I don't know if this is a question for this Stack Exchange or for the History Stack Exchange, but I would like to know when people first understood that the Romance languages were related. I have found a 13th century text from northwestern France that possibly testifies to an awareness that various languages spoken within Europe are related to one another, but I don't know if that's particularly early. (If it is particularly early, it is also quite possible that I am misinterpreting this text.)

The text is taken from a series of glosses to the Babylonian Talmud, known as Tosafot ("additional [commentaries]"), and for this particular tractate of the Talmud (Tractate Bava Qama) they are believed to have originated in the academy of Touques, which was headed in the 13th century by a certain Rabbi Eliezer.

The gloss in question is concerned with a talmudic passage that makes reference to a dialect of Aramaic called sursi (סורסי). The gloss reads as follows:

נראה דלשון סורסי הוא לשון ארמי... והא דנקט הכא בארץ ישראל לשון סורסי ובבבל נקט לשון ארמי אור"ת לפי שמעט משתנה כעין לשון לעז שמדברים אותו לשון צח במדינה אחת יותר מבאחרת

My translation:

It would seem that sursi is Aramaic... and the fact that it is called sursi in the land of Israel but Aramaic in Babylon is, according to Rabbeinu Tam, because they were a little different from one another - just like the common tongue [today] is spoken in a purer form in one state than it is in another.

  • Bava Qama 83a (s.v. לשון סורסי)

Rabbeinu Tam (also known as Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir) was a 12th century scholar who is often quoted in these glosses. As with the sages of Touques, and many of the other tosafists as well, he was a French speaker. I would love it if he were referring to the relationship between mediaeval French and other Romance languages, but the word that I have translated as "state" could also mean "province". As such, it is possible (I know nothing of mediaeval France) that he is referring to different French-speaking regions instead.

If this question is suitable to the Linguistic Stack Exchange, I would love it if somebody could let me know whether or not a recognition of the relationship between Romance languages was par for the course at this point in time! And if it is not, my apologies: I will migrate it over to the History Stack Exchange instead.

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    To my understanding, it was generally always understood that the Romance languages descended from Latin (and the classics were continuously available in the original Latin for comparison). And the Romans and Greeks knew their languages were related, though they overestimated the similarity in some respects. Is this the sort of thing you're looking for?
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 7:57
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    @Draconis. Which Greek or Roman authors write that their languages are related? –
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 10:38
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    There was never a moment when someone first realized that the Romance languages are related, because before they were considered separate languages at all they were thought of as debased local forms of Latin.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 19:04
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    See this quote for example: "The language spoken by the Romans is neither utterly barbarous nor absolutely Greek, but a mixture, as it were, of both, the greater part of which is Aeolic; and the only disadvantage they have experienced from their intermingling with these various nations is that they do not pronounce all their sounds properly. But all other indications of a Greek origin they preserve beyond any other colonists." Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 17:19
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    Varro is even more explicit about this and cites Greek roots as the origin of Latin words. For articles on the subject, with references to ancients authors, see E. Gabba "Il latino come dialetto greco" and this article by Mirko Tavoni: academia.edu/6509891/… Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 17:25

1 Answer 1


Classicists have never been ignorant of this. The knowledge of the relationship is as old as the languages themselves. Monasteries maintained vast collections of codices and manuscripts dating from the classical era to the 12th century. Many still survive. Philologists can trace the evolution of simplified Latin with little need for putative reconstructions.

What we would now describe as the Romance languages were simply regarded as vernacular lects of Latin at the time. The oldest attestation of what is described as Castilian, the Glosses of Emilianus, has Latin in the very same codex.

Even today, Western Romance languages are not divergent to the point of no intelligibility. No native could fail to miss the connection between French and Latin even if we assume zero exposure to the other's culture or history.

In addition, Romance languages are defined by their genetic relationship to Latin. The family that best corresponds to the other branches of Indo-European (Slavic, Celtic, Indo-Iranic, etc.) are the Italic languages of which Romance is the last extant clade. Romance is a relatively young language family. It dates to the early first millennium.

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    There was no concept of "related" in the modern sense, since there was no phonetics to base it on until the 19th Century, so general recognition was vague. There was no way to be more precise.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 21:07
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    Yes. French and Spanish are still very similar. A 12th century speaker, even one very ignorant of history, could explain that the lexicon and verb morphology are variants of a common system. No bilingual Romance speaker could miss it. All that would be required for an outsider is sufficient exposure. Mind you that at the time, before the advent of standard language, there was a dialect continuum from France to Spain. Most of geographical France–everything south of Poitiers–will have spoken an Occitan language like Catalan. Catalan and Castilian are still intelligible but not perfectly. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 10:53
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    +fdb Medieval grammars of Romance languages all refer back to Latin. For instance, the three French conjugations (-er, -ir, -re) are a transparent simplification of Latin's four conjugations. This is explained in the first Grammar of Modern French "In linguam gallicam isagōge, una cum eiusdem Grammatica latino-gallica, ex hebræis, græcis et latinis authoribus", as in the first Portuguese grammar. It was common knowledge that the vulgar language came from the literary language. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 11:13
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    @fdb Scaliger (1599/1610) wrote "Linguas matrices vocare possumus, ex quibus multae dialecti, tamquam propagines, deductae sunt."
    – Alex B.
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 18:10
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    @AlexB. An interesting find. If various languages come from the same matrix (literally "womb") then they can be assumed to be "related".
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 18:04

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