French language is known to be a Roman language, just like Spanish, Italian, Swiss Roman… Those Roman languages are told to be originating from Latin language.

When I learnt Latin, one of the first (and most important) things I learnt, were the cases (nominative, accusative…), and let's face it: the Latin language is full of cases.

In the meanwhile I've learnt Dutch, German, French and Spanish, and I've observed that in the mentioned Roman languages there are no traces of the cases (while those traces are very visibly in the non-Roman languages), so my question is: how can languages like French, Spanish (and I guess, also Italian) be called Roman languages if the main grammatical structure of a Roman languages is nowhere to be found in those languages? In other words, while inventing the so-called "Roman languages", where did the cases go?

  • 1
    All your questions can be answered by reading the Wikipedia article on Vulgar Latin (especially the section on grammar), which is the ancestor of the Roman languages. In Vulgar Latin, many changes that you have noticed (simplification of the case system, and also loss of the neuter gender) were already present: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgar_Latin
    – trunklop
    Mar 10, 2018 at 15:26
  • 6
    Romance (not Roman) languages.
    – fdb
    Mar 10, 2018 at 23:55
  • 2
    This question is exactly parallel to the question "If whales are mammals, where are their legs?" The answer in both cases is: they lost them somewhere in their evolution from an earlier form which had them .
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 11, 2018 at 23:17
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    Ironically, among Western Romance languages, French (or Old French) preserved the cases the longest. It still appears on the oldest written attestation, while it's no longer the case in Old Spanish, even at the oldest attestation.
    – Xwtek
    Apr 10, 2020 at 9:18

3 Answers 3


Language families classify languages according to their history. Italian, French, Spanish and so on are Romance languages because there was a gradual evolution from Latin to these languages. Evolution means change: some features of the resulting language differ from the original language. Usually languages in the same family share a lot of vocabulary, but may have different grammatical properties.

During the expansion of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin spread around the Mediterranean. It gradually split into separate Romance languages. Vulgar Latin mostly used Latin vocabulary, but it evolved a simpler grammar. This is probably because, for many of its speakers, it was a trade language, not a native language. Among the major simplifications were the gradual erosion of declensions and the loss of the neutral gender. Romanian has three cases, Old French had two, and most modern Romance languages only have one.

Pronouns tend to preserve more distinctions than nouns. For example, most (all?) Romance languages have different forms for subject and object pronouns, at least for some persons. French has traces of a neutral case with qui/que and il/elle/ce.

This phenomenon is not unique to Romance languages. For example, English, Dutch and many Scandinavian languages also lost declensions and have considerably reduced gender variations.

  • 1
    One small thing: Dutch has not lost the neutral gender. It is still in common use. It's just that, in most variants of the language, the feminine and masculine genders have fused to a considerable degree, notably in articles. In all sorts of pronouns, this fusion is less complete especially in formal or traditional Dutch.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 11, 2018 at 3:24

The pronouns are cased, though many of the distinctions have been erased in this bizarre fashion:

Les cas grammaticaux des pronoms

As jlliagre implies, not all these forms are derived directly from their Latin forms. Also, I don't know Latin, but as far as I'm aware the uses don't overlap perfectly.

French cases are still used for the same purpose, though — to mark a noun's role in the sentence.

For example, say I either send Marie across campus to Abdul's office, or Abdul to Marie's office. Those two scenarios could be expressed:

Je la lui envoie.

Je le lui envoie.

These sentences differ by just one letter, but from Marie's point of view they're pretty different. After all, in one she's la, walking across campus, and in the other she's lui, staying in her office. :)

But in any case (no pun intended), as jlliagre said, the category of Romance or Latinate language doesn't imply that all the qualities were inherited. It's more about a genetic history than it is about functional similarity. Linguistic apples sometimes fall far from their trees.

  • What about genitives?
    – GAM PUB
    Mar 11, 2018 at 11:13
  • Just uses the disjunctive - unless I'm interpreting your comment wrong. Mar 11, 2018 at 17:57
  • Possessive pronouns => mon, ton, son, etc.
    – GAM PUB
    Mar 12, 2018 at 3:33
  • @GAMPUB oh, right. I've never enjoyed calling those pronouns (as opposed to determiners), but I know it's often done to capture the fact that they have antecedents... Oh well, it would make the chart too complicated :) Nov 4, 2021 at 10:53

They are called Romance languages and not "declensive" languages for a reason. They have indeed lost their declensions (which remain in very rare cases like pronouns, e.g. il/lui) but they have kept a lot of characteristics from Latin. Note also that the Romanian language still has some declensions.

A similar situation exists in English, which belongs to the Germanic languages family, despite a large amount of French vocabulary and not only having lost its declensions but also grammatical gender.

  • 1
    Romance (not Roman) languages.
    – fdb
    Mar 10, 2018 at 23:55

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