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English is NOT a Romance Language

Updated on January 17, 2012

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Family tree of the Proto-Indo-European languages
Family tree of the Proto-Indo-European languages | Source

If not a Romance Language, What is English?

I had taken a lot of courses in linguistics during my college career. To set the record straight, linguistics is the study of languages in general. It tries to explain how people learn languages, why some languages value some sounds over others, why sentences are ordered the way they are, and why languages change over time.

Since starting my first linguistic course, I have had numerous arguments with people about English not being a Romance Language (in other words, a language that is related to Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, and Romanian). Being the young Freshman I was, I was unable to argue back. But now I can.

Simply stated, English is a West Germanic language. This means that Modern English is a cousin to German. It is more closely German than Spanish. If that is all you need to know, then you don't need to read any further. But I will explain it. If I use big, linguistic terms, I will explain the terms. Then you can wow and amaze your language geek friends with your knowledge of English!

The History of English

Back in the day, the British Isles were inhabited by the Celts. Slowly, a group of warrior-like people from what is now called Germany began to move into the British Isles. The Germanic people (along with help from Vikings) pushed the Celts to Ireland. Now during this time, they're language was really different from the language we speak today. But it changed quickly. Pronunciation was what changed. The way people spoke vowels and consonants became different, but it was still a long way off from Modern English.

The reason why the language changed so quick is because languages are fluid. They change naturally. Right now, however, due to writing, languages across the world are not changing like they would have years ago. That is not really a problem. The problem arises when someone insists that a word is pronounced only one way. An example would be the word "February". There are two main ways to say this word. 1. Feb-U-ary 2. Fe-BRU-ary. People start to argue about it and those people are called "prescriptive" whereas the people who don't really care about the pronunciation are called "descriptive". But I digress.

Written English became more common place with the invention of the printing press in 1440. However, people faced a problem with this. How do you write the words that are spoken so that everyone can read it? The answer was phonetically (how the word sounds). But, how do you write words phonetically when different people can say the same word in different ways? Well, a book of the words that are said can be made to make more common spellings--a dictionary!

But it took a while to create a dictionary. Think about this; a kindergartener has learned roughly 20,000 words by the time they start school. Good luck with a dictionary. So several writers just wrote down what they heard themselves say. For example: Laugh. We would say that (roughly) as "laf". But believe it or not, those extra silent letters were said, and they were gutteral (voiced from the throat).

So while all these people were speaking their English, missionaries and monks from the pretty much fallen Roman Empire came to the British Isles. They read and wrote Latin and spoke Italian. Thus the beginning of the introduction of what is called the Italic-Latin languages. But it wasn't a really great influence. Instead, the monks just tried to introduce Christianity to the people.

in 1066, the Norman French invaded the British Isles. They took control. Their French language became the "superstratum language", or the language of power and authority. The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon Language) of the common folk became the "substratum language" or the language of no power and authority. It was at this time that the influence of the Latin-based languages became very apparent. English adopted some of the words of the Norman French and began what linguists call a "vowel shift". This means that the vowels in English became higher and more front (when it comes to the placement in the mouth. Try saying the words "alright" and "apple". Two "a" sounds, but the position of your mouth and tongue are different for each. "Apple" is higher and more to the front than "alright".)

Somehow, the English kept speaking English! Usually, a superstratum language will completely wipe-out a substratum language. People will want money and power, so they will speak the language that gives it (because language is a seriously powerful weapon!). But this did not happen. In short, the Norman French fell out of power and English (which is now known as Middle English during this time) became an awesome language again.

But the spellings from Middle and Old English still remain the same because writing keeps a language from changing. Have fun trying to say "though" the way it used to be said!

The Lord's Prayer in Old English

So How Does That Prove English is a West Germanic Language?

You might have looked at the language family tree at the top of the page. If you haven't, check it out. All those languages are related to each other, at least very distantly. But right now you must be thinking something along the lines of "Just because Modern English and German are in the same family tree does not mean that they are more alike that Modern English and French! The amount of words that English borrows from the Latin based languages are greater than German!" Well, that is pretty true. There are a lot of words we got from the Norman French and Italian and Spanish and et cetera. Now here is where it gets a little tricky.

Words are easily adopted into language. Fo shizzle, ain't no thang. We just change the pronunciation to what we English speakers are more comfortable to speak and we make that word and English word. Words and pronunciations are very easily changed. What is harder to change is what is called semantics (the actual order of a sentence).

Understand hard English mixed-words-up--Or, In English, it is hard to understand mixed-up words. All speakers have an instinct about their mother language (or any language they have learned fluently from the time they were a baby to about 10 years of age [you are not fluent if you learned a foreign language at the age of 25. If you want me to explain that, comment me.]) You know when you're speaking with a non-native English speaker, even when that speaker has been in an English speaking country for most of their lives. There are just unwritten rules that you do not break in your language, unless you come across an exception that there is no reason for.

In Latin-Based languages, such as Spanish or French, the semantics are just about the same. For example: El gato verde (Spanish) Le chat vert (French). I said "The green cat". But in Spanish and French, the noun "cat" is said before the adjective "green". There are more complicated sentences that I can give as well, dealing with direct and indirect objects and such, but believe me when I say that the setup is the same, most of the time (languages always have exceptions to the rules).

German is like English. The adjective is said first and then the noun. Sentence order is not just jumbled up! There is a system, even though linguists are still trying to figure that out across all languages. But none-the-less, there is a system of order. And this is why English is a German language.

Now, the chart above just indicate the Romance Languages, Modern English, and the effect the Romance Languages had on Middle English (Because of the Norman French), but all in all, semantics (sentence order) doesn't lie.

If you have any questions or want me to attempt to explain some linguistic issue you noticed, let me know! I'll give it my best shot. Besides, there are a million and one stories of how language is a weapon.


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    • profile image


      3 months ago

      I always new since at least the age of 13 that English was mostly a West Germanic language with a little bit of French mixed in it. I’ve always had an interest in history and it makes sense that English would have connections to German and a little less so to French considering the Germans; hence the term Anglo Saxon invaded England and the Normans (the French a.k.a. Normandy) centuries ago. I am learning Russian (русский язык) as I have a big interest in Russian history. Very interesting article. Это интересно.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi, I wonder why is it so that you are unable to become fluent in a foreign language after the age of 10? Is there no way around it? That's just so sad, because sometimes I wish my native language was English instead of Slovak. I've read almost exclusively in English since I was 15, and spent 6 months studying in England. Right now I'm studying English Literature (not in England, admittedly, I wouldn't be able to pay the tuition fees, but still). I just wish there was a way for me to become truly fluent in English as I have more emotional ties to this language than my own. Could you explain to me in scientific terms why it's not possible? + Are there really no exceptions, none whatsoever?

    • profile image

      Just a Guy 

      7 years ago

      I think you mean Syntactics rather than Semantics, which is the study of meaning, there are quite a few other issues with this article and all in all it is an amateur work but I'm a current linguistics major and some of those semantic errors do pain me.

    • Porshadoxus profile image


      7 years ago from the straight and narrow way

      Just found this one. Well done.

      As an amateur linguist and English teacher, I found a way to enhance my understanding of English. I followed Tolkien's example and created a couple of new languages, complete with grammar rules, short lexicons, alphabets, etc. I now understand English so much better because of the process.

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Moe, any basic or general linguistic book can help you. Look for chapters about language families. Also give google scholar a try.I used that for some of my linguistic research during colleg

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Would you please advise me some books or articles to refer to that English doesn't belong to Romance languages? I am writing a paper and it would be great if you help me in this.

    • profile image

      Tom S. Fox 

      7 years ago

      "you are not fluent if you learned a foreign language at the age of 25."

      Oh, you are so wrong there.

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      You are absolutely right in everything that you have said. But in my own country, good ol' America, many people think that English is a romance language and they have no idea that it had evolved to what it is today from Germanic people. But then again, my country is superficial, more concerned with movie stars than politics, and is, in my opinion, in a downward spiral in regards to intelligence.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • profile image

      From France 

      8 years ago

      As a french speaker I feel surprise that some people might think that English could be a romance language... From our point of view, English is nothing like a romance language at all. Well, it has borowed some part of specific vocabulary that it originally lacks, but English is not the only Germanic language to have done that. German or Dutch have also latinate words. English words seem as much alien to a romance speaker than any other Germanic language; all those "w", "-ng", "-sh", "-ck", "th-", etc. And the pronounciation is really not romance at ell either. In an english average text the amont of words of latin origin is at very best around 20%. the rest is fully germanic and clearly looks and sounds germanic. (even most latin words in English are usually higly "germanised" in their spelling or pronouciation that they became completely foreign to a romance ear.

      Above all, we all know that english comes from the British isles, in Northern Europe!! Northern Europe is where are spoken Germanic languages, and not romance languages! which are from the mediterranean nations formerly part of the roman empire. That would have been quite odd that a romance language developped itself so far from the core of the romance world (the mediterranean sea), in the middle of the heart of the germanic world (the north sea).

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Those are very interesting groups of people. I just wrote this because I was tired of arguing with people about English and it's history. Thanks for reading!

    • Vegas Elias profile image

      Vegas Elias 

      8 years ago from Mumbai

      Very interesting article. I am presently studying articles on the Celts, Hittites and Mittanis.

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      It's hard to say that Latin had that huge amount of an influence on German's grammatical structure. It is possible, but I have my doubts stemming from a few things my linguistic professors had said. But I would have to research it. But the Roman Empire was huge, so sayings could have been adopted into German.

      As for language reform, it is more like language evolution. But that is hard to do when written language and fairly influential and prescriptive people are hard-pressed to keep languages as they are.

      Excellent comment. Thank you (and I will probably end up researching Latin/German influence in language)

    • DougBerry profile image


      8 years ago from Abilene, TX

      Oddly enough, though, German borrowed much of its grammatic structure from Latin. I found that my high school Latin helped me more with learning other languages that anything else I've ever done.

      And my Latin teacher, when backed into a corner, would always point out that any irregularity in language was, "an old Roman custom." We've passed those weird things into almost any western language.

      Someday, maybe, someone will reform our weird grammar structures. I doubt it.

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      I had a friend who took German when we were in highschool and he told me "I think English is more like German than Spanish or French". We never researched it then, but it was a good observation! Thanks for sharing with me!

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      8 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      When I took German, I found the vocabulary was easy to learn--because English is so Germanic.

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you! I was worried about how it was written. Thanks again!

    • Cammiebar profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the feedback! I know very well about the norse people but I needed to keep it simple. It's a huge topic! haha

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 

      8 years ago from Winter Haven, FL

      The English are a nordic race, just like all the other germanic peoples ---descendants of the norse people....

      Well written article...voted up


    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      8 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Good article, very entertaining. Welcome to HubPages


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