An Overview of Lingua Franca and Pidgins

Lingua Franca
English is fast becoming the lingua franca for world commerce, especially due to its use on the Internet. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Throughout the course of geographic history, exploration and trade have caused various populations of people to come into contact with each other. Because these people were of different cultures and thus spoke different languages, communication was often difficult. Over the decades though, languages changed to reflect such interactions and groups sometimes developed lingua francas and pidgins.

A lingua franca is a language used by different populations to communicate when they do not share a common language. Generally, a lingua franca is a third language that is distinct from the native language of both parties involved in the communication. Sometimes as the language becomes more widespread, the native populations of an area will speak the lingua franca to each other as well.

A pidgin is a simplified version of one language that combines the vocabulary of a number of different languages. Pidgins are often just used between members of different cultures to communicate for things like trade. A pidgin is distinct from a lingua franca in that members of the same populations rarely use it to talk to one another. It is also important to note that because pidgins develop out of sporadic contact between people and is a simplification of different languages, pidgins generally have no native speakers.

The Lingua Franca

Arabic was another early lingua franca to develop because of the sheer size of the Islamic Empire dating back to the 7th Century. Arabic is the native language of the peoples from the Arabian Peninsula but its use spread with the empire as it expanded into China, India, parts of Central Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and parts of Southern Europe. The empire’s vast size exhibits the need for a common language. Arabic also served as the lingua franca of science and diplomacy in the 1200s because, at that time, more books were written in Arabic than any other language.

The use of Arabic as a lingua franca and others such as the romance languages and Chinese then continued worldwide throughout history as they made it easier for diverse groups of people in different countries to communicate. For example, until the 18th Century, Latin was the main lingua franca of European scholars as it allowed easy communication by people whose native languages included Italian and French.

During the Age of Exploration, lingua francas also played an enormous role in allowing European explorers to conduct trade and other important communications in the various countries in which they went. Portuguese was the lingua franca of diplomatic and trade relations in areas like coastal Africa, portions of India, and even Japan.

Other lingua francas developed during this time as well since international trade and communication was becoming an important component to nearly every area of the globe. Malay, for instance, was the lingua franca of Southeast Asia and was used by Arab and Chinese traders there prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Once they arrived, people like the Dutch and British used Malay to communicate with the native peoples.

Modern Lingua Francas

United Nations

The Pidgin

In order to create a pidgin, there needs to be regular contact between the people speaking different languages, there needs to be a reason for communication (such as trade), and there should be a lack of another easily accessible language between the two parties.

In addition, pidgins have a distinct set of characteristics that make them differ from the first and second languages spoken by the pidgin developers. For example, the words used in a pidgin language lack inflections on verbs and nouns and have no true articles or words like conjunctions. In addition, very few pidgins use complex sentences. Because of this, some people characterize pidgins as broken or chaotic languages.

Regardless of its seemingly chaotic nature though, several pidgins have survived for generations. These include the Nigerian Pidgin, the Cameroon Pidgin, Bislama from Vanuatu, and Tok Pisin, a pidgin from Papua, New Guinea. All of these pidgins are based mainly on English words.

From time to time, long-surviving pidgins also become more widely used for communication and expand into the general population. When this happens and the pidgin is used enough to become the primary language of an area, it is no longer considered a pidgin but is instead called a creole language. An example of a creole includes Swahili, which grew out of Arabic and Bantu languages in eastern Africa. The language Bazaar Malay, spoken in Malaysia is another example.

Lingua francas, pidgins, or creoles are significant to geography because each represents a long history of communication between various groups of people and is an important gauge of what was taking place at the time the language developed. Today, lingua francas especially but also pidgins represent an attempt to create universally understood languages in a world with growing global interactions.

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Briney, Amanda. "An Overview of Lingua Franca and Pidgins." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, December 6). An Overview of Lingua Franca and Pidgins. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "An Overview of Lingua Franca and Pidgins." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2023).