Lingua Franca – why would a Norwegian, Australian and Chilean in Iceland automatically speak English to each other?

Language. That unifying and yet dividing factor. Unifying, because it is the one of the most natural and instinctive ways human beings use for communicating. Dividing, because there were and are as many different languages as human cultures existed. And the dual nature of language becomes immediately patent once we cross the borders of our original Sprachraum. 

Many books and travelogues have been filled with anecdotes about misunderstandings, some funny and other rather serious, occurred to adventurous ladies and gents in lands away from their own. Like the Brazilian woman in a restaurant in a Spanish-speaking capital, asking out loud to a waiter to bring her a spoon, mispronouncing the Spanish language in such a way, that it was evident to the amused concurrence that she was expressing her intention (in Spanish slang) to become intimate with the dedicated worker. Or, inversely, a Spanish-speaking lady in a German furniture store, who insisted in wanting to buy a sailor when she in fact needed a mattress.

These confusions, mostly quite humorous and harmless, are better understood when we remember that, although a substantial proportion of humans is fluent (at different levels) in a language different than its own mother tongue (learned from birth on), the fact is that the vast majority of languages are alien to us. Of the estimated 7358 languages in use today, you can be expected to handle 1 or 2 in addition to your own, but it does not by any means enable you to communicate with a substantially bigger number of people. Unless one of those languages you speak is a lingua franca.

Lingua franca is an Italian renaissance term to define a language used as a common tongue for understanding between different peoples, originally used to designate a variety of Italian language heavily mixed with Turkish, Greek, Spanish and Arabic words, that was used by merchants and diplomats travelling across the Mediterranean Sea. An earlier example of such a language is Latin, which was for centuries the lingua franca across the Roman Empire, from Scythia to Hibernia, and was later inherited by the roman catholic church and the territories under its cultural influence (namely, almost all of Europe and its colonies), and even used by scientist to communicate with each other until not too many centuries ago.

The factors that decide which language becomes a lingua franca are multiple and can be analysed from the perspective of multiple social sciences: politics, economy, religion, etc. In different times and periods different languages acquired the very pragmatic role of lingua franca. The aforementioned Latin is a classical example, as well as Ancient Greek was the language of arts and sciences before the downfall of the Hellenic world, and even before that Acadian played a similar role in regions such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. During its time of glory, Arab speaking scholars saved a considerable amount of the incredibly vast Hellenic knowledge in astronomy, geometry, poetry, physiology, mathematics, ethics and engineering, and it is thanks to this scholars that many works of the great Greeks thinkers came to us. Arab was the lingua franca of the Islamic Empire from around 650 to 1500. More recently, German had a predominant role in Sciences and Philosophy during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well French enjoyed a status of diplomatic language from the 17th until well into the 20th century.

Today in the western world this title goes to the English language. We may try to apply the same parameters that once were valid for Latin to try explain why English is nowadays the lingua franca. From an historical point of view, the extension of the former British Empire clarifies a good deal of the geographical extension of the English language, as it was the commercial and political language of territories as diverse as Gibraltar, India, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa and the Falkland Islands. Even in places that were not part of his Majesty’s dominions beyond the Seas, important number of British merchants and tradesmen were active in business, bringing with them bits of British culture, and of course, the language. An interesting example of this can be seen in the old port city of Valparaiso, in Chile, where traditional places still carry names like Atkinson’s, Brighton, Wanderers, with Anglican Churches in a predominant catholic country, and some streets in the old banking district very similar to areas in central London. Another possible important historical factor in the consolidation of English as a current world lingua franca is the outcome of Second World War and the rise of the United States as a major power in world politics.

But also the structure of the language may help to explain its wide usage. English is a very simple language, written in Latin alphabet, with very few diacritics in use. Grammatically, English does not present many complicated rules or structures, the single article “the” being used to denote all sexes and numbers, without changing endings in articles nor adjectives according to verbs. Actually many people complain that one of the difficult aspects of English is precisely this apparent lack of rules for some things that, in other languages, are strictly regulated, for example pronunciation. This relative simplicity allows a greater number of people to acquire an adequate fluency.

No matter what the real reasons for the rise of a lingua franca are, the fact of is that its existence does really simplify the lives of millions of people around the planet. How could otherwise be possible that a Norwegian fisherman, an Australian surfer and a couple of Chilean doctors enjoy some cold beers and good conversation while in northern Iceland?

Marcelo Espinoza Villacura is a doctor from Santiago, Chile, currently based in Germany and travelling around Europe.