You’ve probably heard the term lingua franca at some point in your life. Lingua franca is simply a “common language” used to facilitate trade, diplomacy, or other functions where people of different backgrounds come together for a common purpose.
The origin of the term can be traced to the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages, where merchants and sailors used a sort of pidgin/hybrid language to communicate with each other. The Latin term lingua franca began to be used at that time to describe this new hybrid language—lingua means “language” and franca means “Frank,” so translated literally it means “language of the Franks”—which was heavily influenced by French.
Not long after the Mediterranean pidgin fell out of use in the 1700s, French did in fact become the lingua franca of the Western world. Most of the world’s leaders and merchants knew at least some French, and most of America’s founding fathers were fluent in the language of love.
But lingua franca languages predate the term by several centuries.
The ancient Semitic language Akkadian was probably the first lingua franca of the world. Akkadian was the native language of Babylon, but by the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500-1200 BC) it was used by the nobles and merchants of the Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires as a common language. After Akkadian fell out of use in late antiquity, Aramaic took its place in the Near East. You might be surprised to know that Aramaic, not Hebrew, was Jesus’ first language!
After the Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin and ventured north into Europe and east to Mesopotamia, Latin became the lingua franca of their vast empire.
Today, English has become the lingua franca of the world, but just like our other examples, it too will fall out of favor at some point.
Perhaps we should prepare for the next lingua franca by learning Mandarin.