A lingua franca is any language which is used for widespread communication between groups who do not share a native language or where native speakers are typically in the minority. The name comes from 'Lingua Franca', a pidgin language used in the Mediterranean region during Mediaeval times. However, a lingua franca is not necessarily a pidgin: today, for instance, English is the widest-used lingua franca, and other major languages which act as lingua francas include Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi and French. Major lingua francas of the past included Latin and Koine Greek.
Lingua francas typically arise for trade purposes or due to migration. A lingua franca may be indigenous to a particular area, so some users will be native speakers, or it could have spread far beyond the native speaker speech community. An example of an indigenous lingua franca is Swahili, spoken in East Africa. Swahili is not a lingua franca only when used exclusively between native speakers. Towards the coast, most speakers are native or fairly fluent, but inland it is more like a pidgin, with a reduced number of uses and most users not being native speakers. This shows that a language can be a lingua franca regardless of speakers' proficiency in the language, and how linguistically homogeneous it is.
The need for groups to communicate leads to the development of pidgins and creoles (full, complex native languages that were once pidgins). This means that pidgins are almost always lingua francas, and creoles very often are, but lingua francas are not always pidgins or creoles.
Other terms which refer to related phenomena are trade language, contact language, international language and auxiliary language, the last including artificial languages, simplified natural languages such as 'Basic English', and pidgins. A mixed language is a specific type of lingua franca, one formed from mixing the grammar and vocabulary from two or more existing languages. An example is Michif, formed from Cree and French in Canada.
Some definitions of 'lingua franca' specify that all users are non-native speakers; however, the term tends to be found nowadays in its wider definition of any language used for communication over a large area.
- Pidgin : A language with no native speakers and relatively few uses, created spontaneously by two or more groups with no common language, using vocabulary and grammar from multiple sources; often a pidgin's grammar is rudimentary, and it has a restricted set of words, but in time they can develop into more complex 'expanded' pidgins with many more functions.
- Sebba (1997: 16-17).
- Sebba (1997: 16-17); Wardhaugh (2006: 60).
- Sebba (1997: 14).
- Wardhaugh (2006: 59-60); Bakker & Pappen (1997: 355).
- Wardhaugh (2006: 59), referring to a 1953 UNESCO definition.