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This is crosspost from [history.se]. Moderator suggested that I post question to this forum, so I am.

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

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

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

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

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I've indirectly answered this question on EL&U when I attempted to explain why the Anglo Saxons retained their West-Germanic Language in the British Isles whereas the Franks and Visigoths instead, adopted Latin. That might be close to what you are after. –  Alain Pannetier Oct 12 '11 at 23:06
    
@Alain, I've read your answer. Very interesting. –  Andrei Oct 13 '11 at 12:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I'm neither a historian nor a linguist... so not authority on the subject, I only have schoolish memories....but my first impression is that you think that the Franks were the ancestors of the French people and of the French language.

Well, there is more to it !

The Franks were a tribe that occupied regions of northern Europe (regions now in Germany, the Netherlands...). At one point in history the Franks invaded the northern part of Gaul and then conquered the whole of Gaul, and Gaul had Frankish kings (Clovis was the first in the 6th century) but the Frankish language (German) never really took among the masses.

The inhabitants of Gaul at the time spoke a mixture of Gallic (a Celtic language) and latin (Gaul had become part of the Roman Empire, circa 200 BC).

What you read is correct : the Franks were a Germanic-speaking nation, but the Franks are not the ancestors of the French, not to speak of their language ! The Frankish language - German- has given German and Dutch. The name France was adopted because there have been Frankish kings but the Franks did not give France their language.

My generation (well over half a century ago...) learnt at school about « nos ancêtres les Gaulois » (The Gauls, our ancestors...) never « nos ancêtres les Francs » ! The Franks were the naughty invaders.

Obviously nowadays France is a meltingpot and the French language a mixture of a lot of languages... but the basis is latin with probably some traces of Gallic, traces of Frankish/German, large chunks of English....


Edit:

Trouvé dans Histoire d'une langue : le français de Marcel Cohen (1973)

In Old French there were over 400 words on Frankish Geman origin but most of them did not survive.

and :

Les mots d'origine germanique ou au moins influencés dans leur forme par le germanique désignent naturellement des institutions ou des objets de même origine ou ayant une importance plus grande dans les milieux germaniques. Citons entre autres marche et le dérivé marquis, baron, chambellan, guerre, trêve, fourreau, heaume, remplacé plus tard par casque, emprunté à l'espagnol, fauteuil, guetter, saisir, garant, épervier, aussi des temes ruraux : blé (peut-être mélangé avec une racine celtique), jardin (allemand Garten) et des adjectifs de couleur et autres : bleu, brun, sale. Des Gallo-Romains ont pris des noms germaniques d'où l'abondance maintenant de prénoms comme Louis (allemand Ludwig) et de familles comme Garnier (allemand : Werner)

Words of German origin, or at least influenced by German, designate institutions or objects which are more important in German populated areas. Some Gallo-Romans adopted took first names form the German (Louis from the German*Ludwig*) or second names (Garnier from the German Werner)

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Actually closer from Evolved Latin (mostly) + Celtic Lexicon (scarse) + Germanic Lexicon (even scarser) + Germanic Phonology (pretty much). It's the opposite way : the English lexicon has large chunks of French. –  Evpok Oct 12 '11 at 22:09
    
@Laure, 1/ You might be interested in this post on El&U. 2/ Also note that Gaulish was not spoken any more in Gaul at the time of the Frankish invasions. Source "Honni soit qui mal y pense" p 43. "aux environs du Ve siècle après JC, on peut estimer que le gaulois n'était plus parlé en Gaule". +1 for the good answer. –  Alain Pannetier Oct 12 '11 at 23:28

To put it simply, French is Latin mispronounced by Germans. The Franks gave French its name but only a small part of its vocabulary overall: French is not derived from Frankish.

The territory that is now France was formerly Gaulish-speaking. After the Roman conquests, vulgar Latin slowly became the dominant language. Only a small part of the population switched from (an ancestor of) German to (an ancestor of) French. There was a major shift, not from German to French, but from Gaulish to (proto-)French, roughly going on from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.

Latin was the trade language (having supplanted Greek in the west of the Mediterranean), German was only the language of the military and rulers. Latin furthermore had an established writing tradition, and so was for a long time the language of legal documents (in France, until 1539). I think these is the main reasons why Latin managed to supplant Celtic languages in a lot more areas than German supplanted Celtic or Romance languages.

Incidentally, speaking of a “French nation” in those days is a complete anachronism. Nations in Europe are more of a late 18th/early 19th-century development.

Both English-speaking Wikipedia and French-speaking Wikipedia have rather detailed articles on the history of the French language.

The 842 oaths of Strasbourg is often considered to be both the oldest extant Old French text and the oldest exant Old High German text. The language of the French version is recorded as “romana lingua” (and the German version as “teudisca lingua”) in the Latin preamble. This early stage of Old French is termed Gallo-Romance, specifically here an oïl dialect, of which a subdialect would later dominate other dialects in France.

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There are a lot of words in modern French that come from the Frankish languages, more if you consider northern dialectes.

However the Salian Franks, who lived in what are now Belgium and the Netherlands before they progressively moved to France, quickly began to speak Latin, and Gallo-Roman dialects.

Some Franks spoke Frankish languages which are much closer to modern German than to modern French or even to modern Flemish (for example Charlemagne).

The Franks were not the only Germanic tribes that settled to France after or during the Barbaric invasions. Allied to the Romans and Gallo-Romans under the Roman empires, they progressively came to southern Germany, then to France during the IVth and the Vth centuries, often serving in the Roman army and auxiliary cavalery, before settling.

At this time there were still a lot of languages in France, not all of them were celtic languages, so the only widely used language was Latin, and later a blend of local Celtic languages, Frankish or Germanic languages known as the lingua franca.

The Franks were only some of the people that are the ancestors of the modern French (and Belgians btw), like the Wisigoths (who later moved to Spain), the Celts, or the Burgonds.

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The Franks were once our rulers but definitely not our ancestors… Because they have ruled our lands and created the roots of “French” monarchy the name "France" stayed until today to describe the country. The descendants of the small Frankish ruling class was soon obliged to use mainly the local Latin-based languages (not only modern French but a lot of other variants, Oil languages and Occitan variations). As soon as they lost their language they were not really Frankish anymore. They were not numerous enough to be able to impose their culture to the Romans of Gaul. This is not was happened in Britain, were the Anglo-Saxons have replaced the former British culture, probably because Britain was much less romanized than Gaul (much farther from Italy, while Gaul is neighbouring it and has been Romanized since a much longer time), and also because the Anglo-Saxons were probably much more numerous than the Frankish invaders. Also, the Frankish had been living for a long time in contact with Roman civilisation and they wanted to be part of it, not to destroy it. This also probably played a role in their cultural integration into the Roman culture of Gaul.

The ruling class started then to integrate into the aristocracy people who were not from the “Frankish stock” and mix completely until being really indifferenciable.

That said, even today, when looking at the people descending from former aristocratic classes, it is not unusual to find more people with slightly more “Nordic” looks than in the general population, especially when compared to the people south of the Loire. It is difficult to say how much DNA is coming from Frankish people in modern French population.

Our language ‘French’, is probably badly named in the sense that it gives wrongly the idea that it refers or descend to the Franks or to the Frankish language when it does not at all. Maybe it would have been linguistically better described as “Galloroman”, even if it is only one among many other Gallo-Romance languages (Wallon, Picard, Gallo, Piemontese, Arpitan, Lombard, Gascon, Provençal, etc.) But it has been called that way for centuries and we should not take the etymology too strictly assuming things that are not true.

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