Romance is a vital aspect of the human experience. It is defined as "a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love," much of what motivates us throughout our lives are romantic notions towards people and ideas. We seek and desire romance to give our lives meaning and excitement. The butterflies in the stomach, even the crushing feeling of denial, these are the emotions that make us feel the most alive. Music, dance, and stories all heavily revolve around our efforts at love and romance.
But romance hasn't always held the same lofty place amongst people as it does today; our current notions of romance are a direct result of various cultures, stories, and ideas coalescing over time. This complicated history has led certain languages to be more closely tied to the concept of romance and love. In turn, this disparity led to a couple of languages being considered the "most" romantic for a few different reasons.
In this article, we are going to take a brief look at romance, language, and how these two critical aspects of society co-evolved into what we have today. We will also try and understand why some languages are considered more romantic than others, and for fun, we will take a stab at evaluating what may be regarded as the 'most romantic' language.
The History of Romance Around the World
Human history is a vast and complex beast that dates back tens of thousands of years. To give succinct and simple answers regarding anything to do with such a vast stretch of time is simply a fallacy, cultures rise and fall, as do ideas and concepts. But for the last thousand years, we can see a clear trajectory regarding the concept of romance, and we can begin to form a rough picture of why we think of it the way we do today.
Romance in East Asia: A More Modern Concept
Throughout East Asia, marriage has been a tool for peace and stability. Marriage matchmaking by the parents has been a critical cultural practice and formed a binding contract between two households. The matchmaking process is often described as akin to "matching doors and windows," meaning the best matches were between those of equal social and economic standing. These relationships were based around status, procreation, and not usually on our modern concepts of love.
China may present the most dramatic examples of these cultural policies. It was not until the country's 1980 marriage law codified, for the very first time, the freedom to marry who you wish and overall gender equality. Only thirty years prior had marriage by proxy been banned.
This isn't to say that love and romance doesn't or didn't exist in East Asia; on the contrary, many traditional stories exhibit aspects of romance and loving sacrifice, but the cultural expression of these concepts held a much different place when compared to the West. For example, the term "I love you" is rarely said in China and is often considered awkward or strange.
In China and many other Asian cultures, love is more primarily shown through action and rarely expressed through language. They do, rather than say. They don't have less romantic lives due to the lack of phrases; still, it does explain why most East Asian languages are not considered particularly romantic amongst their speakers.
Romance in African Languages: Still More to Discover
Africa is the most diverse continent on the planet for genetics, languages, and culture. Within that ocean of human experience are a vast array of concepts surrounding love and romance. While difficult, we can make some efforts at finding a broader concept amongst the African cultures regarding love, and how they have evolved into the present day.
Historically, most known African nations had a marriage and love concept that may be considered closer to the classic Asian model than the modern western one. Marriages were regularly pre-arranged and organized around biological imperatives, status, and familial or tribal politics.
It is worth noting that studies into African cultures and concepts of love are ongoing, and new discoveries are made frequently. While our understanding of the African continent's view of love is incomplete, we can see a clear delineation in the last century from marriage and relationships based upon economic necessity to one more akin to classical western notions of love. Whether this transition is the result of imperialism, or merely the lack of survival dictating what relationships are viable, is still debated. What is clear is that in places like Nigeria, young people are considerably more likely to choose marriage partners based on romantic interest than they were in generations past.
Historian Megan Vaughan states that many "traditional" African societies set the passionate aspect of love (the romantic view) in direct opposition to the responsibilities and emotions required of marriage. She states that the "exclusive motivational basis for marriage" may be viewed as a "distinctively modern and imported discourse" across the post-colonial world. For the same reason as most Asian cultures, it is largely considered that the African languages were never as concerned about the emotions of romance as much as the duty of marriage, which is reflected in the dialects and word variety.
Romance in Europe: the Romance Languages and Beyond
European cultures and romantic ideas have a complicated history. For the Germanic, Slavic, and Nordic peoples many of the ideas surrounding love and marriage came directly from tribal and feudal systems and resemble those we have talked about in East Asia and Africa fairly closely. That is, most African unions resembled arranged marriages, and relationships built around family units for the purposes of procreation, safety, and rarely and notions of romance.
However, the Romance languages of Western Europe and the Mediterranean began to deviate from these concepts around 700 years ago and directly informed our modern notions of romance. While strangely coincidental the Romance languages are not named that for their role in the creation of romantic concepts, rather due to their history with the Roman Empire.
The Romance language definition: Modern languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin between the third and eighth centuries.
Sometime in the 12th century, the idea of courtly love was developed in France. This was a period when most European marriages were also not based on love, but rather to establish political and business ties. However, this concept of courtly love regarded love as something that could exist in opposition to society's demands. This idea was strongly associated with the classic notions of Chivalry and emphasized a pure unrequited connection between two people.
The first romantic novels and tales to come out of this period of Europe came from French novelists. The stories of King Arthur, or more specifically the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, showcased the concept of courtly love.
Heroic warrior knights would return home and fall madly in love with their lord’s spouses. This love was seen as pure, since it could only end in pain, and served no beneficial political purpose. This was referred to as l’amour courtois (courtly love) where the woman was cherished and the lover was poetic. An idea formed, of love coming before all and being the driving narrative of our passions. The idea of true romance was conceived at this time, and seems to be very much a product of the French culture of the age.
This concept would evolve and grow over time in the West. Spanish and Italian ideas of "adventurous" and "passionate," became synonymous with romance, and the reduction of the Feudal system and more equal economies meant love and romance started to take center stage for the majority of relationships.
What is a Romance Language? Is English a Romance Language?
As the Roman Empire grew throughout Europe, it brought with it its languages and culture. When the Empire fell, these many regions had reduced contact, and their different dialects eventually grew into new languages combining elements of what came before with Roman Latin. The 5 romance languages most people are familiar with are French, Italian, Spanish (the largest), Portuguese, and Romanian. A full romance languages list would have to include Piedmontese, Ligurian, Tuscan, and many other regional dialects.
Is German a romance language? Is English a romance language? Is Scandinavian? Simply put, no: these other European languages come from North and Eastern European influences and do not have the same background as the romance languages (though English does incorporate a large number of Latin and French terms).
Is French the Most Romantic Language?
The idea of French "love words" is a common trope for those who do not speak the language, and the melodic and euphonic aspects of French give it a sing-song tone that lends itself well to these feelings of love. The same can be said of most romance languages such as Spanish or Italian, but as we discussed, the French language is perhaps the closest progenitor of our modern concept of romance and thus has had the most extended period with which to explore the concept.
The French culture itself has also had a unique relationship with romantic rendezvous and more erotic love. Thus words like "French kiss" arose, not to mention that a 2003 survey found the French have the most active sex lives. In France, intimacy of many forms is regarded as a healthy expression of love and considered beautiful.
This linguistic and cultural affinity for love demonstrated by the French, as well as Paris topping nearly every list for the most romantic place on Earth, only solidifies French as the most romantic language in the heads of many.
While this isn't exactly hard science, it is easy to see why so many tend to think of French as the most romantic language. Of course, it must be said that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and there is no reason to think you cannot find as deep or as real a romantic experience in any other language as you can in French.
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