New Worlds: Multilingualism and Lingua Francas

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

There’s a joke which goes: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

It isn’t entirely a fair joke, of course. There are plenty of Americans who speak more than one language — but many of them are people for whom English is their second (or third, or fourth) tongue. People born in the U.S. to non-immigrant families often have no more than the tiny remnants of the Spanish or French or maybe German left over from their language requirement in school.

As a result, there’s an attitude here that treats multilingualism like a superpower. (Side-by-side with a racist tendency to excoriate anybody whose English isn’t perfect: never mind that we don’t speak more than ten badly-pronounced words of anyone else’s language; you must not only have the superpower, but exercise it flawlessly.) Being able to speak another tongue well enough to get by, much less fluently, seems like this enormous achievement, accessible only to geniuses.

But not only is multilingualism not a rare superpower, it’s actually pretty common. Not everywhere at every time, of course: if you spend your whole life in a village comfortably ensconced within the core of your linguistic territory, sans modern mass media to bring the outside world to your doorstep, then the most foreign speech you encounter might be a slightly different accent. But if you live near a border, or in a mixed community, or in a place that sees a lot of long-distance trade, or if you’re a scholar who needs to communicate with your peers in other places — in short, in a wide variety of circumstances that bring you into contact with diverse groups — then there’s both reason and opportunity for you to pick up another language.

That doesn’t necessarily mean full fluency, of course. You might have a highly specialized vocabulary tuned to your particular field of activity, and if you mostly conduct that work in writing, as scholars often do, then your pronunciation and listening comprehension might be abysmal. The more languages you have to learn to get by, the more limited your skill in each one is likely to be. (There are people who master half a dozen tongues or more, but they genuinely are exceptional. Also, I want their superpower.) The need for high degrees of multilingualism especially becomes a problem in trade, where you might travel along something like the Silk Road or receive merchants from a dozen different ports, bringing a truly dizzying array of languages to your ears.

One way to deal with this challenge is to use what sometimes gets called a lingua franca. That means “Frankish language,” though the original lingua franca (also called Sabir) was actually northern Italian in origin — it dates back to a time when all Western Europeans were called Franks. It was a pidgin language (about which more next week), but the base concept applies to a range of tongues from simplified pidgins to ossified literary languages: anything where people across a wide geographic area use the same language to communicate, some or all of them non-natively.

In the West, Latin served this purpose for a long time, thanks to its role in first the Roman Empire and later the Catholic Church. Clergymen had to learn Latin, and they were also the main body of literate individuals in Europe; as a result, not only religion but scholarship, diplomacy, and even some amount of trade were carried out in Latin — even though by then it wasn’t anybody’s mother tongue, having evolved into its descendant languages of Italian, French, Spanish, and so on. A similar situation prevails with Arabic: Classical Arabic persisted as a literary language across the Islamic world for centuries, and was updated in the last two hundred years to what linguists call Modern Standard Arabic, but in neither case is that what people speak at home. Instead they speak regional dialects of Arabic (more on that next week, too).

Empires frequently establish a lingua franca, because administering far-flung territories requires a common language. We see this with Mandarin Chinese, and also with Quechua, the language of the Incas: the Incan Empire was sufficiently well-organized that the Spaniards found it easier to simply take over the existing apparatus, language and all, rather than to force everyone to learn Spanish. As a result, Quechua is (I’m told) the only indigenous language of the New World commonly spoken by non-indigenous people today.

As the above examples suggest, the lingua franca can remain long after the empire that spread it has withdrawn. If you want to get around large swaths of Africa, the most useful tongue for you to learn is French; in many Indian tech firms, where employees come from all across the country, the shared language around the office is English. For all that it’s a reminder of British colonialism, it’s seen as a more neutral option than choosing one of the many Indian languages (such as Hindi) to be the standard.

In a globalized world like the one we live in, this kind of thing will continue to be necessary. Even a brief trip through Google Translate exposes the continuing limitations of machine translation: to choose an extremely memorable example from a Japanese Wikipedia page I recently tried it on (a description of the ceremony where samurai presented the severed heads of their enemies after a battle), “Equal total armor obi sul cavalry ceremonial ceremonial swordsman’s neck swordsman’s sword warrior’s cervical swordsman’s cervical sword it’s called ‘Nari, a junior person.'” Forget faster-than-light travel; the universal translator might be the most implausible concept in all of Star Trek.

Some people have attempted to deal with this problem by creating a universal language instead. The oldest conlang or constructed language that we know of was created by the twelfth-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. We don’t know why she created her lexicon of approximately a thousand words, but we do know that by the seventeenth century, John Wilkins was writing An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, a concerted attempt to design a mode of communication that would follow more coherent principles than natural language. But his attempt, like all of those who have followed in his footsteps, was riddled with oddities and biased or idiosyncratic decisions. Esperanto, the most well-known modern example of a supposedly “universal” conlang, is actually heavily European in its structure and vocabulary. It may well be impossibly to truly create a tongue that doesn’t favor one region and language family over others.

And even if we succeeded . . . would anyone speak it? Language isn’t simply a utilitarian thing, learned so we can conduct our business with a minimum of fuss. We use language for art; it expresses the subtleties of culture in a thousand ways. The very messiness and irrationality is part of its beauty. A top-down attempt first to create a more rational language, then to get people to adopt it, may be doomed to fail — short of some Esperanto or Kotava enthusiast managing to become a modern conqueror, bringing many states under their control, and then using their authority to force everyone to speak their conlang of choice.

Somebody’s probably written that novel. Possibly in Esperanto.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Multilingualism and Lingua Francas — 20 Comments

  1. There is a very interesting usage of multilingualism and a universal language. In the Dark and Middle Ages, Jewish international traders had a huge advantage. They might only know the native language of their country, not of those countries they traveled to – but they also knew Hebrew, and other Jews in other communities knew Hebrew too. Thus, they had no need for a translator – any place they came to that had a Jewish community, they could speak Hebrew with the community and have it be translated into the local language. The Radhanim, for example, are said to have had 4 separate trade routes from the Rhone Valley to China.

    • I didn’t know about them engaging in Chinese trade, but yeah! There’s a tiny silver lining to being a community in diaspora like that — those shared ties with your people give you a way to communicate regardless of country.

  2. Back in 1997, spouse and I stayed in one of the hotels clustered around Heathrow Airport before flying home. Every member of the staff was required to speak *AT LEAST* two languages. Management tended to cluster guest rooms together by language so the cleaning staff could communicate. Tables in the restaurant tended to be grouped together by language as well. Most common languages? Arabic and Japanese.

    I presume that in the last 25 years there has been a language drift toward Chinese.

    In Scandanavia all high school graduates have to prove proficiency in English as well as their native tongue. In Quebec, Canada all high school graduates have to prove profficient in both French and English. How long that proficiency lasts depends upon having to maintain the second language for their job.

    • I feel like I’ve stayed at a place like that, though now I can’t remember where! And if you’re a U.N. interpreter, you’re required to speak at least . . . I want to say three, but it might be four.

      When we were in Poland, we discovered an interesting split: the younger generation spoke Polish and English, but the older generation spoke Polish and Russian. History rearing its head in an odd place!

      • You see the same generational Russian/English subsequent language split in Cuba (for much the same reason).

        Slightly tangentially, Cuba is the only country I’ve ever visited where people automatically assume anybody speaking English must be Canadian…

    • Language rust doesn’t creep up. It mugs one in a conference room when one needs it most, especially when it’s a matter of dialect. (My silent amusement as a junior officer in the room listening to a “fluent” diplomat fumble Schweizdeutsch after a three-year posting to Bonn persists to this day.)

  3. Being a conlanger, i.e. someone who creates languages, I think the majority of conlangers these days do it for fun (or profit) and do not necessarily expect anyone to learn their conlang. There was even a survey on this earlier this year:

    But then, I hang out with artlangers and not auxlangers, so…

    (Artlanger – someone who views creating conlangs as an art or hobby, making individual conlangs the way other people might make paintings or sculptures or model train layouts. Many artlangers try to create naturalistic conlangs, that is ones that begin to approach the messiness of a natural language. Auxlanger – someone who is trying to create the next Esperanto. Some people are both! I conlang as a way to play with grammar and language structure.)

    • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that’s the main purpose of a conlang — just that it’s a road some people have taken to try and solve the communication problem. I’ll tweak my wording for the published version of the essay.

  4. Pingback: New Worlds: Multilingualism and Lingua Francas - Swan Tower

  5. In Science Fiction, I like the idea of a universal business language on a chip that gets updated at times. It would skip noun and verb variations (use adjectives to show gender and size and tense…

    • Ah, but do you even need gender? As for tense, well, not every sentence has an adjective . . . But this is stuff I’ll be talking about later this month!

      • We don’t need the words boy or girl, but sometimes it is useful to say male child or female child (in whatever language).

        If the language isn’t strictly controlled though, rules will be broken. At one time “girl” wasn’t gender specific. When we plug in language chips, they can be strictly controlled.

      • Grammatical gender is actually useful, but it doesn’t need to be based on male and female. An animate vs inanimate distinction is also “gender”, and much more useful than male vs female which can be relegated to vocabulary when someone want to make that distinction.

        The universal business language should definitely have evidentiality, though. 🙂

  6. I actually find Tolkien’s Common (Westron) implausible; it seems to have unlikely spatial and temporal spread. Spatial could maybe be handwaved, as a trade language back when Gondor was bigger; as it is, it’s far from obvious why Lake-town would speak Gondorian. But that just brings us to the temporal problem: Gondor and the Shire have been separated for 1000 years, yet Pippin speaks in Minas Tirith with no problem other having dropped the formal pronoun. And when did Treebeard learn it? I do appreciate Tolkien’s effort to justify why Orcs spoke it.

    The First Age doesn’t have this problem; Sindarin makes a perfectly fine lingua franca for Beleriand, and I’d argue it makes a better long term lingua franca than Westron does! Numenorean Sindarin would presumably diverge with human generations (if more slowly than normal humans), but there are enough elves around to keep ‘real’ Sindarin anchored for those who need it. And with Sindar lords coming to power in Lothlorien and Greenwood, a spread east of the language works too.

    For RPGs I’d be tempted to say Elvish, Draconic, or Celestial are a world-wide lingua franca. Everyone finds it useful to talk to the long-lived powerful beings!

      • Worse, a Common that might as well be “Humanish”!

        Oh yeah, magic, Comprehend Languages as a first level spell. I would be tempted to either throw it out entirely, or make explicit that you’re summoning some sort of translation spirit, which may have its own biases, and also gossip about what it learns.

        As for languages known, I’d probably say *everyone* (at least, PCs and important NPCs) knows their home language and whichever cosmic common I choose. Reasonably plausible, and allows for general communication but also semi-secret conversations or writings.

        Exalted is funny, because there Old Realm (language of the gods) would have worked perfectly as a Common, but it got pushed to an obscure priest-language in favor of High Realm or Rivertongue. Which may make sense if the Exalts didn’t *want* commoners talking to gods on their own…

    • Not every language diverges as quickly as English has. Greek was the common tongue of the lands that Alexander conquered for nearly a thousand years (until Arabic overtook it). It was even called “Common” (or “Koine”), which is likely where Tolkien got the name since he was quite certainly aware of that. (And D&D picked it up from Tolkien.)

      I do tend to think that Pippin may have had some language difficulties but Tolkien chose to gloss over them.

  7. In the Pacific NW, long before European contact, the Chinook were the dominant tribe in a complex trade alliance. Chinnok became the trade language that adopted words from every group of people they encountered, mixing and matching words to suit the situation. Russian, Spanish, French, and lastly English as needed.

    BUT being a trade language it had a limited vocabulary centered around business and landscape–to give directions. They had words for essential relationships to signify ownership, husband, father, brother, son, mother, sister, wife daughter.

    And then came the French fur traders and trappers who had difficulty finding a common word for beloved, or fiancee. The best way they found to describe such a relationship was “She is the fork to my knife. Incompomplete without her.” Thenforth to call a woman your fork was a sincere declaration of love. (wish I could find my ancient Chinook dictionary.)