With the increasing prominence of China in global business and politics, there is increasing discussion about whether or not there will be a corresponding rise in the ubiquity of Mandarin. Indeed many have begun to speculate that Mandarin will eventually become the new “lingua franca.” This will be the first of two posts on the subject of the Lingua Franca.
A lingua franca is a bridge language, or a language used to facilitate communication between to speakers who do not share a mother language, particularly when the language of communication is not one of the speakers’ mother languages. For example, one can consider French a lingua franca when it is used by a native Italian speaker and a native Spanish speaker to communicate. When one hears that French was “the language of diplomacy” this refers to the fact that in European diplomacy French was the lingua franca for diplomats.
Despite how the term “lingua franca” appears to English readers, the original lingua franca was not French. It was in fact a pidgin language (a simple language that develops as a way for two or more groups to communicate when they do not share a common language) based mostly of Italian, but eventually interpreting Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, French and Turkish elements. The original lingua franca was used not in northern Europe, but around the Mediterranean coast.
So a lingua franca is simply a common language used to communicate between to people who do not share a native language. There is no one “lingua franca,” but instead it is simply a term that can be used to describe any common language, dependent not on history, but on usage.
In next week’s post we will discuss the current “global” lingua franca, and the possibility that it’s place could be taken by Mandarin.