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 (21)
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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?

  • Paul says:

    Only 77 mil­lion speak­ers of French? You must be using a VERY old source. In Africa alone, it is esti­mat­ed that between 150 and 200 mil­lion peo­ple speak the lan­guage today.

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