Which Romance Language?


Learning another language is not a haphazard activity. You need to have some reasons for choosing which languages you want to eventually speak. Here are my criteria:

1. Number of Speakers

The number of speakers is not a major consideration for me, unless I am in it for the money, in which case, the more speakers a language has, the larger the market would be and more opportunity for profit. I don’t discount the number of speakers though, in that a language has to have minimum number of speakers large enough for variety and possible social encounter in one’s lifetime. Realistically, I don’t intend to talk to each and individual person speaking a particular language, but only a select few that I find interesting or share similar interests with. I don’t even have to talk to people, I just might want to enjoy their creative output, like listening to their music, speeches, radios, or reading their writings, or watching movies or TV shows.  In other words, the language just has to have sizeable creative output I am aware of or was made aware of that interests me. In terms of speakers, any language with 1 million speakers or more already ticks my criteria for number of speakers. If I live for 75 years and I have 50 years free to interact with each and every person in a 1 million-speaker language, that would mean 20,000 a year or 55 person a day. So, 1 million speakers is just the threshold for me.

2. Culture.

My target language has to have a distinctive culture (food, technology, music, literature, other arts, science, religion, philosophy) the spirit of which can only be transmitted through that language. I think all languages are culture specific, in that the things valued in that culture are reflected in its vocabulary and grammar. So, being able to describe this culture in another language is not enough for me, its not the same as physically smelling, touching, seeing, hearing and feeling under that language. 

3. Grammar

I’m a sucker for grammar. The more exotic a grammar is, the more I am attracted to the language. I would normally go for the more complicated or different  grammar given a choice between 2 languages, just for grammar’s sake. I think that grammar reflects another way of looking at things, or viewing things or communicating things. So I want to be able to be trained in a different way of looking at things. But this fondness for grammar does not include grammar irregularity due to pronunciation or conjugation, which I find quite unnecessary.

2. Language Group

Now this criteria is more important to me. I don’t want to learn a language in the same language group as the one I already know. Before deciding which language to learn, I have to choose which among the related languages I must learn. As much a possible, I want variety in the languages I speak. Languages from one group are normally related culturally, grammatically and share a large common cognate vocabulary. Now, unless this is not the case, then I will stick to 1 language per language group.

ROMANCE LANGUAGES

Now that I decided to learn one of the Romance languages, which one would it be? In terms of speakers, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian are all good candidates plus smaller languages in Italy and Spain (Lombard, Neapolitan, Catalan, Piedmontese, etc.). In terms of culture, I treat all Romance languages as almost similar in culture, so learning any one of them is a good window to Romance culture. Since the bigger languages have the more developed literature, I shortlisted French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. But there is a problem with Romanian. It has acquired some Slavonic characteristics, but it is not a Slavic language, so will not be considered when I choose from among the Slavic languages later.  In terms of grammar, French has dropped a lot of distinctions, been influenced a lot by Germanic languages by acquiring those closed front vowels and acquired an English- like word order. Portuguese pales in comparison to Spanish in terms of literature and potential. Italian groups with Romanian grammatically and lexically rather than with French, Portuguese, or Spanish. So I settled with Spanish, which I am learning now. Settling for Spanish is quite logical because: (1) it has the largest native speakers, (2) the phonology is unique in possessing a lot of fricatives, (3) it is supposed to have conserved a lot of Latin characteristics, and (4) it is also culturally unique and influential. Spanish is not perfect though as I wish Spanish has vowels like Portuguese and the f has not become h in words like hablar. Portuguese did not participate in diphthongization. Hereis a short list of Romance characteristics.

VERBS

The Verb has the following grammatical features and values in Spanish:

Subject Person Number Tense Aspect Voice Mood
1st Singular Present Perfective Active Indicative
2nd Plural Past Imperfective Passive Subjunctive
3rd   Future Perfect Reflexive Imperative
      Progressive/
Continuous
Medio-Passive Conditional
          Infinitive
          Gerundive
          Participle (Passive Perfect and Present Participle)

 

These Spanish moods have different conjugations. Indicative and Subjunctive moods can be both conjugated for subject person, number, tense, aspect and voice. The Conditional and the Imperative moods can only be conjugated with subject person and number, no tense (atemporal) and aspect, and possibly can be conjugated for voice. The participle used as a verb in perfect construction is invariable: it has no subject person, no number, has perfective aspect and by default past tense, and no voice. Participles if used as verbal (adjectives or in passives with ser and estar) have gender and number (singular or plural) distinctions like nouns. The Passive Perfect Participle acts like an adjective, so it has the same inflections. The gerund is like the participle, except that its in the continuous/progressive aspect (by default present tense) and possibly no number or gender distinction. The infinitive has no conjugation at all even for number distinction even though its a verbal as well. The non-finite forms (participle, gerund, infinitive) are used as nouns and adjectives.  For those that are possible combinations from the table yet missing , there is no Subjunctive in the past tense, and the Imperative mood is not present in the 1st person singular. Verb constructions corresponding to continuous aspect are usually not considered part of the verbal paradigm but will be considered here as having their own aspect. Continuous aspect can be signalled not just by estar but also by siguer, andar, ir + gerund. The past perfect (Preterito anterior) is very rare in spoken Spanish but still used in formal written Spanish. The future subjunctive is not used in Spanish, except in old texts, legal language and a few fixed expressions.  Present active infinitive -ra imperfect subjunctive was derived from Latin pluperfect indicative while -se from Latin pluperfect subjunctive

French has all the values for the subject person, number, tense, voice and mood, but it lacks the distinction between progressive/continuous aspect vs. simple aspect. Additionally, French past perfective is rarely used in spoken French, and is replaced by the present perfect. French subjunctive only has present, with the past imperfective subjunctive and its perfect seen only in older literary works. French present participle can’t be used in forming a continuous aspect nor be used as a noun. French though has a present perfect imperative (rarely used) which I don’t know if Spanish has. Also, there is widespread syncretism in the verb conjugation such that French does not allow null subject, a trait that is very much common among Romance languages. French distinguishes positive and negative imperative partly though word order and change in pronoun. All object pronouns are consistently used as clitics in spoken French, thus being a polypersonal agreement (like Georgian).

I found some interesting things about French, a past imperative distinct from present imperative, which I think also exists in Spanish but is never mentioned in grammar books. Also, I found out that French has a past subjunctive even if its not one word. It is formed by using the subjunctive of the helping verb ( avoir or être) + the past participle of the action being performed. I still have to check whether this past subjunctive functions like the imperfecto subjuntivo in Spanish. I also found interesting that this conjugation of French manger shows past and present forms for conditional and imperative forms,where Spanish has only present forms . I need to check the compound tenses in French if there is something more unusual in there.

Italian seems to have the same features and values as Spanish. Just like Spanish, Italian has negative and positive forms for the imperative, but seems to be limited to the 2nd person singular. In Spanish, the negative and positive forms of the imperative are found in both the singular and plural of the second person. According to Wikipedia, Italian is "rapidly losing its subjunctive mood" though. According to this table, Italian does not have a Past Perfective Subjunctive and Past Imperfective Subjunctive(?). There is a claim that the Italian essere conjugate for gender since the participio passato can change ending for male or female. This also happens with Spanish participio pasado used as a passive verb, but I don’t know how valid this comparison is.

On interesting thing about Italian is that it has conditional past and present, unlike Spanish with just a conditional but no tense to it. I still need to check the Italian compound tenses later for anything interesting.

Portuguese seems to have all what Spanish have, except for Pretérito anterior "hube hecho" (Past Perfective Perfect) which in Portuguese would be "tive feito" which is not found in this conjugation table but can be found in the web if goggled. In this site, it is mentioned that a grammar book written by R.C.Willis before 1965 explains that this tense is obsolete and was not used since the 15th century. Of the forms found in Portuguese but not in Spanish, these are the "Infinitivo pessoal" (Personal Infinitive that inflects according to its subject’s person and number: this is also found in Galician.), the "Pretérito mais-que-perfeito simples" (Past Imperfective Perfect) and the Futuro Subjuntivo (Future Subjunctive) found in old Spanish. Portuguese has negative and positive imperatives in the 2nd person as well.

The Past Imperfective Perfect counterpart in Spanish is the alternative conjugation of the Pretérito imperfecto that ends in "-ra" which are both derived from Latin pluperfect indicative (the other conjugation that ends in "-se" corresponds to the Portuguese Imperfeito and was from Latin pluperfect subjunctive). This site gives some account of the history of "Pretérito mais-que-perfeito simples". This tense is used only in literature, as it already sounds poetical or archaic. The tense pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto ("tinha feito") or Past Imperfective Perfect is equivalent to Spanish pretérito pluscuamperfecto ("había hecho"). Portuguese, Galician, Ladino, Romanian has a synthetic pluperfect indicative but this has mostly became literary in Portuguese now. The rest does it by combining the impefect form of the auxiliary (haber in Spanish, ter or haver in Portuguese, avoir or etre in French, essere or avere in Italian) plus the past participle. Italian has 2 kinds of pluperfect, one using the imperfect form and the other using the pretirite/past form, use is dependent on the tense of the verb in the main clause.

Portuguese and Galician still retains the Future Subjunctive for future possibility which has become old fashioned in Spanish, which now uses the present indicative outside of legal documents and idioms. Catalan, Italian, Sicilian, French, Romansh, Romanian does not have future subjunctive conjugation.

Sicilian, Romansh, Romanian does not have future indicative form (Sicilian has a compound form), and no distinction between present and imperfect subjunctive.

Venetian is one language that has a characteristic I didn’t found yet among the other languages. It can convert an intransitive verb into an impersonal passive.

Based on this table comparing the verb conjugations of these four languages, the French and Italian lost the pluperfect indicative and the perfect and imperfect subjunctive. Portuguese retains all the conjugations, with Spanish losing the imperfect Subjunctive.

In summary, the only productive features not found in Spanish is Past/Present Conditional and Imperative moods (French), Personal Infinitive and Future Subjunctive(Portuguese).

NOUNS

These are the grammatical features and their values in a Spanish noun.

Gender Number
Masculine (Declinable, Fixed) Singular
Feminine (Declinable, Fixed) Plural
Common/Generic (Invariant)  
Neuter  

 

Although it is generally said that there are 2 genders in Spanish, I would say that there are 4 genders as indicated above. Common/Generic gender pertains to those nouns that can take both feminine and masculine articles, demonstratives and adjectives without change in form, like el artista/la artista, el testigo/la testigo, el estudiante/la estudiante. They do not have a fixed gender, its the determiners that gives them gender. Neuter gender in Spanish is achieved by the use of neuter forms such as lo (before adjectives or as object), ello, esto, eso and aquello, which is like how French derive masculine and feminine gender for most of its noun. Countable nouns inflect for number. Case in Spanish is not signalled by articles but by preposition particles and animacy (apart from demonstratives and pronouns).

Word order is most often affected by how case is indicated in a language, such as Latin. If case is marked through an affix, then word order is more free than if through word position or adpositions (particles). Romance languages mark case by prepositions plus either word order (French) or animacy (Spanish). Romanian has 5 cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and vocative (now losing ground) and the 1st 2 share the same form and the next 2 share the same form as well. The endings are marked on the articles, which are suffixed to the nouns (which already has number and case endings) if definite and preposed if indefinite. What distinguishes the similar forms are the same distinctions used in the other Romance languages: prepositions, word order, animacy/context. Latin ablative and locative were not inherited, but locative is found in Russian. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese do not indicate case by affixes on the noun as all the cases were dropped except the accusative which form the basis of all nouns, but by prepositions; French by word order plus prepositions. French therefore has a more rigid word order than the other 3 languages. Another reason for me to drop French. Except for Romanian, most of Romance languages does not decline nouns for cases. I ignored this feature in the Romance languages as the Balto-Slavic languages, like Russian, has more morphological case than Romance languages plus their imperfective/perfective distinctions in verbs. Or rather I preferred the more flexible word order of Spanish and Portuguese without the use of case affixes.

French cannot indicate neuter gender, being either masculine or feminine only, with a few common/generic gender. Number is rarely (some have different plural form) marked by pronunciation (but marked in writing) in nouns but not in the articles. Due to less distinction in the noun itself, French uses the articles more often.

Romanian does not have a neuter gender but ambigeneric gender, being masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. Although with plural and singular as well, Romanian has a complicated way of forming plurals due to additional phonological processes for easier pronunciation, again another complication with Romanian. Romanian noun forms are unnecessarily complex because of (1) the difficulty of learning each noun forms for case, gender and number, (2) most features and values are also possessed by other Romance languages in a simpler way, and (3) Morphological case, which distinguishes it from other Romance languages, is not as extensive as Balto-Slavic languages anyway so I’d rather study Russian. Therefore learning Romanian is not a priority, unless I have reasons apart from syntax and grammar (culture, romance, literature, etc).

Italian has also masculine, feminine, ambigeneric and common/generic genders.

Portuguese has no nouns that are common/generic gender, since every word has a fixed determiner to it.

Since gender is not semantic in Indo-European languages, I ignored this feature altogether when deciding which of these languages to learn. Grammatical number is a factor, with Spanish and Portuguese with the same points. French number is not pronounced so has no point. Italian and Romanian plural markings is not the common way of marking Romance plurals.

ADJECTIVES

Adjectives agree in Number (and Gender if ending in –o) with the nouns they modify.

Gender Number Degree of Comparison
Male (Declinable, Fixed) Singular Positive
Female (Declinable, Fixed) Plural Comparative (superiority, inferiority, equality)
Common (Invariant)   Superlative (relative superiority, relative inferiority, absolute)
Neuter    

 

Romance languages’ adjectives have the same inflection as the nouns. Adjectives are not the main consideration in my choice of which Romance language to learn.

ARTICLES

Spanish Articles agree in Number and gender with the nouns they modify.

Gender Number Definiteness
Feminine Singular Definite
Masculine Plural Indefinite
Neuter    

 

Portuguese articles distinguish only 2 genders, feminine and masculine. Romanian has 3 cases on its articles (nominative/accusative, dative/genitive, and possessive ) for one form in Spanish. French has no neuter gender but it has an interesting feature: the Partitive which is not in Spanish or Portuguese, although with an example here for Spanish, but here there is none. Italian has partitive particles as well. Italian does not have neuter articles. This article explains the history of how Italian and French got to have a partitive article. This and this explain the partitives in Spanish. Articles are not the main consideration in my choice of which Romance language to learn.

DEMONSTRATIVES

Spanish Demonstratives agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify.

Gender Number Distance
Feminine Singular Proximal
Masculine Plural Medial
Neuter   Distal

 

Italian demonstratives has only 2 distance distinction and 2 genders. French demonstratives has no distance distinction in themselves but add suffixes. Romanian demonstratives distinguish only 2 distance (proximal and distal) plus number and gender distinction. Plus an interesting feature: pronoun of differentiation, pronoun of identity and intensive pronouns features.

Demonstratives are not the main consideration in my choice of which Romance language to learn.

PERSONAL PRONOUNS

Number Person Gender Politeness Case
Singular 1st Masculine Polite Nominative
Plural 2nd Feminine Familiar Non-Nominative
  3rd Neuter   Possessive / Genetive

 

Politeness distinction is present only in 2nd person in Spanish. Neuter gender is signalled only through ello as nominative or lo as accusative. Cases on Spanish pronouns are possessive case, nominative case for those that are subject of the verb and non-nominative case for those that are not subjects of the verb. The non-nominative case forms are those that appear after prepositions including con and some fossilized forms like conmigo, contigo or consigo. These forms are given grammatical case through prepositions. The clitic/unstressed forms that attached to verbs have similar functions as the verb ending conjugations, being pronounced as a unit, so will not treat them as possessing cases such as Accusative, Reflexive or Dative. These are like French clitics used for polypersonal agreement.

Portuguese has an additional polite form for 1st person plural, "a gente". Portuguese 3rd person pronouns distinguish only 2 genders, feminine and masculine, no neuter like Spanish. Portuguese has possessive adjective forms for all person and number, unlike Spanish which has it only in 1st and 2nd person plural. Portuguese clitic pronouns are more complex in how they combine with verbs and with each other (dative and accusative contractions). Personal pronouns in Portuguese looks convoluted.

Italian possessive adjectives distinguish gender in all number and person, unlike Spanish possessive adjectives. Italian has an additional complication in that dative enclitics have different forms if appearing with accusative enclitics.

French possessive adjectives distinguish gender in 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular, but does not do them in 1st and 2nd plural as Spanish. But the possessive pronouns does not distinguish gender in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd plural, unlike Spanish which distinguish in all number and gender. Spanish has all possessive forms as well for pronouns, which are different from the adjectives. French has the impersonal 3rd person which is equivalent to the Neuter 3rd. Politeness is only found in 2nd person. Gender is not found in 1st and 2nd person singular. French is not a pro-drop (Like Japanese) or null subject language (like Spanish).

Romanian personal pronouns has all the 5 cases, all with number distinctions, with stressed and unstressed forms for Accusative and Dative. Genitive has gender distinctions. Reflexive pronouns in the accusative and dative are used for reflexive voice.

Pronoun Drop/Null subject is a feature is very much evident in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. French is not a pro-drop language anymore, having lost most of the verb endings. One reason why I dropped French as well. Personal Pronouns are not the main consideration in my choice of which Romance language to learn but I would like to have a language that has a feature of null subject.

OTHERS

I have not made any comparison between indefinite pronouns, relative pronouns, interrogative pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, between Romance languages.

CONCLUSION

So the above gives details why I’ve chosen Spanish. Going through it all again, it seems that French trails in second to Spanish. I don’t know, I might try French due to its substantial literature too. People think Italian is a pretty language, which I agree too, but I think Italian is less masculine than Spanish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages

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3 Responses to “Which Romance Language?”

  1. Bicolano Says:

    Portuguese is a sweet language. Macanese call their language “Doci Papiaçam di Macau” (sweet speech of Macau), a Portuguese creole language. For me, it was music particularly bossa nova and fado that encouraged me learn Portuguese mas meu português não é ainda bom.

  2. Bicolano Says:

    Anong Romance language tabi’ ang nagugustuhan mo ngonian?


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