).

Italic languages were originally spoken only in Italy, but the area in which the surviving Romance languages are spoken is much greater. French, for example, is spoken on every continent of the world. Also, though Latin is often considered an extinct language, it is the official language of the Vatican and the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church. Many Latin expressions have been preserved in other languages (e.g. "habeas corpus" in English), and there are even efforts to revive Latin (e.g. translations of books into Latin, classes in which only Latin is spoken). Latin and the Romance languages are discussed below, since they are the best-known and best-attested Italic languages.


Around 1000 B.C., the Latino-Faliscan languages were originally spoken in the Italian province of Latium (modern Lazio). Faliscan was spoken near Rome. By the 6th century B.C., 400 years later, Latin had become the language of Rome, which was the chief city in Latium. Latium was bordered by Sabellic language speakers, but the language spoken to the north of Latin was Etruscan, a non-Indo-European language.

By the fourth century B.C., Rome had become the seat of what was to become the Empire. Its power spread throughout Italy and later outside Italy; eventually, the Roman Empire included much of Europe as well as North Africa and parts of the Middle East. As a result of the Roman conquest, the Latin-speaking territory expanded dramatically. Many dialects of Latin developed in the various regions of the Roman Empire, and Latin (or the newly formed varieties of Latin) adopted words from the local languages. The regional dialects of Latin were in this way influenced by local languages, but many of the local languages eventually died out and were replaced by the local variant of Latin.

So many literary works were published in the Roman Empire that a differentiation arose between two varieties of Latin: Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin. Classical Latin was the variety often used in literary works; Classical Latin words were not necessarily used in ordinary conversation. Vulgar Latin was the spoken language ("vulgar" in this case means "folk"), though it also began to be used in literature.

Latin's influence in Europe was so great that even invaders during the Fall of the Roman Empire often spoke Latin. Thus, Latin survived long after Rome's power declined. The influence of Vulgar Latin grew to form a new variety of Latin that included expressions in spoken Latin mixed with the Classical Latin of the Roman Empire. This variety of Latin is now known as "Medieval Latin," since it was used in the Middle Ages, and it eventually gave rise to another variety called "Late Latin." In much of Western Europe, vernacular languages had formed during the Middle Ages, but they were slow to replace Latin as the language of administration, theater, etc.

Romance Languages

The Romance languages were formed from the regional variants of Latin that survived the Roman Empire, the five most prominent being known now as Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian. Most Romance languages were originally spoken in Western Europe, with the notable exception of Romanian. One Romance language called Dalmatian was originally spoken in what is now southern Croatia (a.k.a. Dalmatia); the last speaker died in 1898.

Since the invaders of the western Roman Empire often spoke Latin themselves, it is understandable that the Romance languages of western Europe would be maintained; indeed, their speakers became more plentiful. However, in the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the former Roman Empire), the official language was not Latin but Byzantine Greek; for this reason it is uncertain how Dalmatian survived until the late 19th century and Romanian to the present. Dalmatia was under substantial influence from Venice, so this might help explain why Dalmatian survived; Romania, however, is surrounded by speakers of non-Italic languages, and there is no clear explanation of what led to the survival of Romanian.

Many countries in which Romance languages were official languages later colonized, or at least controlled, other lands outside of Europe. In some of these areas, new languages called creoles were formed as a result of contact between the colonizers and peoples who did not speak Romance languages. These "Romance creoles" are often included among the Romance languages. For example, France colonized what is now Haiti and brought many African slaves there. To facilitate communication between the slaves and the French, a creole was formed by combining French with elements of various African languages. This creole, now known as Haitian Creole, is a member of the Romance group.

Since writings in Latin have been preserved to this day, there is no need for a reconstruction of "Proto-Romance." It is possible to observe and track changes from Latin to modern-day Romance languages. This unique characteristic of Romance languages is an advantage to historical linguists, since it provides clues about how to reconstruct other older and extinct languages.

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