Lingua Franca

Le premier post

So you try to learn a little more each day. Well, you should be. For too many years I assumed that lingua franca was a French expression. Furthermore, my definition of what the term meant was not entirely accurate. I casually used the expression in the sense that communication was being conducted using one common mother tongue language. For example, if I travelled to Peru and met a local who spoke English then our lingua franca was English. Alas, ce n’est pas.

Lingua franca is the common language that people use to communicate with when they have different native languages. So if that Peruvian I met spoke French (as do I, a little) then French would be our lingua franca. It would never be English nor Spanish. French is quite appropriate here as I always assumed that the phrase lingua franca was originally from French. Again, ce n’est pas. It’s Italian and the literal translation is Frankish Language. So who spoke Frankish and why did I think lingua franca was French?

Frankish was the ancient West Germanic language of the Franks and contributed to the vocabulary of what we now know as modern French. Well, that helps, doesn’t it? Sure, it puts a tick in my head as to why I assumed the expression to be French. The Franks started from rather humble beginnings as a tribe that had, by the third century, settled between the Lower Rhine and Ems River (an area which is now Belgium and the Netherlands). After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Franks seized the chance to grab land, advanced westwards and were eventually to rule much of what we today know as France. They never got hold of Brittany though. Those slippery Bretons were a tough breed. Of Celtic lineage, they had links back to Devon and Cornwall in Southern England. I guess the thought of those unruly Saxon Brits marauding across the English Channel ensured that Brittany remained outside of the Frankish empire.

By the end of the ninth century, inter-family squabbles ultimately lead to the downfall of the Frankish empire. Their last great leader, Charlemagne, although not able to leave successful ruling heirs, did manage to leave some rather longer-lasting legacies: the establishment of catholic Christianity as the Western Europe religion with the Pope as its leader; the creation of the Holy Roman Empire; and the foundations for the Kingdom of France. France deriving its name from the Franks. The Germans still refer to France as Frankreich.

If you have a hankering to learn some more about the Franks and European history of the time then the following two lessons should be worth your time investment (they were of mine).

These days, with the Franks long gone but the French very much still with us, the word Frank no longer refers to a contemporary tribe of people. In the English language, it has spawned a couple of uses which tenuously link back to the Franks. It is also used as a fairly common boy’s name.

The most common usage of frank is as an adjective to mean open, honest and direct in speech or writing, involving delicate matters and at the risk of causing bad or hurt feelings. For example:

They held frank discussions and both parties left the meeting looking stern.

After a couple of sessions of frank dialogue, the celebrity couple remained married.

The prior word use derives ultimately from the Latin francus meaning ‘free’ as only Franks had full freedom in Frankish Gaul. I guess that is one prize of invading and taking over a country. So freedom of expression at the cost of potential hurt to its receiver is maybe the defining legacy of the Franks today. We no longer have the Holy Roman Empire. Catholic Christianity though still strong in western Europe is perhaps not as powerful as it was initially left by the Franks. We do still have France and the Pope though.

Frank can also be used as a verb. When official marks are placed on letters or parcels in place of stamps to confirm that postage has been paid, it is referred to as franking. That official mark is the noun use of the word: a frank. The use of frank in this way is going back to frank’s original meaning of being free: in this case, being free of obligation.

Perhaps the most famous use of the word frank was in the Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind:

Most people, and especially around the time of the film’s original release, were focussed on the word damn. In those simpler times, this was quite a profanity to be heard from the Technicolor™ silver screen. It certainly had the studio executives and the cinema censors scratching their heads as to whether the word would ultimately find the floor or the screen. It remained and was the water-cooler moment of the film. With the passing of time, the moulding and changing of language and its impact on society, I would hazard that nowadays Rhett’s frankly is by far and away the more profane word of his parting shot to Scarlett. (In passing I’ve never seen the film. Apparently, it’s a classic so I should sit down to it one day. I’m also thinking it has not stood the test of time against our changing social mores. Furthermore, the film is based on a book of the same name written by Margaret Mitchell. It was her one and only book published during her lifetime.)

Frank is probably most encountered these days as a boys name. It started to gain popularity from the early 1900s and reached its peak in the early 1960s. The name is mainly used in north-western Europe (UK, Germany, France) and through some obvious migrations to North America, Australia and New Zealand. Local language derivations of the name are plentiful and include Franck (French), Franco (Italian and Spanish), Frans (Finnish) and Palani (Hawaiian). Famous Franks include Frank Sinatra (however, he was actually christened Francis), Frank Lloyd Wright (and here too for my Japanese audience) and Frank Oz (one of his finest creations in full fettle). Frank Smith, a psycho-linguist, apparently gave us the following quote which is pertinent:

You can't see other people's point of view when you have only one language.

And also:

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.

It also is found as a surname such as Robert Frank and Anne Frank.

A frank is also an American shortening of the word frankfurter. So on to the intermission!

So while you watch the foregoing I hope you can understand how I got to thinking that lingua franca was French? The Franks giving us France. Franca sounds a little French as does lingua (by-the-by, language in French is langue). Everything points to France and French and given the history of the Franks, it’s an extremely apt expression to be branded on them. But, as I now have investigated the word to its extreme and understand more than I ever really needed to know about the Franks, it makes perfect sense that the phrase originates from Italian.

As the Franks tried to unite a disparate group of different language speaking tribes and groups through a common tongue so did the seafaring Brits of the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Through their ‘sun never setting’ empire they spread the use of English as a lingua franca to each corner of the globe where it remains a globally spoken and understood language. Spain was just as seafaring. As were the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. So why isn’t French, or Spanish or Portuguese or Dutch used in a similar vein? French remained until relatively recently as the global language of diplomacy (there’s a little bit of French on each UK passport and not because of any EU Directive). The French also take great pride in their language and try to maintain its integrity amongst the francophone community. Spanish and Portuguese remain very strong in South America. Spanish has filtered into North America through migration. Dutch remained in Indonesia for a period but as the Dutch moved out of the area English replaced it as the lingua franca. A topic for a future post methinks.

Crystal ball time and will English reign supreme without any further need for lingua franca? Empire building is probably no longer a likelihood. The European Community is a good example of how language is viewed in a modern bloc. Rather than forcing a unified language upon the bloc, many languages are made official within the bloc. However, some of those languages are a little more official than others. I’ll stick my neck out and say that I very much doubt humans will ever have a single language. As much as humans like to congregate we do enjoy our uniqueness and language is one way of remaining unique.

China, India and the United States of America are currently our three most populous countries. They have a combined population of around 3.15 billion. Just under 30% of those people speak Mandarin as their first language. English first language speakers come in at 7.5%. Hindi comes in at more than twice that. So on the pure number of speakers, it looks like Mandarin should be the language of the future? Perhaps, though by 2100 the UN has China’s population at 1.065b down nearly 400 million people from today’s levels. India in 2100 is projected to be the most populous with Nigeria coming in at third (India at 1.447b and Nigeria at 733m).

Though English is currently the third-largest global native tongue language (Mandarin leads Spanish), if you include speakers of English as a second language then English becomes the world-leading language. India uses English as a lingua franca within its country today. English is the national language of Nigeria. My money is on English remaining the top of the pile for as good a global language as we have. So much is currently conducted in English that it will prove very hard for another language to shine through - especially based upon populations and where English is currently spoken either primarily or secondarily. Also, consider that the Internet is predominantly an English language network. Over a quarter of current internet users have English as a language and nearly 60% of the top 10 million websites are in English.

Whilst having an understanding of Mandarin may help in the next few years, it’s probably not a good long term investment as the global language of the future. Lingua franca will remain a viable method of communication and learning a second language (or many more) is a good endeavour to undertake. Not only does it open doors to other countries it also stimulates the grey cells of the brain to remain engaged, healthy and strong. What is probably even more useful to anyone seeking to understand how other people operate is to be more multicultural in outlook and understanding. Sure, a second language/lingua franca helps but if you have no idea how what makes the other speaker tick then it’s not going to get you very far into the house through those doors.