What is a Lingua Franca? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Lost in Translation
  • 0:30 Lingua Franca
  • 0:51 Origins of the Term
  • 2:17 Latin & Spanish
  • 2:53 English & Esperanto
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, learn what a lingua franca is and the history behind the term. Also, with several examples from the past and the present, you can easily identify many other lingua francas.

Lost in Translation

Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who doesn't speak your language? If so, you understand how completely frustrating it can be. Did you manage to communicate? Did you require someone to translate for you? Maybe you found you both spoke the same second-language, a language learned after learning your native language. Maybe you could create some kind of other language using bits of both languages. This is the kind of situation where a lingua franca comes in handy.

Lingua Franca

Lingua franca is a term for a language used in business or other forms of contact between people of different cultures with different native languages. In many cases, this means two communicating parties use either one of their native languages, a third language which is not the native language of either party, or a language formed by bits of others to aid communication. Lingua francas also go by names like trade languages, contact languages, or global languages. However, the term itself comes from a real-world example.

Origins of the Term

The term lingua francas originally meant ''Frankish tongue'' in 17th century Italian. It was spoken in Mediterranean ports, which were active centers of trade and contact between peoples from many countries who spoke very different languages. The Frankish tongue was made up from parts of the Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic languages. Research indicates this language of commerce developed in an area called the Levant, referring to specific coastal regions along the Mediterranean in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, as well as more generally to include the coastal areas along the entire eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Calling this language ''Frankish tongue'' may come from the Arab tradition of calling most Europeans Franks. Spoken from the 11th century to the 19th century, the actual name of this language was Sabir, a term that's related to the words for ''to know'' in related Romance languages. While commercial and contact languages have likely developed throughout human history, Sabir operated on such a large scale and for so long that it could have qualified as its own, independent language except that no one used Sabir as their native language.

Many languages have operated as lingua francas throughout history. Some were a commerce language created by blending multiple languages, and others were an established language without any changes.

Latin & Spanish

Latin was one of the most widespread of the early lingua francas. It spread throughout the Mediterranean and surrounding parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia with the expansion of the Roman Empire. Official documents, trade, and negotiations were all conducted in Latin.

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