I have an interest in lingua francas (or linguas franca, or linguae francae, or whatever). The phrase means, literally, “language of the Franks.” The explanation is that from an Arabic perspective, all Europeans were “Franks.” In the first half of the Second Millenium, there was a specific language form called Lingua Franca, a Romance-based pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean area. The term has come to be generalized to refer to any language used for communication among a group of people who do not have a mother tongue in common.
Recently on this very blog the matter was discussed of whether one can properly translate from a vernacular into a lingua franca or vice versa. Specifically, the issue seemed to be whether one can translate from a vernacular like ancient Hebrew into a lingua franca like English without compromising the accuracy and integrity of the foreign text. The implication seemed to be that translation of this sort was not really possible. I’ll tip you off to where I am going with this by saying that I don’t see any reason why this sort of thing ought to be problematic. Of course, you have to recognize that whatever languages you are dealing with—vernaculars or linguafrancas or whatever—there is always going to be some compromise in translation. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Italian aphorism, “the translator is a traitor” or “translation is treason.” So it depends on what your purpose is. If the purpose in translating is to examine and appreciate every nuance of the source text, that is basically just impossible in translation. You would have to study the source text itself, and even then, if we are dealing with something as remote to us today as the Hebrew scriptures, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully recover all the information in, and surrounding, the text. But if our purpose is to treat the source text as a meaningful message to be shared—something that people need to hear, to bring a text to them that would be inaccessible to them because of linguistic and cultural differences—then translation certainly is possible, whether we are talking about vernaculars or lingua francas. What would be the status of the church today if the scriptures were not translated, because people thought it was not appropriate to do so? The history of Christianity is a history of translation. Some other time we could draw out some quotes from famous people like Jerome, Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale about the value of translating the Bible, or more contemporary figures like J.B. Phillips, Andrew Walls or Lamin Sanneh.
I will first explain my qualifications to discuss topics like lingua francas and translation into them. I’m a PhD linguist (1983) with a specialty in creole languages. When we’re discussing lingua francas, we are dealing in the area of contact languages and language contact (two slightly different things). The one language that I speak fluently other than English is St. Lucian French Creole. I speak some French and Spanish, too, and Gullah, but I speak French Creole better than I speak French. I regularly participate in conferences on pidgin and creole languages and have published some of these papers, on the topics of the grammar or the sociolinguistics of creole languages, and other papers I have presented are available in sort of a semi-published form. One of the topics I have dealt with is the translation of the Bible or other literature into creole languages, and I have presented papers like that to groups of creolists, groups of Bible translation scholars, and once as an invited lecture at the National Museum of Language. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will add that I am pretty well familiar with the basic literature on language contact, and personally know pretty much all the major players in that area, and they know me as colleague.
So let’s start by defining our terms. A vernacular language is a language that people grow up speaking as a mother tongue and as the language they are most comfortable with. It’s not a tricky thing to explain. Whether or not something is a vernacular language doesn’t depend on its internal make-up, but rather what use it is put to. English—or rather a specific dialect of Engilsh—is my vernacular. What is a lingua franca? Whenever I hear the term “lingua franca,” I automatically mentally paraphrase it as “trade language.” That is, it is a language that is not the mother tongue of a set of interlocutors, but which they use as a medium of communication. Again, the term “lingua franca” does not describe what a language is like, internally, but rather the use to which it is put.
Here is an important point: A particular language can be both a vernacular and a lingua franca. In fact, that is quite often the case. For me, English is my vernacular, but for other people, English might be a language that they use to communicate with, but it is not their mother tongue. Here’s an example. Once when I was in East Germany (you can tell this was a while back), giving a paper at an International Congress of Linguists, I went on a bus tour to Dresden at the end of the conference and sat next to a woman from Japan. She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, but I figured out that she was a French professor back in Japan, and I speak some French. So we carried on a sort of conversation in French. For many people, French is their vernacular, but in this case, when I was talking with a Japanese woman in Germany, French was our lingua franca.
I pulled a standard reference book off my shelf entitled Pidgins and Creoles (1989, Cambridge University Press), written by my friend John Holm, and found this definition on p. 607: “Lingua Franca is the earliest known European-based pidgin: the term lingua franca (uncapitalized, often with the English plural form lingua francas) has come to mean any vehicular language used as a means of communication between two or more groups with no other language in common.” Terms like vernacular and lingua franca do not describe types of languages, but rather uses to which languages are put. English is a vernacular to many, many people, especially in North America, the U.K., and Australia, but it is also becoming increasingly a lingua franca for scholarly work, business, politics, etc.
There are two main types of lingua francas: some are languages that are used as vernaculars in other contexts, like the English and French examples I gave, and then there are pidgins, which by definition are nobody’s mother tongue. A pidgin is a language form that is not fully developed as a normal language and has no native speakers but is used as a medium of communication between groups that do not have a language in common. Note that there are some languages that have “pidgin” in the name but which are no longer pidgins, but rather have become creoles, in that over time they have become mother tongues and the language of a community. Examples are Hawaiian Pidgin or New Guinea Pidgin English. A creole language is a vernacular language that has its origin as a pidgin.
When I say there are two main kinds of lingua francas—languages that also serve as vernaculars in other contexts, on the one hand, and pidgins, on the other—I should acknowledge that there are a few exceptions that I don’t think are relevant here. An exception would be artificially created languages like Esperanto, which are not pidgins, and are not, as far as I know, anyone’s mother tongue. A creole language, however, despite its origin as a pidgin, is by definition a vernacular. As I said, creoles are my professional specialty, including translation into creoles.
I’m afraid I’m being too pedantic here, but one point is that vernacular and lingua francas are not two different types of languages, but rather two different uses to which language types are put. Any language can be a vernacular as long as it has native speakers, but it could at the same time be a lingua franca in other contexts, for other sets of people. A pidgin is a particular kind of lingua franca that does not have native speakers. Pidgins, as a specific type of lingua franca, are typologically distinctive. I could teach a graduate level course on this stuff, or give a lecture, or, in this case, try to boil it down to a short, comprehesible blog post.
There is nothing about a lingua franca that would disqualify it from being a language that you could legitimately translate into or out of. However, I will leave that discussion for part two, to follow.