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One language to rule them all. Or not.

The false promise of a lingua franca.

It’s easy to say that we focus more on the future than on the past. It’s not entirely true, of course, and focussing too much on the past can take us to some pretty grim places. The way we as a species tend to imagine the past as perfect is one of the reasons why the Make America Great Again campaign was so powerful, and is fuelling extremist groups across the world.

But sometimes we need to look back, before we move forward. For example, before we start talking about the pros and cons of a lingua franca, let’s take a few steps back.

Have you heard the term lingua franca before?

Do you understand what it means?

It is usually used as a common language, tongue, or (to keep with the Lord of the Rings title) a common speech. The Oxford English Dictionary definition is slightly different:

“A language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.”

I only recently found out that the term refers to a language in specific. As in: there was a language called Lingua Franca. As a history-geek, writing to people who are interested about languages, and in the hope that this will lay some foundations for the rest of the article, allow me to share that story.

The original Lingua Franca wasn’t the first lingua franca.

The Mediterranean has always been a fertile ground for civilizations. But unlike other equally prolific birthplaces (the Euphrates or Central America), occasions where one nation or empire took over the rest have been relatively rare. So the Mediterranean has been a region that was populated by different people, of different religions, with different traditions and speaking different tongues. Thanks to its many seafaring people it was also a region where trade was very, very strong.

That’s where the original Lingua Franca comes in. In the 14th century, the region had at least 25 different nations. To make trade easier, sailors and merchants developed a language of their own: it was a simplified form of Italian but borrowed words from the French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Greek and Occitan (a language spoken in Southern France and Monaco).

It’s strange, perhaps, that this language, Lingua Franca, wasn’t the first recorded case of a lingua franca. Aramaic, Latin, Koine Greek, for example, were all lingua francas of the region nearly a thousand years before traders started speaking Lingua Franca.* But hey, this is just how language works.

The advantages of a lingua franca.

Obviously, a lingua franca has advantages. That’s why it was made up.

It breaks geographical barriers: neighbouring people tend to understand each other. The Portuguese and the Spanish talk in Portuñol. The English talk to the French in a dialect called “Very Loud and Very Slow.” (In a hilarious attempt to follow the British lead, this American actually instructs travellers to France to speak as slow and loud as they can, and to speak like characters from a Jane Austen book).

So historically, neighbours have always found a way of trading, declaring war and suing for peace. The lingua franca comes in handy when two people who have had no previous contact with each other, their country or their culture’s for the first time.

Imagine a Swiss cheese merchant who is selling in Russia and is visited by a Chinese tourist. Or a Dutch backpacker trying to buy bus tickets after landing in Kazakhstan.

Having a common language gives you a common ground. It lets you say simple stuff and attempt or negotiate simple transactions.

Things like:

  • hello
  • goodbye
  • how much?
  • that’s way too much
  • you must be crazy
  • are you trying to make me sell my own mother?

A lingua franca isn’t just a language two people happen to speak: it’s a language that people of different countries and cultures can expect to walk into a meeting room and start talking business. So a lingua franca saves you a lot of time.

You could even argue that a lingua franca could prevent the outbreak of wars: especially the ones that originated from mistranslations.

To recap: Breaking barriers, enabling exchange, saving time, bringing about world peace.

Sounds great, right?


So should we choose a language and declare it the world’s official lingua franca?

Let’s not.

Here’s why:

First of all, we must not assume that having a common language will allow us to communicate effectively.

If you visit a souk in the Middle East, and ask about the price of a carpet, the traditional response is “for you it is free; it is a gift.” So if you don’t know better, you could end up picking up the carpet, saying thank you and walking away. But as Fuad Khuri of the American University of Beirut points out, these expressions are just basic courtesy and a sign of respect. “No buyer in the Middle East takes these words seriously, and insists on being given a price.”

In other words, you can understand the words, but not know what they mean.

Also, remember that speech is only a part of communication: body language and etiquette play a huge role in the success of intercultural talks. This is especially true in doing business. You can know how to say please, and thanks, but does that mean you’ll be polite?

Secondly: contrary to popular belief, a lingua franca would not help different cultures live alongside each other.

It’s always easier for people to imagine a universal language that they are familiar with. To most anglo-saxons (and many westerners), imagining a whole world speaking English (- not as a first language) sounds incredibly practical. But the rest of the world is not likely to see that future in the same light.

If you are a westerner, there’s an easy exercise you can do to understand this:

Close your eyes (-wait until you get to end of this sentence, you genius) and try to imagine the world with a different lingua franca: how do you imagine the world would be if the lingua franca was Russian, Chinese, or Arabic? Different people will react very differently to these exercises. But almost everybody will feel the strangeness in imagining at least one of these three worlds.

Why? Whatever you associate with Russia, China or the set of nations that speak Arabic, you start to imagine flowing across the world. You are realising that the culture behind the language tends to spread with the language itself.

So you see, a lingua franca is much more likely to create a cultural hegemony (i.e. drown out other cultures) than to set a stage for different cultures to flourish.

This would, of course, only be exacerbated if the establishment of a lingua franca then began to kill off the need or use of local languages. That’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight, but Wales is a good example of this. After having an official language imposed over local dialect, the language entered in sharp decline. In a single 100-years period,** the language dropped from 49.9% to 18.7%.

Lastly, with Russian and American tensions on a sharp return (to everywhere except the White House), with tensions in the Middle East still running strong, and powers in Asia trying to make themselves heard – I think we should all agree that we really don’t need to give the world something new to fight for. Something like which language would be the world’s official lingua franca.

*This might have happened because Lingua Franca was the first language specifically created with this purpose, and not just a language that happened to be used by many nations for practical reasons. But I’m not entirely sure that it was.

**1891-1991 according British censuses undertaken at the time