A long time ago, I remember reading about a work that showed that there were no distinct breaks in the local dialects as one travelled from west to east across France, and how at the easternmost areas, the dialect shared more in common with German than it did with the westernmost dialects. Now, many years later, I am trying to track down some concrete references to anchor this memory. But I have had no luck! I vaguely have the notion that the study was a classic or well-known one in linguistics, but this, too, might be wrong ...

Can someone help out? Either by affirming this is true with pointers to references, or by firmly knocking me on the head and telling me that I am misremembering in my old age due to the misadventures of a misspent youth?


So, maybe I am even more confused and I meant a French-Italian gradient rather than French-German. In which case, Ferdinand de Saussere's "Course in General Linguistics", Part 4 ("Geographical Linguistics"), Chapter 3 ("“Causes of Geographical Diversity”), describes part of the phenomenon:

“Just as one cannot say where High German ends and Low German begins, so also it is impossible to establish a line of demarcation between German and Dutch, or between French and Italian. Taking points far enough apart, it is possible to say with certainty ‘French is spoken here; Italian is spoken there’. But in the intervening regions, the distinction becomes blurred. The notion of smaller, compact intermediate zones acting as linguistic areas of transition (for example, Provençal as a half-way house between French and Italian) is not realistic either. In any case, it is impossible to imagine in any shape or form a precise linguistic boundary dividing an area covered throughout by evenly differentiated dialects. Language boundaries, just like dialect boundaries, get lost in these transitions. Just as dialects are only arbitrary subdivisions of the entire surface covered by a language, so the boundaries held to separate two languages can only be conventional one”

So, it does talk about the blending of French into Italian, without any distinct breaks between dialects. But it does not describe not the easternmost French dialects being closer to westernmost Italian dialects rather than the westernmost French dialects, which was the other part of what I remembered.

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    @sumelic Although I agree the starting point of the OP's question is somewhat based on a false assumption, it is clear to me they are not talking about the French language but about the local dialects spoken in France - some of them have a relationship to French (as belonging to Romance languages) but others have never had the slightest relationship to Romance languages.
    – None
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 9:19
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    @LuísHenrique In the case of regional languages in France it is not a question of one language blending into the other across borders, they're very often the same regional languages on each side of the border, borders that have changed across the centuries. And I do not think one can compare regional languages in France with Brazilian Portuguese and Platine Spanish. No one speaks regional languages in France any more on an everyday basis. They've reached the stage where a few people are trying to bring back to life the languages of their ancestors.
    – None
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 16:20
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    @LuísHenrique We probably do not understand the question in the same way. Hence the first sentence of my question. For me - and I might be biased because I am well acquainted with the subjec of regional languages in France - it means there's a gradual shift of the myriads of regional languages from the west (What? OP doesn't say) to the eastern borders of France into German. Well, for me there's no discussion, that's false and easy to prove. Nissart or Francoprovençal have no relationship with German.
    – None
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 6:18
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    And at times there's no relationship at all with one regional language to the neighbouring one.
    – None
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 6:18
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    Ah, it looks like my befuddled mind might have added to the confusion. Perhaps I was mistaken regarding French-German. And what I am remembering is the French-Italian gradient, as suggested above. If this is the case, then I believe Ferdinand de Sauserre's "Course in General Linguistics", Part 4 ("Geographical Linguistics"), Chapter 3 ("“Causes of Geographical Diversity”) might be a starting point? Discussed in separate post below, due to length. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 0:31

1 Answer 1


Maybe I don't understand what you mean but saying "there were no distinct breaks in the local dialects as one travelled from west to east across France" sound to me as a complete fallacy. There's no absolute continuum between the different regional dialects of France.

If you look at the extreme west we have the Breton language which is a Celtic language. Going further west we find the Gallo which belongs to the Langues d'oïl family that covers most of northern France and has absolutely no relationship to Celtic languages. All the various langues d'oïl are indeed connected, and they belong to the Gallo-Romance languages, as do the Occitano-Romance languages that covers most of southern France.

Basque which is spoken in a small area in the south west of France (and north west of Spain) has absolutely no relationship with any other neighbouring language (and it is unrelated to any other known European language, it is even said it existed even before Romance languages)

What is true is that all border areas have transborder local dialects. Alsatian is closer to the language spoken on the other side of the border with Germany than to the French dialects west of Alsace, and that's logical when we know this area has changed hands several times, sometimes belonging to France, other times to "Germany".

The Nissart language belongs to the Occitan dialect and is closely related to Ligurian that is spoken in Italy on the other side of the border.

The Catalan language, also belonging to the Occitan dialects is spoken on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border.

In the same way the Breton language I was mentioning a few lines earlier is very close to the Celtic language spoken in Cornwall (no wonder since it was brought by the Britons in the Middle Ages).

This is not an exhaustive list, just some examples.

For further reference:

I'd like to add that local dialects are not usually spoken nowadays, except in Alsace perhaps. But they are a great subject of study !

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    Alsatian is not "a mixture of French and German". It is a bundle of Upper German (Alemanic) dialects.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 10:58
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    @fdb I do not disagree with you. Follow the link in my answer. Whenever possible I have linked to pages in English.
    – None
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 6:43
  • Celtic languages are also PIE languages, so they are related to French. Thats being said, the Celtic language group is vastly different from the Italic language group. You are right about Basque being unrelated but "it is said" is a bit vague. By whom? Are they qualified to say that?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 23:18
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    "no absolute continuum between the different regional dialects of France" ... maybe I misread de Saussere, or he is wrong, or things have changed since he was writing? Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 0:36
  • @CJDennis There are references at the end of my answer, obviously they are not exhaustive, an answer on SE is not academic paper with umpteen bibliographic notes. Here's a paper by a linguist, specialist of the Basque Language. Proper academic research (except abstracts) he has produced or supervised not freely available, only abstracts.
    – None
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 5:53

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