Romance languages part 06

 Map-Romance Language World  Romance-procents  Map-Romance Language World

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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 most varieties of Spanish, have lost /ʎ/ (which merged with /j/). Romanian merged both /ʎ/ and /ɲ/ into /j/.
  • Romanian was influenced by Slavic phonology, mostly the palatalization of consonants in the plural form (for example pom-pomi and lup-lupi, pronounced [pomʲ] and [lupʲ]) and changing of /l/ to /r/, for instance Latin schola/scola > Slav. школа, shkola > modern Romanian şcoală [ˈʃkoarə] "school".

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 límite [ˈli.mi.te] "[a] limit", present subjunctive limite [li.ˈmi.te] "[that] [I/he] limit" and preterite limité [li.mi.ˈte] "[I] limited".

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 word 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; the only trace of a dual number comes from Latin ambō > Spanish and Portuguese ambos, Old Romanian îmbi > Romanian ambii, Old French ambe, Italian ambedue, entrambi.


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 similar phenomenon may be observed in Albanian (which is heavily Romance-influenced), and the category remains highly productive with a number of new words loaned or coined in the neuter ((një) hotel one hotel(m) vs. (tri) hotele three hotels (f)). (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 the demonstrative adjectives: esto, eso, aquello, 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]").

Remnants of the neuter, interpretable now as "a sub-class of the non-feminine gender" (Haase 2000:233), are vigorous in Italy in an area running roughly from Ancona to Matera and just north of Rome to Naples. Oppositions with masculine typically have been recategorized, so that neuter signifies the referent in general, while masculine indicates a more specific instance, with the distinction marked by the definite article. In Southeast Umbrian, for example, neuter lo pane is 'the bread', while masculine lu pane refers to an individual piece or loaf of bread. Similarly, neuter lo vinu is wine in general, while masculine lu vinu is a specific sort of wine, with the consequence that mass lo vinu has no plural counterpart, but lu vinu can take a sortal plural form li vini, referring to different types of wine. Phonological forms of articles vary by locale.

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Latin had an extensive case system, where all nouns were declined in six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, dative, genitive, and ablative) and two numbers. Many adjectives were additionally declined in three genders, leading to a possible 6 × 2 × 3 = 36 endings per adjective (although this was rarely the case). 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" "ye" "they"
Nominative yo él ella nosotros nosotras vosotros vosotras ellos ellas
Disjunctive ti
Accusative me te se lo la nos os los las
Dative le les
Genitive mío tuyo suyo suyo; de él suyo; de ella nuestro vuestro suyo; de ellos suyo; de ellas
Possessive mi tu su su
With con conmigo contigo consigo con él con ella con nosotros
(archaic connosco)
con nosotras
(archaic connosco)
con vosotros
(archaic convosco)
con vosotras
(archaic convosco)
con ellos con ellas

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
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.: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, enriched with native development and Slavic borrowings (see some examples here) 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:100 Old Sursilvan:367 Romanian:402
Masculine singular Nominative bonus bueno buens buns bun
Vocative bone
Accusative bonum buen biVn
Genitive bonī
Dative bonō
Masculine plural Nominative bonī buenos buen biVni buni
Accusative bonōs buens buns
Genitive bonōrum
Dative bonīs
Feminine singular Nominative bona buena buene buna bună
Accusative bonam
Genitive bonae bune
Ablative bonā
Feminine plural Nominative bonae buenas buenes bunas bune
Accusative bonās
Genitive bonārum
Dative 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).: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. Some of the same nouns with multiple stems in Old French 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::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) which, though not paralleled in current English, used to be 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 the third-person singular and plural both 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, most 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.

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