lingua franca

Broadly speaking, English is the current language of international commerce and diplomacy (yes, yes, I know not always, as you get more region specific you’ll get regionally influenced preferences, but broadly speaking it’s English).

I figure at one time the common choice was French, hence the term lingua franca. And I betcha it was once Latin.

Can anyone give me a concise timeline following from one lingua franca to its successor and so forth throughout the history of world civilization?

And what language do you think will unseat English once English has had it’s run?

Well, lingua franca actually means “Frankish tongue” and was a mostly a sort of pidgin Italian, with bits of French, Greek, Arabic etc. It was a trade language that was used around the Mediterranean, and as such, has more in common with Pidgin English, which was a similar mixture of English and Chinese, than it does with the current international status of English as a commonly used language.

The nearest eqivalent to that (that I can think of) would be the status for several centuries of French as a language of diplomacy, or Latin (and earlier, Greek) as a language of learning.

Of course, this applies to Europe only, other languages would have been used concurrently, in other parts of the world.

The term “lingua franca” has nothing really to do with French once being the international language of commerce and diplomacy. The term didn’t originally refer to such sorts of languages, and it’s only by a rather recent stretching of the meaning of the term that you can make it mean that. Originally, Lingua Franca was a pidgin language used throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean for basic communication between sailors in trading between the various countries. (I believe it was used in roughly the late Medieval and Renaissance period.) It was a pidgin, not a language of diplomacy. A pidgin language is one in which speakers of many languages create a language of basic communication by picking words from several languages with only very sketchy grammar to use in very simple conversations about trade. It’s never used as the native language of any of the sailors or whatever who speak it. (Sometimes several generations later it gets a full grammar and becomes the native language of the descendents of those sailors. In these cases, the language has become what’s called a “creole.”)

Lingua Franca was mostly derived from simplified Italian, not from French. The OED says that the term came from the words meaning “Frankish language,” but it has only a few words in it derived from French. The American Heritage Dictionary says that “franca” could refer to anything of European origin. It was never used as a language of diplomacy, and it never even became a creole. It’s only fairly recently that the term “lingua franca” has expanded in meaning to include languages of diplomacy and commerce.

O.K. O.K. O.K. so, I was using the “recent stretching of the meaning of the word” but I am not the first person to stretch it thusly, it’s been used that way before. I knew the “pidgin” definition but didn’t realize it was so passionately prefered over the “recent stretching” definition.

Regardless, I thought my question in the OP was more or less clear. So would anybody like to answer my actual question rather than give me a hard time about using “definition 2” rather than “definition 1”?

I can’t really answer your question, although it should be findable on the web. I assume that classical Latin was the LF during the middle ages since it was the language of the church. I read somewhere that Latin was the language of instruction at Oxford and Cambridge until the early 20th. For all I know to the contrary, French took over after the Congress of Vienna, 1815, that ended the Napoleonic wars. De facto, English started taking over after WW II, but I believe that French is still, de jure, the international language of diplomacy. Notice that some of the information in US passports is repeated in French, not Spanish. As for what language will replace English, my bet is Chinese. Arabic and Japanese are other possibilities. Spanish might have some chance, but I do not see any Spanish speaking country that might become economically important. Brazillian Portuguese?

No intention of giving you a hard time, bienville just trying to keep things clear. Even apart from the difference between “definition 1” and “definition 2”, I think your question poses yet another difficulty.

The current dominance of English as a language of global communication is something of a unique accident. Firstly, it was spread across the globe by the British Empire; but in this it is no different to several other European languages, and in time its influence would have waned with the withdrawal of Britain from its empire and the various colonies return to self-rule. However, the rise of American economic influence world-wide, and the US’s dominating position in global mass media, has reinforced the position of English as a “first-choice” second language for people all over the world.

I don’t believe that any other language has ever had so wide-spread an influence. Previous languages which filled the role would have been dominant not only in a much smaller area, but also would have varied depending upon the subject to be discussed.

An example: in the Middle Ages in Europe, diplomacy may have been undertaken in French, but matters of science or law would have been dealt with in Latin, while courtly love poetry was freqently in Italian. If a merchant had dealings around the Mediterranean, then Greek might have been the most useful language in the east, but along the south coast he would probably need at least some Arabic.

As you can see, a concise time-line for the whole of world civilisation is probably an impossibility, since all of these elements overlap, not only in geography, but in time.

Your second reply was WONDERFUL. I knew you could do it. Thank you.

Thanks also to Hari Seldon, all interesting stuff!

Another example of a lingua franca becoming a more generally used language, this time not in Europe: Swahili was once merely one of many Bantu languages. Arabic traders began using a pidgin form of it for contact with speakers of many different Bantu languages. It got pidginized and then creolized and eventually became the chief language of diplomacy and commerce in a large section of Africa. So once again there is a lingua franca used in a large area of the world, quite separate from the region where French was used for diplomacy, Lingua Franca for trade, and Latin for scholarly work.

Hari Seldon, Latin was not the language of instruction at Oxford and Cambridge in the early 20th century. It had been replaced by English long before that. It was probably true that as late as the early 20th century, it was still expected that anyone who taught at Oxford or Cambridge (and maybe even anyone who became a student) would have learned Latin (and maybe Greek) as a schoolboy.

I understand that Latin “O” Level was a requirement for university entrance until at least the 1950s. Most students would never have had to use it, but they did need the qualification before they could apply for a place.

I’m not sure that any establishments in England have ever taught exclusively (or to any great extent) in Latin. Following the Norman conquest, schoolchildren were taught in French, but I believe that lessons in English had become the norm by the time Shakespeare was a lad.

Franca does not mean French or Frank (as in the Frank people). The word is part of a group of Romance words which mean “free” or “free to go anywhere”, “free to do or say anything” and similar meaning. That is the origin of “lingua franca”, i.e. language which you can use anywhere, universal language.

That’s not the derivation given in the two dictionaries I’ve checked. That’s not to say that your derivation may not be correct, but can you give us any citation for it?

All my dictionaries disagree with you, sailor. “Frank” was the name of the Germanic people first. (They may have been named for their weapon of choice, a type of javelin). The name of the country France, the name of the Romance languge French, the name of the pidgin language Lingua Franca and the adjectives in several different languages meaning “free” (including English word “frank”) derive from the name of the people. There were few if any Frankish (i.e., Germanic) elements to the Lingua Franca, but for a time, all Europeans were known as “Franks” in the Levant.

Well, I guess my memory tricked me and it is the other way around and the meaning “free, exempt” derives from the name of the Germanic tribe then. I knew one derived from the other but I guess I got it mixed up.

I am still under the impression that “lingua franca” does not refer to the Franks but to the derived meaning of “free”. Is this correct?

I can narrow it down still further, until someone comes along with a definitive answer.

I submitted my application to Oxford University in 1973, and at that point Latin “O” level was not required. However, when I had stopped taking Latin classes at school in 1968, it still was required for Oxbridge entrance. There were at the time “refresher course” programs that would let you get back up to speed in order to pass Latin “O” level at age 16 or 17 if you needed it. By the time I would have taken that refresher course, Oxford and Cambridge had dropped the requirement. I would say that change took place around 1970.

I’ve no cite, but I believe you were right. It seems to me that the name of the Franks came from a germanic word meaning “free”. They were originally a confederation of different tribes, by the way, not a single people, and it was this federation which sort of titled itself “the free”.
As for why the europeans were known as “franks” (or more exactly an arabic variation of this name) in the levant (“lingua franca”), I’ve read two different explanations. The first one assuming an early use, states that this use appeared when the carolingians (frank) kings, who dominated most of the christian Europe came in contact with the expanding muslim empire (VIII°-IX° century), the second one states that this word appeared only at the time of the crusades, since a majority of the crusaders came from France.

The Hellenistic empire of Alexander was rather insistent that occupied territories adopt the ‘Greek’ culture and tongue. This was so successful, that when the Romans ruled the ‘known world,’ ancient Greek remained the lingua franca of the empire, especially since Greek literature and culture were so much more developed than Roman culture. It was like the situation that the U.S. enjoys now – its cultural product is mass consumed, therefore, its language is learned.

During the ‘dark ages,’ there was the influx of Germanic tribes and the fall of the Roman Empire that split the ‘known world’ into regional/national groupd. The East and West lost contact in Europe and the Greek language declined in favor – not of Latin (used in scholarly and ecclesiastical circles), but of the local reworking (some would say bastardization, but that’s rather judgmental) of Latin into the various Romance Languages.

From that point on, only certain circles of people (diplomats, scholars, etc…) learned a common tongue, like French or Latin. Otherwise the common people just knew their native national tongue until the rise of English as a new world wide Lingua Franca for ordinary peoples.

For further info, take a good Western Civilization class in college, or read a similar history/textbook.


Espanñol esta ahora la lingua franca nova.