French vs Latin: Language similarities and differences

Did you know that French is one of the six Romance languages derived from Latin? Modern French is quite different from Latin, but there are still some similarities between the two languages.

Many French vocabulary words are derived from Latin. Here are some Latin vocabulary words which are similar to the corresponding French words:

Table: Some similar words between French and Latin
French word Latin word English meaning
vérité veritas truth
vie vita life
amour amor love
lycée lyceum high school
nuire nocere to harm
ami amicus friend
deviner divinare to guess

Throughout this article we will see many more examples, while we explore the differences and similarities between Latin and French.

Can French People Understand Latin?

Many French vocabulary words are derived from Latin, and those often have a somewhat similar spelling, but not always.

For example, the latin word « calidus » is the origin of the French word « chaud » (warm). These two words look sufficiently different that most French people wouldn't recognize the connection unless they had studied latin.

Another example: the latin word « asinus » doesn't look similar enough to the French word « âne » (donkey), for it to be easily recognizable, even though both are etymologically related.

Because of this, French speakers typically can only recognize a fraction of the Latin words appearing in a Latin text.

In some cases they will be able to infer the meaning of a Latin phrase. But in most cases they won't recognize enough Latin words to understand the meaning of a Latin sentence.

You are a Francophone, and you want to know if you could understand Latin? Test your abilities by trying to translate these Latin quotes into French!

Table: comparison of French and Latin phrases
Latin French / English
Accipe quam primum, brevis est occasio lucri Agis tout de suite, les chances de réussite durent peu.
(Act now, the chances of success do not last.)
Abundans cautela non nocet L’excès de prudence ne peut pas nuire.
(Abundant caution does no harm.)
Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur C’est dans le besoin que l’on reconnait ses vrais amis.
(A true friend is recognized in difficult times.)

The Story of Latin and French, and the Similarities between Them

French is one of the six Romance languages derived from Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin, also called Popular or Colloquial Latin, is a non-literary form of Latin that was spoken mostly in the western provinces of the Roman Empire.

As the Romans invaded Europe, they established colonies, leading to linguistic and cultural assimilation. They were especially present in the western Mediterranean, and Latin became the most-spoken language of that region.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was divided into multiple independent states. Over the course of four to eight centuries, the people of each state began to speak their own version of Vulgar Latin.

Over time, the local changes in phonology, morphology, and syntax resulted in six new languages being created. These were the Romance languages and included Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, and French. Out of these, Italian is the closest to Latin, while French is the most different.

French is the most divergent of the Romance languages, most likely because of strong Gallic and Frankish influences. The Celtic Gauls lived in the region where France is today. They spoke a language similar to Old Dutch but adopted Latin as the Romans invaded Gaul.

Later on, the influence of the Romans subsided, and the country was invaded by Germanic tribes, giving birth to Old French, which evolved to be the modern French we all know and love today.

Despite French being the Romance language being the most different from Latin, about half of French words still have Latin roots. Some examples include:

Table: Some Latin roots in French vocabulary words
Latin root Derived French word(s) English translation
Navis Navire Boat/ship
Fortis Force Strength
Gust- Goût Taste
Fides Fidèle Faithful/loyal

The influence of Latin on French spelling

When languages evolve, the pronunciation tends to be more subject to changes than the spelling.

The spelling of some French words include a silent letter at the end, which are traces of the original Latin words from which they are derived.

Here are some examples:

Is It Easier to Learn Latin if You Already Speak French?

We often hear that Latin is a dead language, and therefore, why should you bother to learn it? Well, since Latin is a very logical language, learning it can help develop critical thinking and improve problem-solving abilities.

If you are francophone and are motivated to learn Latin, you might be wondering if it will be easier for you because of your French abilities. Well, as mentioned earlier, out of all the Romance languages, French is the one that least resembles Latin, but some words are very similar.

Therefore, although it might be easier to learn Latin if you already know French, it will not be easy. For example, here is a list of Latin words that are similar to those in French:

Table: Some Latin words which are similar to French words
French word Latin word English meaning
père pater father
fils filius son
femme femina woman
naissance nascentia birth
frère frater brother
voir videre to see
annuler adnullare to guess
froid frigidus cold

Is It Harder to Learn Latin or French?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) attempted to quantify the difficulty of learning various languages for English-speaking individuals. They created a list of languages and indicated how long it would take for Anglophones to learn them.

They classified French as a category I language, meaning it is closely related to English and should take anywhere from 575 to 600 hours to learn. [2]. Basically, French is among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

Latin, on the other hand, is widely considered a dead language. If you choose to learn Latin, it might be hard to find someone to practice with, and since practice makes perfect, it might hinder your learning.

Latin also has some particularities that could make it more challenging. For example, words often have multiple meanings and can be used in two, three, and even four different contexts.

Latin also uses declensions, which are word endings indicating the grammatical case. There are six Latin cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative. These indicate how nouns and adjectives relate to other words in the sentence.

Finally, Latin has three grammatical genders, and French only has two. In addition to feminine and masculine, Latin also uses the neuter gender, which means neither male nor female.

Conclusion

French is a Latin-based language, and a large part of French vocabulary is derived from Latin. Some of these words are close to the original latin term, while others have changed a lot in pronunciation and spelling.

Although French and Latin share many linguistic similarities, there are other languages which are closer to Latin: for instance Italian and Spanish.

For more on this, see these language comparisons: Latin vs Spanish and Latin vs Italian.

References:
  1. [1] Source
  2. [2] Source