Both Romanian and Italian can trace their roots back to the colloquial Latin that was used throughout the Roman empire. Vulgar Latin, as it is sometimes called, went on to influence all of the Romance languages, of which Italian and Romanian are a part. Although they do share a fair bit of their ancestry, it’s also important to remember that “Vulgar Latin” itself is a blanket term to cover all the different dialects spoken in the vast Roman empire. Since Romanian also branched off from its Latin roots earlier than the other Romance languages, one might expect that there are more differences than similarities between Italian and Romanian.
But that view is not entirely true.
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Problems with Classification
Romanian and Italian do share a common ancestry in Latin. Today, however, the two languages have branched off to different subgroups among the wider unifying term of Romance languages. Romance languages in itself is a rather wide umbrella term that covers a bulk of the languages spoken in Southern Europe. For example, French, Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese are all considered to be Romance languages.
To further complicate things, the internal classification of Romance languages has long been a disputed topic among linguists. Since most Continental Romance languages have developed from different dialects (and the difference between a dialect and a language is in itself a problematic question), it’s hard to draw a concrete line between the different, yet closely related, languages.
What is certain, however, is that early Romanian started drifting farther apart from its Western Romance counterparts during the 5th-8th centuries. Since then, it has also seen a lot of influence from different languages. Slavic languages have left their mark since around 20% of modern Romanian words are of a Slavic origin, but Greek, Hungarian, Turkish, and German influences can also be noticed. In this sense, Romanian differs from the other Romance languages that have evolved in close contact with each other.
All of this would point to Romanian and Italian being distinct to a rather considerable degree.
Mutual Intelligibility in Romance Languages
Despite the differences previously mentioned, there is still, generally speaking, a surprising degree of mutual intelligibility between most Romance languages. That means that native speakers of most languages in that group are able to naturally understand each other to some degree, without having to learn each other’s languages. While the mutual intelligibility is not so high as among the Scandinavian languages, it is still rather impressive.
This is, in part, thanks to the same problem of classification that was previously mentioned. Essentially, the modern Romance languages developed from different dialects of the same origin. Even today, this means that speakers of Spanish and Portuguese are often able to understand each other to a high degree (with some struggle), whereas Italian and French vocabularies can chase 89% of their words to the same origin.
Degree of Understanding Between Romanian and Italian
Italian also remained a major influencer on the development of Romanian. It can be estimated that around 38% of Romanian vocabulary is of Italian or French origin – often it’s both combined. Generally speaking, of all the Romance languages, Italian is the closest relative to Romanian, while Italian is most closely related to French. This means that the average Romanian-speaker will find it easier to comprehend Italian than the Italian-speaker will Romanian.
Indeed, it has been estimated that Romanian speakers can understand about 65% of spoken and 85% of written Italian, while Italians also claim to be able to understand Romanian to a rather high extent. Considering that Italian and Romanian have around 77% of lexical similarity, that is a very good result.
Conclusion – Although Divided by History and Geography, Romanian and Italian Remain Close
Although Romanian and Italian share a common ancestor, they have been evolving separately for a long time. Unlike other Romance languages, Romanian has seen a lot of influence from other language groups and due to that, has developed a vocabulary that is in some case very different from its relative languages, including Italian. Additionally, Romanian still uses the neutral gender which has died out in all other modern Romance languages.
Despite these aspects, Romanian still retains a high level of mutual intelligibility with other Romance languages and especially Italian which is its closest relative. In addition to linguistic similarities, Italian culture is also very popular in the Romanian-speaking world which helps with further understanding.