Extract from lecture on Lingua Franca -- Alan Corré

[Brief extract from A. Harrak, Contacts between Cultures -- West Asia and North Africa, volume 1. © 1992 The Edwin Mellen Press. p.140. The lecture was delivered at the 33rd International Congress of Asian and North African Studies, Toronto, 1990.]

... Lingua Franca, the "ur-pidgen" as it has been called, that chameleon-like, ill-defined entity" was a trade language consisting of elements of various languages, mostly Romance, which was used for centuries in the Mediterranean littoral. It disappeared in the nineteenth century, presumably because the growth of colonialism spread greatly the use of standard European languages, French in particular, in the area with which we are concerned. Diego de Haedo, writing in 1612, declares:

Este hablar franco es tan general, que no hay cosa (read: casa) do no se use... ("This Lingua Franca is so common that there is not a house where it is not in use [in Algiers].")

Much of the evidence about Lingua Franca is anecdotal. We are told that the Bey of Algiers knew LF well, but would only speak it to person of low rank, such as servants. He would apparently have considered it impolite to use it to persons of quality. We know that it had a very simple grammar, the verb normally occurring in the infinitive, and what will be of especial interest is the lack of agreement between nouns and adjectives. Haedo comments that this is because Moors and Turks do not know how to distinguish tenses, moods and similar items:

No saben ellos (moros y turcos) variar los modos tiempos y casos.
Olfert Dappert, in his monumental Umbstündliche und eigentliche Beschreibung von Afrika (Amsterdam, 1670) declares:
Die so genente Frankensprache welche man aus der Französischen Wãlschen und am allermeisten aus der Spanischen zusammen gefüget gebreuchlich...
The order which Dappert gives, namely mostly Spanish, followed by French and Italian is identical to what I have found in a new source.

The distinguished German linguist Hugo Schuchardt wrote a classic study of the Lingua Franca, which is available in English in a translation by Glenn Gilbert, and more recently Keith Whinnom published an article entitled The Context and Origins of Lingua Franca in Jürgen M. Meisel's Langues en contact, which summarizes more recent research.

Most of the evidences of the Lingua Franca are anecdotal, since it was a practical language for trade, not a literary medium. I believe, however, that I have found a source for much of its vocabulary. Judah Darmon and Solomon Zarqa are the authors of a book in Judeo-Arabic entitled $ay lamora' (henceforth SL), "A Gift to the One held in Awe." It is an encyclopedic commentary on the Pentateuch very much in the style of the much more famous monument of Judeo-Spanish popular literature, the me`am lo`ez by Jacob Culi. But it is not a translation of it. It is a very charming book, and was apparently deservedly popular. To my observation, literature of this sort is frequently used when North African Jews do not have access to a learned man to instruct them in traditional lore. They will sit together, and one of their members will read aloud passages from the book. In reading this book myself, I noticed that there was a great deal of Romance semantic material in the book, much of it distinctly archaic in character. I would propose that these loans are not separate loans from various Romance languages. Rather they are loans from the Lingua Franca, and certain characteristics of the LF have been retained, despite the Judeo-Arabic environment. In SL the loaned verb is in the infinitive. We may recall the anecdotal recollections of LF ...non venir encora il journo de sancto de vos autros... ("Hasn't your holiday come yet?") However, Arabic verbal suffixes and prefixes may be added, giving us forms like cordaru and  icordar (The Spanish cordar with the Arabic past third person plural suffix, and future third person singular prefix, respectively.) The reflexive pasearse, which may be reconstructed in LF as nos pasear occurs in SL as the fifth measure, which has an appropriately reflexive nature tpasearna - "we took a walk." More significant is the question of adjective agreement, or in the case of LF, lack of agreement.

Let me put it this way. Imagine an individual who speaks both Spanish and English well is speaking English, and tending, as may occur with such persons to have an overlap of Spanish into English. He or she might say: "he is very guapo" or "she is very bonita." I would suggest that there would always be grammatical agreement in such cases, even if the word is not semantically gender specific as are guapo and bonita. The Spanish speaker speaking English would not, I would suggest, say: "she is very bueno" even though English does not require grammatical agreement, and it is in fact rather sexist to suggest that the masculine is the basic form. It is clear however that in LF only the masculine form of the adjective was in use, and that is carried over into SL, even though a parallel Arabic form is agreeing in gender. My feeling is a form like xadima mezyana fino ("a good, fine serving-girl") is conclusive in showing that the origin of the Romance element in SL is LF rather than the separate Romance languages. My point is that a man who says xadima mezyana fino is not borrowing from Spanish. He is borrowing from a language in which  fino is invariant. And that language is Lingua Franca. In the event, this is not surprising. Schuchardt declares that Oran is the very heart of LF land, and the Jews, active as they were in Mediterranean trade, were frequent users of LF. What I am suggesting is, that SL is like a geologic formation containing fossils abundantly. If we dig these fossils out of their paydirt, we have an idea of the semantic material of LF. True, it may be admixed with genuine bits of French, Spanish and Italian. But LF was like that. It did not have a standard form. It was a living, changing entity, which, as Schuchardt suggests, would be different in different zones. The city of Oran, from where comes SL, is right between the zone where Spanish predominated, and the zone where French predominated...

Go back to Introduction
Go back to the link to this lecture in the Introduction
Go back to Title Page
Alan D. Corré