My understanding (which could be wrong) is the following:

During and before the period of the fall of western Rome (roughly 400 AD), the Franks and the Alemanni were tribal people who moved around a lot. The Romans called both of those people "Germans", so they must have been quite similar. I assume they must have intermingled quite a lot, since they were in constant contact with one another.

Once the "Dark Ages" began, the Franks sort of stayed where France is now, and the Alemanni stayed where Germany is now, though the lines must have been blurry, since Charlemagne was a Frank, but I've heard Germans call him Karl der Grosse, and claim him as being German.

Right, so based on that background, how come the French and German language have evolved to be so different, or were they already very different back then? If so, why and how?

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    French descent from Latin, German descent from ancient Germanic languages. There is many German loanwords from French and vice-versa, and the loanwords rate tends to incease when you come close to linguistic border: In Switzerland Swiss-Germans uses a LOT of French words, and we French speakers uses a few German words here and there. Many older/elderly people even use the german word order in some sentences, which sounds funny to me. (e.g. "J'ai personne vu" instead of "Je n'ai vu personne"):
    – Bregalad
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 9:12
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    Inheritance tree of the Indo-European Languages. Starting from "Indo-European" at the top, you find French through Italic -- Latino-Faliscan -- Romance -- Italo-Western -- Gallo-Iberian -- Gallic -- Language d'Oïl -- French. You will find German through Germanic -- (West) -- Old High German -- Cental / Upper German -- Standard German. Note how the two didn't even share one step in the tree. They are both Indo-European in heritance, but that's where it ends; e.g. English is also West-Germanic.
    – DevSolar
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 11:26
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    @DevSolar: Except for that thing in 1066 where the Normans got in, and brought over a major Romance influence. The reason your tree graph can't show that is precisely because it's a tree graph, and the real world isn't that ordered.
    – MSalters
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 12:01
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    Labeling Charlemagne as either French or German is a bit silly. He was neither. He was culturally Frankish, King of the Franks. The name is just a translational issue. In the language of the Franks, it was Karl. In Latin, Carolus. So modern German says Karl, while modern French says Charles. Commented May 26, 2016 at 14:29
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    @CodyGray Sure, there's little point in talking about "nations" before nationalism came about. Nobody cared if they were Germany, France or Bohemia - people cared about language, customs and their liege :) We might call their lands "France" for brevity sake, but the contemporaries rarely cared about such distinctions, and the allegiances were quite dynamic as well, not to mention that titles routinely passed to and from "nations" by heritage. It's a bit of a shame that people often don't realize that nationalism is an invention, not an immutable truth about human social organization :)
    – Luaan
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 10:28

6 Answers 6


Defense of German heritage against Romans

The biggest reason for how the lands east of the Rhine retained their German identity (unlike the Gauls of modern day France who lost their Celtic identity) is the Battle of Teutoburg Forest where the Germans won a decisive victory against Roman invaders. After this battle, the Romans never seriously attempted to conquer German lands in Magna Germania even though sporadic raids and skirmishes continued. This also ensured that German lands would remain German for eternity (or at least till now).

Latin influence on Gaul

The original inhabitants of France were Celtic people who were referred to as Gauls and Belgae by the Romans. Eventually Gaul was conquered by Julius Caesar and soon a dialect of Italiano-Celtic origin began developing which can be referred to as Vulgar Latin.

This Vulgar Latin is the core of the modern French language but Gaulish still left its impacts on modern French - for example, the loss of unstressed syllables, the vowel system etc.

Germanic Tribes

As you have noted, the Franks and Alemanni aka Suebi or Swabians were both Germanic tribes and Romans were not wrong in calling them both Germans even though they both spoke different dialects of German.

However they were not the only German tribes; there were dozens of them, many of whom spoke their own dialects of Proto-German. Chief among them were of course Franks, Alemanni, Angles (who settled in England and gave it their name), Dani (modern day Danes), Goths (From modern day Sweden, Swedes are considered by some as descendants of Goths. Divided into Visigoths who conquered Hispania and Ostrogoths who conquered Italia), Langobardes (later known as Lombards and gave Lombardy (Italy) their name), Saxones (Sailed to England and laid foundations of Anglo-Saxon states), Vandals (Who conquered North Africa).

Francia or Carolingian Empire

There once used to be a confederation of German Tribes which was called Frankland or Francia or Regnum Francorum or later Carolingian Empire (Under Karling Dynasty) which was ruled by a German Tribe named the Franks. It existed from 481 AD to 843 AD.

Eventually Gaul was conquered by German Tribes. The Franks settled down in Northern France while the Alemanni settled down in the Rhine region at the border of Modern France and Germany. The Alemanni were also later conquered by the Franks under Clovis I. Unlike the Franks who were converting to Catholicism and adopting local culture gradually, The Alemanni were however very conscious about their roots and remained pagan until the 7th century.

The Franks did give their own influences to the native language but linguists today believe only 500 French words have Frankish roots.

Division of Frankish Empire

Anyhow, after the death of Louis the Pious, the Carolingian Empire got embroiled in a Civil war between his sons which resulted in the division of the Empire.

It was only ended by the Treaty of Verdun, according to which Charles the Bald got West Francia which went on to become France and Louis the German got East Francia which went on to become Germany.

It must be noted that Latin Speakers were present only in West Francia. East Francia however remained the traditional heartland of the German People.

This division formed the line between East and West forever as from the 10th century, East Francia was known as the Kingdom of Germany which was further reinforced when the Salian dynasty took over the Holy Roman Empire.


In the end however, the Franks assimilated into the local Latin-speaking population and from Old Frankish and Italo-Gaulic, the French language was born.

East Francia, which contained the territories of the Alemmani, did not have any such political aspects to consider and therefore retained their dialects and language. Alemannian German is still spoken in various parts of Germany and also abroad e.g. in Switzerland etc.

The French language however remains distinct among the Romance languages which is due to Germanic influence from the Franks and Normans. I read somewhere that:

French is what happens when Germans learn Latin.

A good similar example for the case of the Carolingian dynasty would be the Yuan dynasty of China. The Yuans were Mongols who invaded China, but in the end, they were the ones who adopted the native Chinese culture and language rather than the other way around. Similarly the Ilkhanate adopted Turco-Persian identity. Their cousins in Mongolia however retained their Mongol identity.

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    Great. Now I've bought a book called "Give Me Back My Legions!" by Harry Turtledove about the battle of Teutoburg Forest. Thanks!
    – Roman
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 10:41
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    NSNoob - actually the treaty of Verdun gave Charles the Bald West Francia which later became France, Lewis the German East Francia which later became Germany, and Lothair I, co-emperor with his father, the title of emperor and Middle Francia, including Italy and the area between East and West Francia that was called Lotharingia or Lorraine after him,
    – MAGolding
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 18:44
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    if you want, i found a map with the imperial borders and germanic tribes. wikimedia
    – Armin
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 20:06
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    There were much more Germanic tribes whose dialects formed German language, not only Alemanni, but also Saxons, Bavarians (Baiuwari)... But that doesn't break the point of this good answer.
    – Pavel
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:02
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    Good answer, could be bettered by acknowledging a possible influence of the separation between the more Germanised Rhine Franks and the more Latinized Salian Franks. Charlemagne himself was both but is generally considered to have spoken a Rhenish Frank dialect. Cf en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oaths_of_Strasbourg
    – Yves
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 20:36

The Franks were a German tribe, speaking a Germanic language. They conquered part of the Roman Empire roughly corresponding to modern-day France.

However, the common folk in that area spoke Latin, and never stopped just because their ruling class was now German. Over time their Latin language drifted until it became the language we now call "French".

This is sort of a mirror image of what happened a bit later in England, where the people spoke a Germanic language, but got conquered by a group of French-speaking people. Some words ended up getting borrowed, but the common folk of England never stopped speaking the Germanic language that evolved into what we today call English.

The only common ancestor these two language families really have is Proto-Indo-European. They probably split into their two distinct branches at least 3,000 years ago (possibly as much as 5).

So the reason German and French are so different is that they have been separate languages for thousands of years.

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    The primary settlement area of the Franks was a triangle between Paris, Nijmegen and Worms, with its heartland the triangle Cologne-Reims-Aachen. In other words, modern-day Belgium, Luxemburg, eastern France, Western Germany, Southern Netherlands. In other parts of their empire like Aquitaine or Saxony they were a tiny minority. The Franks had a big influence on the Old French language (modern French drifted back towards Latin) and some German dialects like Ripuarisch, but Frankish being a German dialect makes the difference hard to tell.
    – Yves
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 20:47

Actually the border between Germanic and Romance languages never correlated closely with any political borders until modern nationalistic governments forced schooling in the national languages. And it still includes at least two multi-lingual countries, Belgium and Switzerland.

People preferred to speak the language that everyone else in their area spoke and didn't bother to learn or teach their children whatever language or dialect might be spoken in the capital. Except that they might try to learn a different language if the local elite group spoke it, hoping to become assimilated into the local elite group.

If you look at and compare linguistic and political maps for the same era you will see that for many hundreds of years the linguistic border between French and German did not correspond very well to the political borders.

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    I think the language border was quite political. See the Oaths of Strasbourg
    – Yves
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 20:58

During and after the fall of Rome, northern Europe was overrun by "Germanic" tribes. But one of these ethnic German tribes, the Franks, became largely "Latinized" as a result.

There were two, possibly interrelated reasons for this. The first was that they colonized (and gave their name to) the part of Europe now known as "France," which the Romans had known (and colonized) as Gaul. The land that the Franks settled was heavily populated by people who (unlike the "Germans" further to the east), were heavily "Romanized." Thus, the Franks adopted large parts of the Gallic culture including important elements of the Latin language that morphed into modern "French."

A second, and possibly interrelated reason, was that an important Frankish king, Clovis converted to Christianity at the behest of his wife Clotilde, thereby separating himself further from other, "pagan," Germanic tribes, and tying his "French" kingdom more closely to "Latinized" Gauls and Romans (who still controlled the Catholic church after the fall of Rome).

  • The Franks, at least the Salians, came numerous decades before the fall of the Roman empire. They acted as auxiliaries and were brought in to secure the limes.
    – Yves
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 20:53

It has been described to me that Europe only has one language, from Lisbon to Moscow, and it changes dialect very slowly as you progress. Supposedly, the borders don't matter so much.

This probably was true back in the day (~1800) with a bunch of exceptions (Basque? Greece?). Since then, some European countries ( for example, Spain, France, Florence ) have attempted to standardize their languages, but the intra-country language variation still exists.

Thus, the language spoken in Bas Rhin was very similar to that which is spoken in Baden. Both were somewhat different from the languages of Paris and Berlin. This local similarity continues today.

This means, altogether, that the reason German and French are different is because Paris is a significant distance from Germany.

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    I was wondering when (or if) this point would be raised. You might note that it was common before 1789 to speak of French as being a language spoken only in the capitals of Europe, a lingua franca, not of one spoken throughout the modern country of France. It was the determined efforts of Robespierre's republicans that enforced a national identity upon the language of Paris, and enforced its adoption throughout the villages of France. (The downvote is probably from someone who, in ignorance, doesn't realize how true this actually is.) Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 1:19
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    @PieterGeerkens Do you have first hand knowledge about spoken language in Bas Rhin and Baden? I met someone from Freiburg once and and while she spoke German, is sounded a lot like French to me(I don't speak French). Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 1:42
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    The presence of so-called dialect continuums has been greatly decreased in Europe since the dawn of narionalism (as @PieterGeerkens mentions) and public education (with teachers formally trained and licensed in the capital's dialect).
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 0:48
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    Well . . . you could say that the Romance languages were/are all dialects of one language, and the same for the Germanic, Slavic, Celtic language sub-families. But the language borders between Romance and Germanic, Germanic and Slavic, etc were always major.
    – JTM
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:56
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    +1 for some interesting points but note that the similarity between the language spoken in Bas-Rhin and Baden is only due to the fact that the local language (Alsatian language) isn't latin-based at all. On the other hand, the Alemannic dialects spoken in South-Western Germany do not bear any strong similarity to French.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 18:31

In a nutshell, the French language has Latin and Greek roots in it just like that of English, Spanish, Canadian, Italian, and Greek whereas German, Icelandic, Russian and etc come from either other roots or are completely original in linguistic liniage.

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