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Lingua franca

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A lingua franca is any language widely used beyond the population of its native speakers. The de facto status of lingua franca is usually "awarded" by the masses to the language of the most influential nation(s) of the time. Any given language normally becomes a lingua franca primarily by being used for international commerce, but can be accepted in other cultural exchanges, especially diplomacy. Occasionally the term "lingua franca" is applied to a fully established formal language; thus formerly it was said that French was the lingua franca of diplomacy.

The term "lingua franca" was originally used by ArabsTemplate:Fact to name all Romance languages, and especially Italian (Arabs used the name 'Franks' for all peoples in Western Europe). Then, it meant a language with a Romance lexicon (most words derived from Latin which then evolved into early forms of Spanish and Italian) and a very simple grammar, that till the end of the 19th century was used by mariners in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

A related concept is that of a “vehicular language.” It is defined as a basic linguistic structure for proposed “international auxiliary languages,” for example, the use of an Indo-European language, or Indo-European itself, in the development of Esperanto.[1]

European languages

Sabir and Italian

Originally "Lingua Franca" (also known as Sabir) referred to a mix of mostly Italian with a broad vocabulary drawn from Persian, French, Greek and Arabic. This mixed language (pidgin, creole language) was used for communication throughout the medieval and early modern Middle East as a diplomatic language; the generic description "lingua franca" has since become common for any language used by speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. Some samples of Sabir have been preserved in Molière's comedy, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Italian dialects were spoken in medieval times as lingua franca in the European commercial empires of Italian cities (Genoa, Venice, Florence, Milan, Pisa, Siena, Amalfi) and in their colonies located in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean sea. During the Renaissance Italian was also spoken as language of culture in the main royal courts of Europe and among intellectuals. The Italian language is actually used as a lingua franca in some environments. For example, in the Catholic ecclesiastic hierarchy, Italian is known by a large part of members and is used in substitution of Latin in some official documents as well. The presence of Italian as the second official language in Vatican City indicates not only use in the seat in Rome, but also in the whole world where an episcopal seat is present.

Greek and Latin

During the time of the Hellenistic civilization and Roman Empire, the linguae francae were Koine Greek and Latin. During the Middle Ages, the lingua franca was Greek in the parts of Europe and Middle East where the Byzantine Empire held hegemony, and Latin was primarily used in the rest of Europe. Latin for a significant portion of the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church was used as the basis of the Church, though this was changed to local languages, although it is still the official language of the Vatican.


French was the language of diplomacy in Europe from the 17th century until its recent replacement by English, and as a result is still a working language of international institutions and is seen on documents ranging from passports to airmail letters. For many years, until the accession of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark in 1973, French and German were the only official working languages of the European Economic Community.

French was also the language used among the educated in cosmopolitan cities in North Africa, such as Cairo, around the turn of the century until World War II. Until the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon, French was the language that the upper classes of Lebanese society used by way of "civilised language". French is still a lingua franca in some West African countries (where it often enjoys official status), a remnant of France's colonial times. These African countries, together with several other countries throughout the world, are members of La Francophonie.


Spanish replaced Latin as the language of diplomacy and (in some aspects) culture during the 16th and early 17th centuries, when it was replaced by French. Spanish was also used throughout portions of the former Spanish Empire, particularly in South America. Today, it is a lingua franca in Latin America (except for Brazil and the Guianas ); and in Equatorial Guinea, along with French.


German served as a lingua franca in large portions of Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries in the sciences — particularly in physics, chemistry and sociology — as well as in business and politics. German was also spoken in much of Eastern Europe long after the end of World War II. In some academic disciplines, most notably philosophy and religious studies, a reading knowledge of German is still considered essential and required of doctoral candidates by some universities all over the world, not just those in Europe.


Polish was once a lingua franca in various regions of Central and Eastern Europe, mostly due to the political, cultural, scientific and military influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although Russian language influence has somewhat decreased this popularity, Polish is still sometimes spoken or at least understood in western border areas of Ukraine and Belarus.


Portuguese served as lingua franca in Africa, South America and Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries. When the Portuguese started exploring the seas of Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, they tried to communicate with the natives by mixing a Portuguese-influenced version of Lingua Franca with the local languages. When English or French ships came to compete with the Portuguese, the crew tried to learn this "broken Portuguese". Through a process of change the Lingua Franca and Portuguese lexicon was replaced with the languages of the people in contact..

Portuguese remains an important lingua franca in Brasil and in all the former Portuguese colonies in Africa.


Russian is in use and widely understood in areas of Central and Eastern Europe and Northern and Central Asia formerly part of the Soviet Union, or of the former Soviet bloc. Recent migrations from the former Soviet Union made Russian one of the most spoken languages in Israel.


English is the current lingua franca of international business and aviation, and has displaced French as the lingua franca of diplomacy since World War I. It arguably was advanced by the role of English-speaking countries, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, in the aftermath of the war.

The modern trend to use English outside of English-speaking countries has a number of sources. Ultimately, the use of English in a variety of locations across the globe is a consequence of the reach of the British Empire. But the establishment of English as an international lingua franca after World War II was mostly a result of the spread of English via cultural and technological exports from the United States. English is also regarded by some as the global lingua franca owing to the economic hegemony of most of the developed Western nations in world financial and business institutions. The de facto status of English as the lingua franca in these countries has carried over globally as a result.

A landmark recognition of the dominance of English in Europe came in 1995 when, on the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden, English joined French and German as one of the working languages of the European CommissionTemplate:Fact. Many Europeans outside of the EU have also adopted English as their current lingua franca. For example, English serves as a lingua franca in Switzerland, which has four official languages (German, French, Italian, plus Romansch, spoken by a relatively small minority). High German is also spoken by many Swiss citizens, but the relatively high foreign-born population (21% of residents) ensures the dominance of English.

Asian languages

In other regions of the world, other languages perform the function of a lingua franca.


Arabic, the native language of the Arabs, who originally came from the Arabian Peninsula, became the "lingua franca" of the Islamic Empire (from 700A.D. - 1492 A.D.), which at a certain point spread from the borders of China and Northern India through central Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, Middle East, North Africa all the way to Southern Spain in the west. Arabic was also used by people neighboring the Islamic empire. It influenced African sub-Saharan languages, east African languages, such as Swahili and loaned many words to Persian, Turkish, Urdu and to some extent to European languages such as Spanish and Portuguese. Arabic script was adopted by many other languages such as Urdu, Persian, Swahili (changed to Latin in the 1700s) and Turkish which switched to Latin script in 1923. Arabic became the lingua franca of these regions mainly because it was the language of the Qur’an, Islam's holy book. Arabic remains as the lingua franca for 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.


Aramaic, the native language of the Arameans, became the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire and the western provinces of the Persian Empire, mainly because of its simple, alphabetic writing system, more useful in administration than cuneiformTemplate:Fact.


According to Russian historian Nikolai Trubetskoi, Azeri served as a lingua franca throughout most parts of Transcaucasia (except the Black Sea coast), in Turkish Armenia, Kurdistan, Northern Persia, and Southern Dagestan.[2]


Classical Chinese previously served as both a written lingua franca and diplomatic language in Far East Asia, used by China, Korea, Japan, the Ryukyus, and Vietnam in interstate communications. In the early 20th century Classical Chinese in China was replaced by modern written Standard Chinese. Currently, among most Chinese-speaking communities, Standard Mandarin serves the function of providing a common spoken language between speakers of different and mutually unintelligible Chinese spoken languages - not to mention between the Han people and other ethnic groups in China. Written Chinese has also been used as a way of communication through these character-using countries.

Hindi - Urdu

Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu, is commonly spoken in India and Pakistan. It encompasses two standardized registers in the form of the official languages of Hindi and Urdu, as well as several nonstandard dialects. Hindi is the official language and lingua franca of India and Urdu is the official language and lingua franca of Pakistan.


Tamil is commonly spoken in Tamil Nadu, India. It is also used by Tamil populations in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, United Kingdom and United States.

African languages


Hausa is widely spoken through Nigeria and Niger and recognised in neighbouring states (Ghana, Benin, Cameroon etc). The reason for this is that Hausa people used to be traders who led caravans with goods (cotton, leather, slaves, food crops etc.) through the whole West African region, from the Niger Delta to the Atlantic shores at the very west edge of Africa. They also reached North African states through Trans-Saharan routes. Thus trade deals in Timbuktu in modern Mali, Agadez, Ghat, Fez in Northen Africa, and other trade centers were often concluded in Hausa.


Swahili is used throughout large parts of East Africa as a lingua franca, despite being the mother tongue of a relatively small ethnic group on the East African coast and nearby islands in the Indian Ocean. At least as early as the late eighteenth century, Swahili was used along trading and slave routes that extended west across Lake Tanganyika and into the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Swahili rose in prominence throughout the colonial era, and has become the predominant African language of Tanzania and Kenya. Some contemporary members of non-Swahili ethnic groups speak Swahili more often than their mother tongues, and many choose to raise their children with Swahili as their first language, leading to the possibility that several smaller East African languages will fade as Swahili transitions from being a regional lingua franca to a regional first language.


South Africa has eleven official languages, however the mutual intelligibility of many Nguni languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) has meant that Zulu is increasingly becoming a lingua franca throughout Eastern South Africa, including the major cities of Durban and Johannesburg. Zulu is the first language of ten million people, but is spoken as a second language by over 25 million in the region and is now the most commonly understood language in the country.

Amerindian languages


The Tupi language served as the lingua franca of Brazil between speakers of the various indigenous languages, mainly in the coastal regions. In fact Tupi as lingua franca, and as recorded in colonial books, was actually a creation by the Portuguese, who assembled it from the similarities between the coastal indigenous tupi-guarani languages. The language served the Jesuit priests as a way to teach natives, and it was widely spoken even by Europeans. It was the predominant language spoken in Brazil until 1758, when the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese government and the use and teaching of Tupi was forbidden. [3]. Since then, Tupi as Lingua Franca was quickly replaced by Portuguese, although Tupi-guarani family languages are still spoken by several native groups in Brazil.


As the Inca empire rose to prominence in South America, the imperial language Quechua became the most widely spoken language in the western regions of the continent. Even among tribes that were not absorbed by the empire Quechua still became an important language for trade because of the empire's influence. Even after the Spanish conquest of Peru Quechua for a long time was the most common language. Today it is still widely spoken although it has given way to Spanish as the more common lingua franca.


Various pidgin languages have been used in many locations and times as a common trade speech. They can be based on English, French, Chinese, or indeed any other language. A pidgin is defined by its use as a lingua franca, between populations speaking other mother tongues. When a pidgin becomes a population's first language, then it is called a creole language.


Bislama is used in Vanuatu. It is one of the local varieties of the English-based Melanesian Pidgin that developed throughout Melanesia during the XIXth century.

See also

External link


  1. See Umberto Eco,“The Search for the Perfect Language,” Blackwell Publishers, 1995, p.330 ff.
  2. - On the Peoples of the Caucasus by N.Trubetskoi. IRS Magazine, #7. Retrived 15 September, 2006 (in Russian)
  3. [1]
  • Heine, Bernd (1970). Status and Use of African Lingua Francas. ISBN 3-8039-0033-6
  • Kahane, Henry Romanos (1958). The Lingua Franca in the Levant.
  • R. A. Hall, Jr. (1966). Pidgin and Creole Languages, Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-0173-9.
  • MELATTI, Julio Cezar (1983). Índios do Brasil. São Paulo:Hucitec Press, 48th edition