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I am reading that before the 8-9th(10th?) century, Franks were a Germanic-speaking nation.

How it is possible to explain that in later centuries their language became a totally different Latin-based language with no traces of German origins? How many centuries did the switch from Germanic to a Latin-based language take, and was the switch related to Catholicism?

Are there traces of German roots in old/modern French language?

Are there other examples in history where a nation completely switched its language?

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I'm pretty sure England before the Norman invasion wasn't English, or even French speaking, but Old German/Danish –  canadiancreed Oct 11 '11 at 22:31
Also some of this question might be better in french.stackexchange.com? At least the language specifics? –  canadiancreed Oct 11 '11 at 22:32
or linguistics.stackexchange.com –  Louis Rhys Oct 12 '11 at 2:09
cross-posted to french.stackexchange.com/questions/1439/…, with good results. –  Andrei Oct 13 '11 at 7:33
The Normans themselves were Vikings that rapidly became French speaking/cultured. –  World Engineer Apr 13 '12 at 16:23

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted

You neglect the fact that the 'indigenous' population of France before the Great Migrations (of mainly Germanic tribes) was Gallo-Roman, and by the end of the Roman era (5th century AD), the populace spoke a dialect of Vulgar Latin, which evolved into a distinct "Gallic" Latin over the following centuries. Note however that the ancient Celtic (Gaulish) language spoken in France before the Roman conquest has had minimal impact on the French language, largely thanks to centuries of strong Romanisation. Germanic influence was undoubtedly greater, estimated at some 10% of the modern French vocabulary. There was also some influence on grammar and pronunciation, although the extent of this is debatable.

The Frankish invasions, which started in earnest in the late 5th century AD, added a Germanic admixture to both the population and pre-existing language ("Gallic Latin", if you will). However, the existing population and language was by then firmly defined, and the relatively small number of Frankish invaders (despite their conquering) only influenced the French language in a minor way, eventually adopting the predominant native language, with minor influences by their own Germanic mother tongue (mainly Frankish). This situation was mirrored to some degree in the later Norman invasion of England (where the roles of Germanic and Romance languages are in fact reversed).

If I were to make an educated guess, the predominant factors behind the native Gallo-Roman (Romance) language winning out was the overwhelming greater population that spoke that language rather than Frankish/Old Germanic during the formative years of France/the Frankish realms. Also worth noting is that at the time of the invasions, the native Gallic population would undoubtedly have been better educated and hugely more literature, thanks to the Roman influence. The Germanic peoples at the time however, were only just shedding their illiteracy, making it rather hard for their own language should supplant the existing one.


@AlainPannetier provided a great source (book) in the comment section that states that the estimated invading population of Germanic Franks was around 5% of the native Gallo-Roman population at the time of Clovis (first king of the Franks.) Indeed, the fact that post-Roman Gaul has a well-established Gallo-Roman upper class also meant that it would have been much harder for Vulgar Latin to have be supplanted at the time.

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It should be noted that later French actually had a strong impact on both the modern German language as well as English. This is proven by the fact that French was, at least until circa World War II, the language of diplomacy and of the courts (not the legal kind.) Otherwise, awesome and excellent answer. It is nice to see the Germanic tribes get some credit! –  GPierce Oct 12 '11 at 5:21
Thanks. And indeed, French was the "Lingua Franca" for centuries, as you say, and would have influenced modern German significantly. There are few languages the Germanic tongues haven't influenced in Europe, though their contribution to Romance languages other than French is even smaller. –  Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 14:41
It would be nice to find out the figures for the number of Germanic invaders vs. the size of the Gallo-Roman population –  Squark Oct 12 '11 at 18:41
@AlainPannetier Thank you for that figure. I will include it in my answer if that's okay. By the way, that book (Honni soit qui mal y pense : L'incroyable histoire d'amour entre le français et l'anglais) looks quite interesting. Unfortunately, my French is too poor to read it in its original language. Has it a) been translated into English, b) have you read it? –  Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 23:55
@AlainPannetier, Well I thought "English Francophiles" and "French Anglophiles" were oxymorons now! Hehe, just kidding. That is a shame the book has not yet been translated... the interactions between these two countries over history is as fascinating as it gets. Thanks anyway. –  Noldorin Oct 13 '11 at 0:26

As backup for Noldorin's point, note that the (French-speaking) Normans conqured England in 1066 and made French the country's official language for centuries. This didn't really change the fact that the vast majority of Englishmen spoke only English, and still do (although with a lot of French loan-words for things mostly of concern to the upper-classes). In later years, England was ruled by several monarchs who did not speak English.

Altaic speakers (Mongols, Jurchen) conquered China multiple times, and established ruling dynasties (eg: Yuan, Qing). That didn't even come close to changing the native language(s) of the country. The rulers were eventually absorbed into the culture, not the other way around.

Don't confuse the rulers with the people.

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Interestingly though the anglo-saxon 'invasion' is now thought to have been a very small group of people (possibly similar to the 5% franks) and yet replaced the earlier celtic/byronic languages pretty completely –  none Apr 14 '12 at 3:24
The Qing were not Mongols but Manchus. –  fdb 2 days ago
@fdb - I'll clarify. –  T.E.D. 2 days ago

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