The Romance languages developed from Latin in the sixth to ninth centuries. Today, there are more than 800 million native speakers worldwide, mainly in Europe and the Americas and many smaller regions scattered throughout the world, as well as large numbers of non-native speakers, and widespread use as lingua franca. Because of the extreme difficulty and varying methodology of distinguishing among language, variety, and dialect, it is impossible to count the number of Romance languages now in existence, but the standard count places the number of living Romance languages at almost 25. In fact, the number may be slightly larger, and many more existed previously (SIL Ethnologue lists 47 Romance languages).
In 2007 the five most widely spoken Romance languages by number of native speakers were Spanish (385 million), Portuguese (210 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (23 million). Many of these languages have large numbers of non-native speakers; this is especially the case for French, in widespread use throughout the Maghreb, Central and West Africa and Madagascar.
Romance languages are the continuation of Vulgar Latin, the popular and colloquial sociolect of Latin spoken by soldiers, settlers and merchants of the Roman Empire, as distinguished from theClassical form of the language spoken by the Roman upper classes, the form in which the language was generally written. Between 350 BC and AD 150, the expansion of the Empire, together with its administrative and educational policies, made Latin the dominant native language in continental Western Europe. Latin also exerted a strong influence in southeastern Britain, the Roman province of Africa, and the Balkans north of the Jireček Line.
During the Empire's decline, and after its fragmentation and collapse in the fifth century, varieties of Latin began to diverge within each local area at an accelerated rate, and eventually evolved into a continuum of recognizably different typologies. The overseas empires established by Portugal, Spain and France from the fifteenth century onward spread their languages to the other continents, to such an extent that about two-thirds of all Romance speakers today live outside Europe.
Despite other influences (e.g. substratum from pre-Roman languages, especially Continental Celtic languages; and superstratum from later Germanic or Slavic invasions), the phonology,morphology, and lexicon of all Romance languages are overwhelmingly evolved forms of Vulgar Latin. However, there are some notable differences between today's Romance languages and their Roman ancestor. With only one or two exceptions, Romance languages have lost the declension system of Latin and, as a result, have SVO sentence structure and make extensive use of prepositions.