Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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Exploring languages and cultures

2.1 The term ‘lingua franca’

The first use of the term ‘lingua franca’ was recorded in 1553. The term franca (literally ‘Frankish’) was at one time used to referred to western Europeans, and lingua franca (meaning ‘language of the Franks or western Europeans’) was an Italian expression for the language that came to be used for communication purposes between traders in the Mediterranean area. Since then, the meaning of the term has evolved.

Activity 11

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the following meanings for the term ‘lingua franca’:

  1. A pidgin language drawing its lexicon mainly from the southern Romance languages and formerly used as a trading language, first in the eastern Mediterranean and later throughout much of northern Africa and the Middle East. Frequently with capital initials. Now historical.
  2. Any language that is used by speakers of different languages as a common medium of communication; a common language.
  3. In early use sometimes specifically denoting a mixed language that fulfils this role.
  4. In figurative contexts: a generally understood or commonly used standard, system, or means of non-verbal communication.
(Adapted from Oxford University Press, 2013)

The OED also gives a list of examples for each of these uses. Indicate which of the meanings 1 to 4 above each of the examples below illustrates:

(a)

[Malayan] is the common Tongue of Trade and Commerce in most of the East India Islands, being the Lingua Franca, as it were, of these parts.

(1697 W. Dampier New Voy. around World xiv. 394)

a. 

1


b. 

2


c. 

3


d. 

4


The correct answer is b.

(b)

At that time [that of Charlemagne] it appears that a kind of mixture, or lingua franca, of Latin, Gaulic, and Franc, was in general use.

(1777, London Rev. Eng. & Foreign Lit. 5 App. 493)

a. 

1


b. 

2


c. 

3


d. 

4


The correct answer is c.

(c)

Money has long been recognized as the lingua franca of early modern drama.

(2004, Times Lit. Suppl. 1 Oct. 31/1)

a. 

1


b. 

2


c. 

3


d. 

4


The correct answer is d.

(d)

’Tis a kind of Lingua Franca, as I have heard the Merchants call it; a certain compound Language, made up of all Tongues that passes through the Levant.

(1680, Dryden, Kind Keeper I. i. 12)

Note:

‘The Levant’ is a term that used to refer to the eastern Mediterranean. It originally meant the Mediterranean east of Italy but was narrowed to roughly comprise present-day Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

a. 

1


b. 

2


c. 

3


d. 

4


The correct answer is a.

(Adapted from Oxford University Press, 2013)

Activity 12

Now look at these further examples, where the term is used in the plural form. Why do you think the three plurals are different?

  • These [native American languages] the missionaries have converted into Lingua Francas.

    (1857, Encycl. Brit. XIII. 195/1, cited in Oxford University Press, 2013a)

  • A very complex infrastructure of scores of vernacular languages as well as a number of regional lingue franche.

    (1971, J. Spencer Eng. Lang. W. Afr. 31, cited in Oxford University Press, 2013a)

  • Tribalism, linguae francae and the emerging states

    (Samarin, 1961).

Discussion

In these cases different writers have assigned different plural forms to the term ‘lingua franca’ depending on their understanding of which language the term ‘belongs to’ – although given the mixed origins of the original Lingua Franca this is not an easy thing to decide! In the first example, ‘Lingua Francas’, the author is treating the term as English, with a plural ‘-s’ added to the second element. In the second example, ‘lingue franche’, the author is treating the term as Italian, changing the endings of both elements in accordance with Italian grammatical and spelling rules. In the third example the author is treating the term as Latin, this time changing the endings of both elements in accordance with Latin grammatical and spelling rules.

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