Why French Sounds So Unlike Spanish, Italian & Other Romance Languages, Even Though They All Evolved from Latin

French is known as the language of romance, a reputation that, whatever cultural support it enjoys, would be difficult to defend on purely linguistic grounds. But it wouldn’t be controversial in the least to call it a Romance language, which simply refers to its descent from the Latin spoken across the Roman Empire. In that category, however, French doesn’t come out on top: its 77 million speakers put it above Romanian (24 million) and Italian (67 million), but below Spanish (489 million) and Portuguese (283 million). If you know any one of these languages, you can understand at least a little of all the others, but French stands out for its relative lack of family resemblance.

“Why is acqua just eau?” asks Joshua Rudder, creator of the Youtube channel NativLang. “How are cambiar and casa related to change and chez?” He addresses the causes of these differences between modern-day French, Spanish, and Italian in the video above, which presents the historical-linguistic explanation in the form of a long and tricky recipe.

“Start preparing your ingredients 2000 years ago. Take a base of Latin,” ideally at least three centuries old. “Combine traces of Gaulish, because Celtic words will become sources of change.” Then, “gradually incorporate sound shifts, not uniformly: work them in to form a nice continuum, where the edges look distinct, but locally, it’s similar from place to place.”

This cooking session soon becomes a dinner party. Its most important attendees are the Franks next door, who come not empty-handed but bearing a few hundred Germanic words. In the fullness of time, “you might think that the sound of French would come from a single dialect in Paris. Instead, observe as it arises from social changes and urbanization, bringing together people who speak many varieties of oïl” — an old word for what Francophones now know as oui, and which now refers to the dialects spoken in the north of the country (as opposed to oc in the south) back then. Even this far into the process, we’ve come only to the point of making Middle French.

Modern French involves “a thick ganache of kingdom and colonization” spread far and wide. Subsequent “periods of revolution and Napoleon” put more touches on the languages, none of them finishing. Students of French today find themselves seated at an elaborate feast of unfamiliar sounds and rules governing those sounds, many of which may at first seem unpalatable or even indigestible. Yet some of those students will develop a taste for such linguistic fare, and even come to prefer it to the other Romance languages that go down easier. French continues to change in the twenty-first century, not least through its incorporation of askew anglicisms, yet somehow continues to remain a language apart. Therein, perhaps, lies the true meaning of vive la difference.

Related content:

Free French Lessons

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

What Ancient Latin Sounded Like, And How We Know It

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Speak French Before & After Attending Middlebury’s Immersion Program

Werner Herzog Lists All the Languages He Knows–and Why He Only Speaks French If (Literally) a Gun’s Pointed at His Head

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (20)
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  • Jean-Philippe says:

    French actually has 321 millions speakers

  • Frogprof says:

    If you’re going to write about French, you might as well do it correctly and add the accent aigu on “différence.”

  • Ernesto Jardim says:

    Did you ever hear Portuguese talking?

  • Cynthia says:

    Yes! That was the FIRST thing I noticed. Thanks for the history of the French language but please get your facts right. French is spoken on every continent in the world and is the second most learned language after English so please do not discredit all of those who speak it in the world.

  • Paulo says:

    French is spoken mostly in irrelevant countries. Is a non-practical language where spoken and writen do not match.

  • Paulo says:

    Like americans would say:
    “Real men don’t speak French”

  • G de Dalmas says:

    It looks like you stopped school a bit to early and definitely skipped history and geography. My advice to you is get a passport and educate yourself about French and many other topics

  • Lingoman says:

    The most barbarian Romance language

  • Anne says:

    As others have pointed out, there are many more French speakers than French people. French is spoken (often alongside other languages) in countries like Canada,
    Tunisia, Senegal, Belgium, Haiti (it seems like 29 different countries have French as an official language and it is spoken outside of places where it is an official language, e.g. in Algeria).

  • Al says:

    To me it’s not as sexy sounding like Italian and Spanish. French sounds too feminine

  • Flug says:

    > French actually has 321 millions speakers

    We’re into the issue of how many speak it as the main or first language, how many speak it regularly or routinely as a second or alternate language, and how many can speak it at all to any degree.

    It is obvious that those numbers are going to be massively different.

    And when he mentions the figure 72 million, it is clearly referring to primary speakers.

    Here are numbers from Wikipedia – reach of them have references that you are welcome to look up and argue with:

    “It is estimated that 80 million people worldwide speak French as a main or first language”

    This is close enough to the number referenced in the article. These numbers are not so precisely defined that you can we quibble about +/-10%.

    “[A] credible estimate of the number of ‘francophones réels’ (real francophones), that is, individuals who speak French on a daily basis either as their mother tongue or as a second language, would be around 130 million.”

    This is s good estimate, too – just different from “primary” speakers.

    “212 million … use French daily.” (OIF figures, which are…expansive)

    “409 million people speak French.”

    This is OIF again and this is their estimate of all people who speak French to even a minor degree or studied it in school etc. This would include, for example, me – who had a year of French in 7th grade but at this point can barely spit out a rote sentence or two.

    In short, there isn’t just one number of how many people speak French. To focus on the number of *actual primary speakers* is completely reasonable for an article like this.

    It is also perfectly reasonable to *not* get on a 10 paragraph tangent on the nuances of different estimates for the number of French speakers in the world.

    All quotes above are from this article: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_distribution_of_French_speakers

  • Patrick says:

    The majority of French speakers are in the African continent. France is the third largest francophone nation after Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the american continent, French is only spoken in Canada and in a few islands in the carabean. Almost no one speaks it in Asia, despite the French Polynesian Islands. Vietnam, Cambodia and were once called French Indochina, but no one speaks French in that region anymore.

  • Camille Nowik MSW says:

    As we speak of endangered animal species, French can also be determined to be on the list as an endangered language where less and lesser people will be using it,to the point of extinction. French is very similar to Spanish,ie definitions,vocabulary,syntax grammar,etc but the vocal accent is the tricky part.
    That is why it is said that those speaking French sound like they have a bad respiratory cold/cough.
    French is fun and fanciful and the language of diplomacy,but the language at present is fading fast.Going going gone.(And so is diplomacy).

  • French goon says:

    In French as in English the regional accent plays a big role : Quebec French or slang ( ” joual”) is hardly understood in the Old Country.
    Inside France itself there are 2 main accents the central/ northern one ( derived from the former oil language) also called ” Parisian” and the southern accent with words much more accented (derived from the oc language)

  • Denjse says:

    Irrelevant countries? We should bomb them!

  • Denjse says:

    Et le créole? On n’en parle pas?

  • Matheesha says:

    It’s the most beautiful language I have heard after my mother tongue❤️

  • Eric Pereira says:

    What arrogance!

  • Eric Pereira says:

    What is an irrelevant country?

  • Eric Pereira says:

    Are all that are not the USA?
    Or those who were brutally colonized by the “relevant” ones?

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