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Part Ib

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


CS1: The Romance languages

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

This paper deals with the evolution and structure of a major group of languages, descended from Latin and spoken extensively in Europe and the New World; their role as vehicles of western civilisation scarcely needs stressing. The value and importance of the subject is reflected in the fact that it complements and throws light on a wide range of other Tripos papers. The Romance languages are among the best documented historically, and the most accessible geographically and politically, in the world. This makes them an ideal empirical testing ground, and source of data, for issues in general and historical linguistic theory. The integration of linguistic theory with the detailed structural analysis of the Romance languages is one of the central aims of this paper. The comparative overview provided by this paper also furnishes essential background and context for the study of the histories of individual Romance languages.


The following are some of the issues that may be addressed in lectures and supervisions:

Structural evolution of Romance

Why are irregular verbs irregular? Why do two perfective past tense forms (e.g. j'ai fait and je fis) exist side by side in Romance? Why are there so many different ways of expressing future time in Romance, none of them continuing the Latin system? Where do the definite and indefinite articles come from? Why is the use of the subjunctive so different from Romance language to Romance language? Why does French need a pronoun in je fais, while Spanish needs none in hago? Why do Romance languages contain so many words that are not of Latin origin, and where do they come from? Answers to these and many other questions about the differences between Romance languages, and between Romance and Latin, are approached by a detailed and rigorous analysis of the structural evolution of Romance phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. This is the backbone of the course.

Linguistic analysis of texts

For obvious reasons, the most direct form of evidence we have for the development of Romance before the present century is in written texts. The rigorous linguistic analysis of Vulgar Latin and/or early Romance texts is therefore an essential part of the discipline. Paper CS.1 contains an obligatory question requiring translation and analysis of prescribed texts.

Dialectal fragmentation of Romance

What factors (ethnolinguistic, social, political, geographical) favoured the linguistic fragmentation of Latin? What kinds of variation exist between Romance dialects, and how can they be described?

Rise of standard languages

The modern standard Romance languages were originally regional dialects like any other. What factors account for the rise to fame and fortune of the standard Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish? Is there any fundamental difference between a standard language and a dialect?

Other Romance languages

A Romance linguist should be interested in ALL the Romance languages. If you already know two Romance languages, you are in a good position to attain at least an outline knowledge of some other, possibly less familiar, members of the family. We look at the structures of some of these 'other' languages (e.g., Catalan, Romanian, Sardinian, Occitan, Dalmatian), and examine their relationship to the languages you already know. Incidentally, while this part of the course does not claim to furnish you with an active knowledge of the relevant languages, it provides you with a useful basis from which to learn them.

Pidgins and creoles

While we focus principally on the emergence of the Romance languages in Europe, a new and rapidly developing field of study is the Romance-based pidgin and creole languages. These arose as a consequence of Portuguese, Spanish and French colonial expansion and are, largely, the linguistic result of the catastrophic social upheavals involved in uprooting slaves in such a way that they were obliged to adopt a modified variety of the language of their masters as a medium of communication and, for subsequent generations, as a first language. How are Caribbean, West African, Indian Ocean and Easy East Asian Romance creoles different from their Romance progenitors? What have they in common? Are they really Romance at all?

Paper CS 1 is ideally suited to those who know some Romance languages and are inquisitive about the nature of language change, the other members of the Romance family, the historical reasons behind the characteristic structures of Romance, and the causes of the diversification of the Romance languages. It develops and demands powers of rigorous linguistic analysis, and rewards them with new and often surprising insights not only into Romance, but into the nature of language in general.

Preparatory reading: 
  • Alkire, T. & Rosen, C. (2010) The Romance Languages. A Historical Introduction. CUP.
  • Elcock, W.D., The Romance Languages (Faber, 1975)
  • Harris, M. and Vincent, N., (eds.), The Romance Languages (Routledge, 1988), especially chapter 1.
  • Ledgeway, A. & Maiden, M. (eds) (2016) The Oxford Guide to the Romance Languages. Oxford: OUP.
  • Maiden, M., Smith, JC. & Ledgeway, A. (2011-13) The Cambridge History of the Romance Languages, CUP.
Moodle Reading List: (will require Raven sign-in and access to the Moodle site)

Teaching and learning: 

Weekly lectures (handouts will be made available at time of lectures). Supervisions for the lectures will be fortnightly.

Please see the Moodle site for CS1


By written examination.

Candidates for Part 1B will have a five-hour online timed examination.


Course Contacts: 
Dr. Ioanna Sitaridou
Ms Sara Cardullo
SpanPort administrative support