Lingua Franca

von by Thorsten Roelcke Original aufOriginal in German, angezeigt aufdisplayed in English
PublishedErschienen: 2024-03-05
    Print Drucken E-mailE-mail XML MetadataXML Metadaten   

    This article addresses the transition from Latin to French as the dominant lingua franca in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. While this linguistic-historical observation is correct, it is inadequate both linguistically and historically. Thus, to fully comprehend and evaluate the evolution of Latin and French since the early modern period within their European and German-speaking contexts, several crucial linguistic and historical insights will be presented in the following overview.

    InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents

    Lingua franca as a linguistic concept

    The term lingua franca (Italian: “Frankish language”) dates back to the Middle Ages. In a narrower sense, it refers to a trade language that emerged in the and Mediterranean as a so-called pidgin language, where it was used as a trade language into the 19th century. Its lexical and grammatical foundations are primarily of Romance origin, with influences from other languages, especially Arabic. In a broader, overarching sense, the term lingua franca (also used in the plural as linguae francae or lingue franche) refers to a commercial language generally used in interactions between different linguistic communities in commerce and transportation, serving as a common linguistic basis Handelsrouten im späten Mittelalter IMG. In a more linguistically specific sense, widespread acceptance among non-native or non-first language speakers, along with an official status in various areas of communication in different countries, are additional limiting factors for classifying a language as a lingua franca.

    The concept of lingua franca is closely related to several other linguistic concepts.1 These include (internal and external) multilingualism as the use of several languages or linguistic varieties in a specific national, social or communicative context, and plurilingualism as the use of several languages or linguistic varieties by individual persons (e.g. French and Lëtzebuergesch in Luxembourg). In addition, the concept of pidgin or pidgin language includes the lexical and grammatical simplification of a language developed for specific communicative needs in trade and transportation. This language is learned by individuals as a foreign language. When pidgin evolves into a language of its own, not learned as a foreign language but acquired as a first language, a creole or creole language is created (examples can be found especially in former colonies, such as the ). A mixed language, on the other hand, is not a simplification and independent evolution of a specific language, but the true fusion of several languages into a new common language (an example is Jenisch, a mixture of German, Yiddish, Romani, and Rotwelsch).

    Consequently, the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean should be considered a true pidgin language, influenced by other languages, but not a mixed language in the true sense of the word. A lingua franca, in its broader definition, allows for the following distinctions: It can be an established single language, but also a pidgin or creole, and ultimately a mixed language; it can also be an artificial or planned language like Esperanto. Its primary function is to facilitate or mediate communication in regions where several different languages are spoken; for this reason it is sometimes called the (international) language of trade or science, or the language of diplomacy. Throughout their history, both Latin and French have served as such internationally recognized linguae francae in various communicative domains, each with its own unique characteristics.

    Linguae francae and global trade languages

    The emergence and use of linguae francae is a phenomenon that is not limited to recent history or to the European area alone. In antiquity, for example, Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin were used as supraregional languages of trade in the and the . Latin continued to be used in Europe during the Middle Ages; in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, Italian in the Mediterranean region and Low German in the and Seas developed into important trade languages. After the emergence of Islam, Arabic spread as a lingua franca and trading language from the Near East to and as well as to . There, and in the , languages from the Hindi and Malay regions increasingly assumed a similar function, while Chinese already had a longstanding importance here that has continued up to the present.

    Since the early modern period, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch have become important trade languages, especially in contact with , , and . Since the 17th century, French has become the international language of diplomacy, while German became the international language of science from the 18th century until the end of the First World War. In , German is still widely used as a trade language and is currently experiencing a resurgence in southern Eastern Europe. During the Cold War, Russian played a similar role in that region. By the end of the Second World War, English had established itself as the international lingua franca in politics, transportation, economy, and science, while French continued to serve a similar function in West and Frankophones Afrika IMG.

    In the light of these broad outlines, Latin and French must be considered as linguae francae that were in use for two millennia and two to three centuries, respectively. Their importance for the contemporary linguistic situation varies greatly.

    Latin as a lingua franca since the early Middle Ages

    Latin established itself as a lingua franca with the expansion of the and continued after the collapse of the in large parts of , , and Karte des west- und oströmischen Reiches im Jahre 395 IMG. However, only a very small part of all known Latin texts actually originates from antiquityLapis Niger Inschrift IMG; the vast majority of Latin literature (archival materials, documents, as well as literary, theological, and scientific writings) comes from the Middle Ages and modern times. In this context, Latin was not the lingua franca of all groups, but rather only of certain segments of the population and was used in specific spheres of communication.

    Until the 12th century, Latin was the language of the clergy in theology and the Church, as well as in the sciences practiced in the monasteries. At the same time, the use of one or more local languages in the sense of multilingualism in individual regions and plurilingualism of individuals was a widespread phenomenon among wide segments of the European population. The use of the lingua franca Latin thus remains the preserve of only a few privileged groups predominantly in the area of written language (with the exception of the liturgy, for example). In the 16th century, however, the status of Latin as the lingua franca of the Church began to suffer increasingly in the 16th century. Although the newly founded Protestant Church retained Latin as the language of theology, it introduced the use of individual vernacular languages for preaching. This is a measure that the Catholic Church would not take until centuries later. Latin is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church in the and throughout the world.

    Since the 17th century, Latin has also been losing ground in science, which has been gradually secularized since the late Middle Ages. This is due to at least two developments: First, various applied sciences and diverse technical disciplines using other, local languages became increasingly important. These include seafaring and trade, which were strongly influenced by Dutch; mining, which has vocabulary elements from German in many European languages; and banking, whose language is significantly influenced to this day by Italian. In all these cases, new national technical or scientific languages emerged alongside Latin, some of which themselves became new linguae francae. In the course of the second development, the Latin language also lost importance in its long-established scientific areas of communication. This shift began in the German-speaking world around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries in disciplines like philosophy and law and ended during the 19th century in mathematics and theology.

    Starting in the early modern period, Latin as a language of science was supplanted by various individual national languages – first in , and ; later in and , for example. Despite this European-wide process, it would be wrong to assume a complete loss of the Latin language. Apart from being used in the church, Latin is still the language of academic publications and of doctoral theses; in addition, many scientific nomenclatures are based on Latin (and also Greek) vocabulary (such as those used in zoology, botany Engraving of a pepper plant IMGor anatomy). Perhaps the clearest evidence to the contrary is that the educated vocabulary of many European languages contains numerous lexical elements – so-called loanwords – of Latin origin. Due to such Europeanisms, Latin continued to serve as a partially shared etymological and semantic foundation for many individual European languages, and thus remained as ubiquitous as ever, if not more so. Ultimately, the use of the Latin lexicon allows us to trace over two thousand years of European cultural and social history.2

    For many centuries, however, Latin was not only used in the Church, science, and education. It was historically also the language of diplomacy, typically conducted by the nobility. But even in this sphere, a transformation is seen in the early modern period. In the wake of widespread linguistic patriotism and growing skepticism towards Latin, which since the era of humanism had been strongly oriented towards antiquity (the Middle Ages witnessed numerous simplifications akin to pidginisation and partial creolization of Latin), individual national languages developed into supra-regional and widely used literary languages. These languages were drawn on not only in belles-lettres but also in scientific literature (at the end of the 15th century almost all writings appeared in Latin, at the end of the 17th century only about half; nevertheless, important scientific works continued to be authored and published in Latin well into the 19th century). With the rise of national literary languages, at least since the 17th century, Spanish and later French assumed this role (for more details, see the following section).

    Jan-Dirk Müller reaches the following conclusion in view of such developments in the Latin language from the Middle Ages to modern times:

    As a scientific language, it was superior to all individual languages, although limited to certain types of knowledge. As a technical language, it was at best complementary to a largely oral vernacular practice, supplementing it with written elements. As a vernacular, it was tied to particular groups and institutions. As a literary language, it was confined to a narrow educational elite.3

    French as a lingua franca since the early modern period

    By the beginning of the 17th century at the latest, various literary languages based on regional vernaculars had started to emerge in Europe. This process was supported by individual academies or societies – for example in Italy by the Accademia della Crusca, founded in in 1583Accademia della Crusca Bibliothek IMG, in Germany by the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (founded in 1617 in Weimar), and in Spain by the Real Academia EspañolaReal Academia Española (Madrid) IMG (founded in 1713 in ). In France, this step was taken in 1634 with the foundation of the Académie FrançaiseDarbietung des Dictionnaire de l'Académie IMG by Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) in . To this day, its strives to regulate the French language and occasionally grabs headlines with its linguistic purists' efforts to eliminate foreign-language elements.

    After the Thirty Years' War and the Peace of Westphalia (signed in 1648 at Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster IMG and ), France's political, economic, and cultural supremacy in Europe as a highly organized central state was assured for nearly two centuries. The French language accordingly gained international prominence4. French now established itself as the language of diplomacy, the langue diplomatique, and was spoken at numerous courts. It also found use as a lingua francaDictionnaire de la Langue Franque IMG in scholarly circles, but even more so among the educated classes throughout most of Europe. The 35-volume Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire des sciences, des arts et des métiersFrontispiz der Encyclopédie IMG, published between 1751 and 1780 by Denis Diderot (17131784) and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), serves as an eloquent witness to this development. Yet it should not be overlooked that in the 18th century large segments of the population in France did not in fact speak French, but rather other languages such as Basque, Spanish, Flemish or German. This continued up to the French Revolution and beyond.

    Thanks to France's rich history of conquest and colonization, the French language spread to North America (, LouisianaLa Salle claiming the mouth of the Mississippi for France, 17th century IMG), the , parts of Asia and Africa from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Although many of these countries and colonies were subsequently either lost (Canada to England), sold ( to ) or gained independence (especially in Africa) Afrikanische Länder in der Reihenfolge ihrer Unabhängigkeit 1950–1980 IMG, French has remained in use. It still often serves as a lingua franca and has undergone numerous changes over time in the form of pidginisation and creolization (as in the Caribbean).

    Nonetheless, the decline of French as a lingua franca on the European continent began at the turn of the 19th century. Even though the reorganization of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars was negotiated in French at the Congress of Vienna (181415), Alfred Baldamus (1856–1908), Europa nach dem Wiener Kongress 1815, kolorierte Zeichnung, Digitalisat: Massimo Macconi, in: F. W. Putzgers historischer Schul-Atlas zur alten, mittleren und neuen Geschichte, Bielefeld u.a. 1918, S. 104; Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons, use of French increasingly receded into the realms of education (including science) and diplomacy. The language continued to be relatively popular for some time, especially among the educated bourgeoisie of Eastern Europe and . As a lingua franca, however, French came under increasing pressure from English as early as the 19th century. During the early Industrial Revolution and the technological and scientific advances that went along with it, gained more and more influence in Europe and gradually established itself as a world power.

    By the end of the Second World War, the United States of America assumed this role, laying the foundations for the emergence of English as an international lingua franca. It achieved global importance not only in diplomacy, technology and science, but also in the economy and day-to-day life.5 Critical to this development was the collapse of the , which also led to the decline of Russian as a lingua franca in many countries of the so-called . Despite France’s intensive efforts, it largely failed to revive the use of French in this region, which is also experiencing a decline globally. Thus, while Latin continues to have a marked influence on European culture and language to this day, the “Versailles model” proved relatively short-lived, despite its significance. In the history of language and ideas, the French Enlightenment and French Revolution were finally more influential.

    Latin and French in German linguistic discourse in the 17th and 18th centuries

    The tension that existed in the 17th and 18th centuries between the use of Latin and French as linguae francae may be reconstructed through the linguistic discourse of the German-speaking world. During the Baroque and Enlightenment periods there was a strong desire to develop a national literary language.6 But this development was accompanied by an intense debate over the old European lingua franca, Latin7, and the new lingua franca, French8. At the end of the 17th century, two minor works in German by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716)[Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) IMG], whose major writings still appeared in Latin or French, represent a turning point.

    In his programmatic work Ermahnung an die Teutsche, ihren Verstand und Sprache besser zu üben, written in 1682 and first published in 1846, Leibniz elucidates no less than five reasons for the persistence of Latin in the German-speaking world. First of all, many contemporary scholars believed that scientific deliberation could only be conducted in Latin or Greek (or feared that opting for another language, such as German, would quickly expose them to accusations of lacking relevance). Leibniz points to other reasons for Latin’s endurance: the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War, which had devastated the German-speaking region culturally, linguistically, economically, and politically; the absence of a common capital for the German-speaking region as a political, economic, and cultural center; the division into a Roman Catholic and a Protestant-Evangelical church that was more than just confessional; and, finally, the limited support for the German language (which was modest despite the 17th-century German language societies).

    Leibniz eventually links these considerations to the demand that German be developed into a literary or scientific language. In his Unvorgreiffliche Gedancken, betreffend die Ausübung und Verbesserung der Teutschen Sprache Titelblatt Leibniz - Unvorgreiffliche Gedancken, betreffend die Ausübung und Verbesserung der Teutschen Sprache, written in 1697 and published twenty years later, he outlines three strategies for the cultivation of German: the use of seldom used words such as archaisms and regionalisms, the deliberate use of foreign words, and the introduction of new words through familiar methods of word formation. These demands were finally acted on by Christian von Wolff (1679–1754), a student of Leibniz, who developed a scientific terminology in the German language in numerous writings. Further milestones in this development are the seminal dictionaries, grammars, and style guides of Justus Georg Schottelius (1612–1676) in the 17th century, and those of Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) and Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) in the 18th century.

    In the context of Latin’s gradual displacement as the lingua franca and the introduction of German as the language of literature and science, the establishment of French as the lingua franca was, unsurprisingly, also a source of debate in German linguistic thought. Linguistic-cultural stereotypes were employed to an even greater extent than in the case of Latin. French was repeatedly ascribed qualities of sophistication and politeness in contrast to the alleged ponderousness of German. Conversely, the use of German was seen to ensure objectivity in contrast to the perceived bias and dishonesty of French.

    Ultimately, it becomes clear that the use of both linguae francae in the German-speaking world was not unbiased, even within the social circles in which they are used to varying degrees in academia, the church, administration, business, and diplomacy. Moreover, we see that the partial shift from Latin to French as the lingua franca, especially in the German-speaking world, stood in considerable tension with the emergence of other national literary languages.

    Latin, French, English – and Chinese?

    The Versailles period is largely characterized by the loss of Latin as the lingua franca and the ascendancy of French. However, this general observation needs qualification – not least with regard to English as the lingua franca of the present (see Table 1).

    Table 1: A comparison of the linguae francae Latin, French, and English.

    Lingua franca




    Time period (duration)

    Antiquity to 17th or 18th century 
    (over 2000 years)

    17th to 20th century
    (approx. 300 years)

    19th century to present

    First/foreign language

    Since the Middle Ages only as a foreign language

    First and foreign language

    First and foreign language


    Theology, science, administration, diplomacy

    (Applied) science, education, diplomacy

    All international communication

    Reason for establishment

    Overlapping communication between different linguistic regions in Europe

    Establishment of national literary languages under the supremacy of France

    Supremacy of Great Britain and the USA (politics, economy, etc.)

    Reason for loss

    Establishment of national literary languages (e.g. in Italy, France, Germany)

    Competition from English-speaking nations (Great Britain and the USA)

    Growing importance of China and India (politics, economy, etc.)?


    Theology, nomenclatures, Europeanisms

    (Partial) education and diplomacy

    (Currently) in all areas of life

    Latin has been used as a lingua franca for over 2000 years, French for about 300 years, and English for about a century and a half. Like English, French is not exclusively spoken and written as a foreign lingua franca, thus creating an imbalance in the verbal competence of its users and potentially leading to a linguistic hegemony among certain population segments. Latin, on the other hand, has been used exclusively as a foreign lingua franca since the Middle Ages (given its evolution, it is hardly appropriate to call it a "dead language").

    The reasons vary for the establishment of the three linguae francae. While Latin assumed the role of a linguistic umbrella over many regions of Europe in antiquity and maintained this role through the Middle Ages and into modern times, French was ultimately able to develop this function because of two developments – the establishment of numerous national literary languages in Europe9 and the rise of France as a political, economic, and cultural powerhouse after the Peace of Westphalia. English owes its relatively recent role as a lingua franca to the growing preeminence of English-speaking nations, first Great Britain and then the United States of America.10 It is worth noting that the global use of English extends to all areas of international communication, whereas Latin and French have always been reserved for certain, if not exactly the same, communication domains.

    The establishment of national literary languages may ultimately be seen as the reason for the decline of Latin as a lingua franca. Nevertheless, it has remained in certain areas of theology and science, and persisted as the semantic core of many Europeanisms in the vocabularies of different European languages. In contrast, French gave way to English as a lingua franca due to the growing dominance of English-speaking powers. As to the future of the now globally dominant English lingua franca, we can only speculate. At present about 400 million people use English as a first language and about 1.5 billion as a second language, and in some areas the international literature in English accounts for 90 to 100 percent. However, its importance could diminish in the coming decades in view of the political and economic growth of and and the influence of their languagesDie weltweit meistgesprochenen Sprachen in 2022 IMG.

    Thorsten Roelcke



    Berschin, Helmut / Felixberger, Josef / Goebl, Hans: Französische Sprachgeschichte, 2nd revised and supplemented edition, Hildesheim 2008.

    Crystal, David: English as a Global Language, 2nd ed., Cambridge 2003. URL: [2024-03-04]

    Galloway, Nicola / Rose, Heath: Introducing Global Englishes, Abingdon 2003. URL: [2024-03-04]

    Gardt, Andreas (ed.): Nation und Sprache: Die Diskussion ihres Verhältnisses in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Berlin et al. 2000. URL: [2024-03-04]

    Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm: Unvorgreifliche Gedanken, betreffend die Ausübung und Verbesserung der deutschen Sprache: Zwei Aufsätze, hg. v. Uwe Pörksen, Stuttgart 1983.

    Leonhardt, Jürgen: Latein: Geschichte einer Weltsprache, München 2009.

    Müller, Jan-Dirk: Latein als lingua franca in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit?, in: Konrad Ehlich (ed.): Mehrsprachige Wissenschaft – europäische Perspektiven: Eine Konferenz im europäischen Jahr der Sprachen, Munich 2002. URL: [2024-03-04]

    Polenz von, Peter: Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, 1st and 2nd revised and supplemented editions, Berlin 2000-2013, vol. 1–3. URL:,, [2024-03-04]

    Roelcke, Thorsten: Von Dezentralität über Partikularismus zu Pluralismus: Vielfalt als Konstante deutscher Sprachgeschichte, in: Der Sprachdienst 62, 3 (2018), pp. 111–118.

    Roelcke, Thorsten: Viel- und Mehrsprachigkeit, in: Csaba Földes / Thorsten Roelcke (eds.): Handbuch Mehrsprachigkeit, Berlin 2022 (Handbücher Sprachwissen 22), 3–27.

    Roelcke, Thorsten: Französisch in Barock und Aufklärung: Studien zum Sprachdenken in Deutschland des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt am Main 2014.

    Roelcke, Thorsten: Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, 2nd revised and updated edition, Munich 2018.

    Roelcke, Thorsten: Latein, Griechisch, Hebräisch: Studien und Dokumentationen zur deutschen Sprachreflexion in Barock und Aufklärung, Berlin et al. 2014.


    1. ^ Cf. Roelcke, Viel- und Mehrsprachigkeit 2022.
    2. ^ Cf. Leonhardt, Latin 2009.
    3. ^ Müller, Latein als lingua franca 2002, p. 14.
    4. ^ Cf. Berschin, Sprachgeschichte 2008.
    5. ^ Cf. e.g. Galloway, Global Englishes 2015.
    6. ^ Cf. von Polenz, Deutsche Sprachgeschichte 2000–2013.
    7. ^ Cf. Roelcke, Latein, Griechisch, Hebräisch 2014.
    8. ^ Cf. Roelcke, Französisch in Barock und Aufklärung 2014.
    9. ^ Gardt, Nation und Sprache 2000.
    10. ^ Cf. Crystal, Global Language 2003.

    Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag
    Dieser Text ist lizensiert unter This text is licensed under: CC by-nc-nd 3.0 Germany - Attribution, Noncommercial, No Derivative Works

    Übersetzt von:Translated by: Christopher Reid
    Fachherausgeber:Editor: Fridrun Rinner
    Redaktion:Copy Editor: Claudia Falk

    Eingeordnet unter:Filed under:



    : Lingua Franca, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), hg. vom Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2024-03-05. URL: URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20240118103014953-8691686-7 [JJJJ-MM-TT][YYYY-MM-DD].

    Bitte setzen Sie beim Zitieren dieses Beitrages hinter der URL-Angabe in Klammern das Datum Ihres letzten Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse ein. Beim Zitieren einer bestimmten Passage aus dem Beitrag bitte zusätzlich die Nummer des Textabschnitts angeben, z.B. 2 oder 1-4.

    When quoting this article please add the date of your last retrieval in brackets after the url. When quoting a certain passage from the article please also insert the corresponding number(s), for example 2 or 1-4.