Why French Is Different Than Other Latin Based Languages?


French is a very popular language, yet it’s often considered to be unique compared to others derived from Latin. The sound, vocabulary, and grammar are seen as being more unique in French than those linked to Latin comparatively. This leads many to wonder: why is French different from other Latin based languages?

Long ago French was influenced by the Germanic languages and Gaulish, and as such was significantly affected. Another crucial aspect, and why it was susceptible to outside interference, is its distance from other Latin languages by being located near northern Europe.

There is a lot more to dive into with this topic, and a lot like languages themselves, the answer to why French is different is much more complex. Since languages are naturally forming and evolving all the time, it can be hard to accurately describe them. With our topic, all the questions regarding French’s uniqueness are answered below.

What Makes French Unique?

The language of “love” as so many say, is a part of the Romance languages, or also known as the Latin based languages. Funny enough, there is no connection between French’s supposed romantic nature and being in a Romance language.

Every Romance language is by definition derived from Latin, but what French makes clear is that this does not mean they have to emulate Latin. So, what makes French unique?

French is unique because it has differing vocabulary, grammar, and particularly pronunciation from the generally considered norm for those derived from Latin. The outside influence that French experienced and the separation it had from its brethren naturally made it diverge from Latin.

The influence from the Germanic languages and Gaulish (an ancient Celtic language) is a significant reason why French is different, since it shares features with those languages.

As a general rule in linguistics, the more isolated a language is from its roots, the more it becomes different than its formation. A similar example to French would be English, since it itself was distant from it’s Germanic siblings.

English was affixed mainly in island nation of England, and this led to becoming different from other Germanic languages (sounding familiar, right?). Then outside languages, like French for instance (which we will discuss later), further influenced English and its divergence from its ancestral Germanic language.

English and French had a similar situation where, by being “on their own”, they ended up becoming the odd men out of their respective language family.

All of this has big implications on French’s:

  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Pronunciation

As such, we should explore each aspect in detail to show the impacts made on French by these factors.

French And Vocabulary

Some might think that since French has connections to the Germanic languages, it would then share more vocabulary with them than it would with others. Is there any truth to this?

French has a high level of vocabulary shared with English and with German as well. Since other Latin based languages don’t have the same level of these influences, French tends to be unique when compared to Spanish, Italian, or Romanian.

The Germanic and Gaulish impact on French did not directly affect its vocabulary, instead French adopted words rather than incorporating foreign etymologies. Overall this did not necessarily take away from French’s preexisting vocabulary with Latin based languages, instead it just added English and German into its portfolio.

Lexical: of or relating to words or the vocabulary of a language as distinguished from its grammar and construction (definition provided by Merriam-Webster).

This can be shown by looking at the lexical similarity between French and these languages. It is not the only thing needed for two languages to be similar, but it can help show how close a language is to another. Lexical similarity really is just referring to the overall resemblance of one language’s vocabulary to another.

So, though by no means definitive, this can help us see how similar the features of French (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) are compared to other languages.

Romance LanguagesLexical Similarity To French
Catalan85%
Italian89%
Portuguese75%
Spanish75%
Romanian75%

These numbers showed some very interesting things, namely that French has the highest lexical similarity with Italian! It might be a surprise for some, but Italian is the closest major Latin based language to French.

For instance, Portuguese and Spanish both have 75% similarity with French, but with one another have 89% congruency.

Another example is that both Italian and Spanish are considered to be the closest Romance languages to Latin, and French (which is comparatively distant to Latin) has such a high lexical percentage with Italian (weird, right?).

One thing is clear however, is that French still has plenty in common with its brethren regarding vocabulary. French’s uniqueness does not really come from the perspective of the lack of shared vocabulary with Latin languages, but instead the inclusion of Germanic vocabulary.

And, since we talked about the Germanic influence that French had, we should compare the lexical similarity between the major Germanic languages to French.

Germanic LanguagesLexical Similarity To French
English27%
German29%

These numbers regarding lexical similarities are provided by Ethnologue.

As you can see, the Romance languages stand head and shoulders above the Germanic languages in regards to lexical similarity to French.

This is not to say that the English and German’s lexical similarity with French is insignificant, since it is clearly a fairly high percentage, but rather that it shows French’s relationship with its siblings to be stronger.

French And Grammar

From the perspective of the written language of French, it is not any more different than most Romance languages compared to each other. French’s written form is different, but not any more different than usual.

With Grammar, most Romance languages have slight similarities but remain wholly distinct.

In the case with French, it is commonly considered to have the easiest grammar to learn out of the Latin based languages.

There is a common debate whether Spanish or French has the easiest grammar, but the general consensus is that French is easier (even though it is a little bit subjective to say so). Spanish grammar tends to be easier in the beginning, but ramp up significantly in difficulty once advanced stages are reached.

Romanian is seen to have the hardest grammar to learn, and this is no doubt due to Romanian’s Slavic influence.

Interestingly, Romanian and French have a very similar situation where both were isolated and had outside influence. Thus, Romanian and French are seen as the “odd men” of the Romance family.

It is also said that English and French have some similar grammar, thus it is easier for English speakers to learn the grammar of French.

If looking for more information regarding French, or for more regarding language learning, then read some of my other articles.

French And Pronunciation

You may have noticed that for the most part, with vocabulary and grammar, French has not been too drastically different from most Latin languages. Where French diverges the most is with it’s pronunciation, or sound.

So, what is there to know about the pronunciation of French?

The pronunciation of French is different from most Romance languages because it has many vowels, it is experiencing the weakening of consonants, has irregular tonic accent, and a unique stress pattern. All these cause French to become significantly different compared to other Romance languages.

This is why so many say French is different, because few Romance languages have any similar features. Due to this, we really should explore these avenues further.

Stress Accent.

Stress essentially means that one puts more emphasis on a certain syllable. With syllables, there are stressed and unstressed, both referring to whether or not a person should emphasize them.

We actually do this all the time when speaking, we just might not know it.

Now, how is this different in French?

French puts more emphasis on stressed syllables, to the point where unstressed syllables end up not being pronounced or at least slurred. This dramatically changes how their words sound, and especially how to pronounce them. No other Latin based language does this, at least not to the extent that French does.

So, a stressed syllable really means that a part of a word is more distinct than others. With French, it just does this so much that it disregards the less distinct, or unstressed parts of the word.

Stress accent: a: an accent or variation of prominence dependent on variation of stress b: a greater than minimal degree of stress given a vowel or syllable (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

Tonic Accent.

First off, what is a tonic accent?

Unlike a stress accent, tonic accent is related to the pitch of voice rather than any emphasis. For instance, at the end of many questions in English, we say the last word at a “higher note” than compared to the rest of the question.

Yet, this can really be done anywhere in a sentence, and as such the tonic accent tends to lead the pitch of voice to go up and down

What sets French apart is that it’s not really done with a specific word, instead it is done with the last syllable within a group of words.

Compare this to English, and pretty much every Romance language, then French is seeming pretty different now.

Tonic accent: a: relative phonetic prominence (as from greater stress or higher pitch) of a spoken syllable or word b: accent depending on pitch rather than stress (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

Vowels.

French has a large amount of vowels under its belt, and this is mainly due to consonantal lenition (we will get into that in just a moment).

To be exact, French has:

  • 13 oral vowels
  • 4 nasal vowels

Portuguese is one of the few Romance languages that rivals French in the amount of vowels. It should be noted that though both languages don’t really sound the same, both French and Portuguese have similar ways of pronunciation.

Consonantal Lenition.

The reason why French has so many vowels is due to something called consonantal lenition. So, what is consonantal lenition?

A simple and straightforward way of putting it is the weakening of consonants. A lot like how stressed syllables overshadow unstressed, the vowels in French tend to over shadow the consonants. This even affects French grammar!

So, consonantal lenition (lenition, means weakening or softening) makes it where consonants are left less emphasized.

The Cultural Aspects That Makes French Unique

Language “groups” are pretty much language “families”, and like in any family, languages within them don’t just share the “features” of their brethren like vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. They also share their culture and philosophy, which is formed by their similar historical events.

The culture of languages is a very important and often overlooked aspect. It’s in reality what matters most about languages, and should be a main reason why we choose one over another.

Culture is what as a people we value and cherish the most, and the languages we speak reflect that.

With French, what are some cultural aspects that make it unique?

French for many centuries was seen as the language of the nobility, a language for the educated and well bred.

England’s nobility for example, after the successful occupation of their country by William the Conqueror, spoke French. In all the “higher” intellectual social circles as well, French was spoken.

Interestingly, William the Conqueror was the Duke of Normandy, and led the Normans. Now what is so interesting about the Normans is that they were Scandinavians (actually, they were pretty much Vikings) that adopted both French culture and language.

This is a direct moment in history where we can see Germanic influence at hand, since the French had influence from the Normans (who brought Germanic influences) and came into contact with the Germanic English language.

French affected English so much so that it actually shares a large amount of vocabulary with French today (though the meaning and pronunciation sometimes did not carry over).

This is not the only case of French being seen as the language of the educated, in places as far as Portugal to Russia, French had been the academic language for centuries.

The implications of being seen as educated caused French to influence other languages and instead of being altered itself.

To Learn More About French, What Should We Know About The Romance Languages?

Languages are complex and ever changing, and as such the way they classify them certainly reflect this. So, prepare yourself, and we will try to understand where French stands in the grand scheme of things.

Starting with the broadest to narrowest:

  1. Indo-European: Every European language falls under this category.
  2. Italic Languages: This is where Latin is classified.
  3. Romance Languages: The languages that were derived from Latin.

In regards to the structure of the Romance languages, there is not one definitive way to divide them up. For our purposes, we use the classification given by Ethnologue, that is generally well respected.

The three subgroups of the Romance languages are:

  • Italo-Western: This subgroup is the largest of the three, and has numerous languages under its belt. It has two main subgroups:
    • Italo-Dalmatian: This has a notable member – Italian.
    • Western-Romance: There are two main subgroups within this subgroup:
      • Gallo-Romance: Very important for our topic, this holds French and Catalan.
      • Iberian-Romance: The significant languages of Spanish and Portuguese are designated in this group.
  • Eastern Romance: As the name suggests, this subgroup has mainly to do with Eastern languages.
    • Dacon-Romance: Romanian is in this sub-group, since it has a lot of eastern influence.
  • Southern Romance: The languages in the Southern Romance subgroup are those that have fallen in use and are not as well known. Languages like Sardinian and the now vanished Romance languages of North Africa are here.

The Gallo-Romance, within where French resides, is known as being innovative. So, what does that actually mean?

It means that the languages within that group follow trends and are affected by outside influence (languages foreign to their family group) more than those that are “conservative”.

As I showed before, all Romance Languages share high lexical similarity with each other, meaning they have a lot of similarities. Yet, one difference that all Romance languages share, as is discussed in this paper, is differing phonetics.

Phonetics: the system of speech sounds of a language or group of languages

Why Does French Sound Different?

We all have heard the unique sound that French has, and there seems to be no language that sounds like it. Incidentally, this is what sets French apart from its brethren in the Romance languages. So, is there any language that sounds even a little close? Why does French sound so different in the first place?

French sounds different because it was isolated from other Latin based languages and influenced by foreign languages. Then after French developed its unique sound, it never had to change because for many centuries it was seen as the academic language of the world

The pronunciation that French has, and the sound of it that follows, makes it truly unique to most other languages.

The Final Talking Point On Why French is Different Than Other Romance Languages…

French is different because of being isolated from other Romance languages, and being influenced by Germanic languages and Gaulish. This led French over time to form a very unique sound that no language, even it’s siblings in the Romance language, seems to sound close to.

If interested in more language learning, or more topics relating to French, then check some of my other articles!

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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