English vs. Chinese as lingua franca

Posted on Sun 08 May 2011 @ 5.40pm UTC

This blog is about English, but sometimes it is worthwhile to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

‘Why Mandarin won’t ever be our lingua franca’

That post on Sinoglot itself is pretty humdrum but nothing objectionable. It says:

  • Mandarin radio broadcasts now cancelled by the BBC
  • BBC keeps its Cantonese radio broadcasts
  • budget cuts at the BBC led to programme cancellation
  • keeping of Cantonese broadcasts seems to fly in the face of the idea that Mandarin is rising as the new global language

The juicy bits are actually in the flood of comments. They’re longish, but worth the stretch to read.

Whatever your own position might be on the topic, it’s really funny that it escapes some of the commenters that these guys are tussling over the Chinese language as a world language by conducting the discourse ENTIRELY IN ENGLISH.

Doesn’t that in itself say something about English as lingua franca?

You got these, you got lingua franca

Okay, perhaps it doesn’t quite fully support English as a lingua franca.

I’ve been following Sinoglot for quite some time now. Frankly speaking, compared with all the other linguistics- or language-related blogs that I also follow, the usual bunch of Sinoglot commenters are actually a bunch of hot potatoes — they don’t change their minds and they don’t change the subject. In fact, a few are expert trolls.

Which is a shame, mainly because some of those who are less prone to soloing techniques are actually quite eloquent writers who can really home in on issues.

* * *

What is ‘lingua franca’?

Lingua franca basically means any language commonly used by speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. In other words, it is a ‘working’ or ‘bridging’ language.

(Linguists, i.e. those in linguistics, who are pretty insane characters to begin with, defines lingua franca by the more pretentious term vehicular language. Just stick to ‘bridging language’ instead and stay normal. Derp.)

Bear in mind that ‘lingua franca’ in the original sense meant a trade language and not a literary medium (Harrak 1992: 140).

Bear in mind the picture above is even better.


1. Swedes and Japanese obviously speak different languages, so they would use some other language for communication. Usually, this communication or working language is English.

2. English is the vernacular language (i.e. native language in a single speaker community) in the United Kingdom, but it is the lingua franca of public and commercial life in the Philippines and Singapore.

3. IVECO is an Italian-French-German automaker. The official companywide working language is English, so English is IVECO’s corporate and operational lingua franca.

Origins of the term

Many people are wrong to think that ‘lingua franca’ is somehow connected to France or French, mainly because French was even more widely spoken than English and was the erstwhile language of international diplomacy.

The term ‘lingua franca’ was first recorded in 1678. Originally it referred to the Lingua Franca of the Mediterrannean (a.k.a. Sabir, ‘know’) used from the 11th to the 19th century there. Basically, Sabir was a pidgin language of 80% Italian plus broad vocabulary borrowings from Turkish, French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic.

When the term ‘lingua franca’ was first recorded, the franca part was the Italian word for Frankish. Here, Frankish itself was in its original Arabic sense: all Western Europeans were called Franks (or faranji in Arabic) from before the Crusades.

In other words, lingua franca originally meant the language of the Franks (i.e. pre-Crusade Western Europeans) —basically, an Italianate pidgin language.

For examples of the original lingua franca, visit:

A Glossary of Lingua Franca (5th edition, 2005)


A. Harrak, Contact Between cultures: West Asia and North Africa, Volume 1 (The Edwin Mullen Press, 1992), page 140.

© Learn English or Starve, 2011. Image via BackgroundPictures.org.

Posted in: Colour Section