Is French A Germanic Language? (Nope It's Latin!)

avatarMille Larsen
7 mins read

French is a language spoken by close to 300 million people in over 29 countries around the world. It's been influenced by many different foreign tongues and language families over the centuries, but the French language originally developed from Latin, or more precisely Vulgar Latin, the language spoken as an informal, everyday means of communication in the Roman Empire over 2000 years ago.

French is not a Germanic language, but rather, a Latin or a Romance language that has been influenced by both Celtic languages like Gaelic, Germanic languages like Frankish and even Arabic, other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian or more recently, English. It has many Germanic loan-words, though and some aspects of French such as the pronunciation resemble Germanic languages, despite French being of Latin origin.

French Words Are Common In Germanic Languages Like English

There are many reasons why people might assume that French is a Germanic language. For one thing, French and English have a lot in common in terms of vocabulary. The reason for this, however, is that English has borrowed a huge amount of loan-words from French (and to a much smaller degree, Latin).

This can make the two languages seem related (superficially) but once you dive into the grammar and the "everyday" vocabulary of English, you'll realize that the words that really make English English are in fact Germanic.

English does in fact have a lot more French words than French has Germanic words, so if you were to conclude anything from comparing the words of the two languages, it would be closer to the truth to call English a Latin language. Even though that would obviously be wrong too.

Other Germanic languages have the same tendency to borrow vocabulary from French, even if it's not to the same extent as in English. In German, a ton of words is of French origins, such as "Cornichon" (pickle), "Büro" (office), and the hilarious "Pommes" which means "apples" in French but "French fries" in German.

In Dutch you'll find "chirurgijn" (Surgery) and "echapperen" (to escape) and many others and in Danish, the hairdresser is called a "frisør" which in French means something like a "curler".

All of these French loan-words in Germanic languages can easily make people assume that French, too is a Germanic language, or even that English, German, Dutch and Danish are Latin languages. Neither of these is true, however.

What About Germanic Influences On French? What Could Make French Seem Germanic?

The French language evolved from Vulgar Latin in a part of Europe that was previously dominated by Germanic languages like Frankish and Celtic languages like Gaelic.

The bases of French are, however Latin, and while it was influenced by Gaelic in the first few centuries of its history, it's the Germanic languages like Frankish which really left their mark.

Frankish was spoken in the regions Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany are located today. It was the language of the nobility and the rulers who were considered the first kings of France. To the south, a form of Vulgar Latin called Gallo-Romance was spoken, but with time it gained influence until finally in the 10th century, even the French nobility spoke primarily this language.

As Gallo-Romance, the language that later evolved into Modern French gradually became a more important language, it also became more and more influenced by local languages spoken in the region. Among them most importantly, the West-Germanic language, Frankish, but also the East-Germanic Gothic language, Old Norse and Old English.

It's said that the North of modern-day France which adopted the Gallo-Romance language in the 10th century originally spoke it with a Frankish accent. Even though the people living in the Northern regions weren't the majority, they were powerful, so their way of speaking quickly became the norm.

This might actually be part of the reason why modern French is said to have a more "Germanic" sound to it than other Latin languages such as Spanish and Italian. Interestingly, Southern dialects of French have a much more "Latin-like" hard sound to them.

Something like 10% of French words are of Frankish and thereby Germanic origins, which is quite a lot. Among these words are the commonly used "abri" (shelter), "brouette" (wheelbarrow), "honte" (shame), and thousands of other words.

What Are The Characteristics Of A Germanic Language And Why Doesn't French Fit?

As I've said earlier, there's no doubt that French is a Latin language, not a Germanic one. The bulk of the words are clearly of Latin origin and the grammar is definitely related to Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian and seems quite different from English and other Germanic languages.

To further illustrate this point, let's have a look at some common characteristics of Germanic languages and see if they exist in French:

Sound Changes Known As Grimm's And Verner's Law

Part of what defines Germanic languages is that they've all undergone sound changes when evolving. These sound changes consist of certain common consonant sounds being replaced by others. These changes took place very early on when the original "Proto Indo-European" language split up into different branches, so the similarity of words isn't always evident.

An example is how "P" in Latin languages is replaced with "F" in Germanic languages. In French, "father" is "père" and "foot" is "pied".

Likewise, where Latin languages like French uses "D" like in the word "deux" Germanic languages use "T" as in "two" and several other consonant-changes exist.

In Germanic Languages, Many Common Words Are Single Syllables

Many Germanic words were pronounced while stressing the first syllable when evolving which gradually turned the words into single-syllable words. In Latin languages like French, this didn't happen.

Examples of words in English that used to be pronounced with multiple syllables are "strength", "ant", "head" and "hear". In French, these are "puissance", "fourmis", "tête" and "entendre". Of these "tête" is the only word pronounced as a single syllable, but you could argue that "strength" could be translated as the mono-syllabic "force" as well.

Vowel Changes For Changing Word-Meanings

Germanic languages are known for modifying vowel-sounds systematically when certain grammatical changes occur. This is much more present in German than it is in languages such as English today, but there are still some cases in English where word meanings are slightly modified only with vowel changes.

These are words such as "mouse / mice", "goose / geese", "tell / told", "foul / filth" and several others. In Latin languages like French, we don't see this form of vowel changes.

Germanic Languages Generally Have Many Vowel Sounds

Germanic languages are known for their large number of vowel sounds. Swedish has 17 vowels, English has 12, and German and Dutch have 14.

Compared to Latin languages such as Spanish, which has 5 vowels and Italian, which has 7, Germanic languages do indeed have more vowels. Strangely, however, French is an exception to this rule, because French has (at least) 12 vowels, depending on how you count.

So the number of vowels is yet another feature of the French language that'll remind you of the Germanic languages, and it might be a testament to the strong Frankish influence.

Conclusion: Why Isn't French A Germanic Language?

So we've gone through some of the reasons why French isn't a Germanic language as well as some of the reasons why people might mistakenly think that it is.

French, unlike most other Latin languages, has significant Germanic influences both in regards to pronunciation, vocabulary, and other things. Meanwhile, the Germanic languages, commonly spoken today, almost all have strong French influences which just adds to the confusion.

Despite all of this, there is no doubt. French is a Latin, Romance language, not a Germanic language.