An Introduction to Lingua Franca - Roberto Rossetti


A Romance pidgin, called Lingua Franca, appeared in the Holy Land around the 13th Century. Piracy and naval warfare brought it in the 16th century to the Barbary Coast, where it came to be used in official records, on account of trade contacts. By the 19th century, European settlers and the opening of regular schools threatened this once widespread informal jargon.

As an instinctive adaptation of a basic Italian/Spanish lexicon to a simplified Arabic syntax, Lingua Franca does occasionally appear even today: specific matchings and examples are given from the current Palestinian Pidgin, Dodecanese Creole, and the 'Petit Nègre' of Eritrea.


  1. Earliest Records
  2. The Dawning of North Africa
  3. Consular Excerpts (1582-1675)
  4. Travellers' quotes on Barbary (1670-1731)
  5. Other Evidence of Population Transfers across the Mediterranean
  6. The Genoese settlement at Tabarka
  7. The Opening of the Port of Leghorn
  8. Travellers' Quotes in the early 19th Century
  9. Lingua Franca Evolution
  10. The Opening of the first Italian Schools in North Africa
  11. The Picture in the early 20th Century, and linguistic 'neighbors'
  12. Lingua Franca Relics in present day colloquial Discourse
  13. Etymological Clues
  14. A personal Note
  15. Greek Islands' Spillover
  16. Present day Situation in the Near East
  17. Colloquial Sample of Palestinian  pidgin and Dodecanese  creole
  18. Official Translations
  19. Sentence Constructions
  20. The Case of Eritrea
  21. Glossary

Earliest Records

Most of the pidgin and creole languages around the world are of English or French origin; true, there are Portuguese ones in Africa and South East Asia, and even a couple of Spanish and Dutch origin in South America. But there is only one along the Mediterranean sea that is linked to Italian: it is usually referred to as 'Lingua Franca' by the early and most knowledgeable references.

It might have originated at the times of the Crusades in the Levant (probably at Acre, where a Pisan, Venetian and Genoese mediaeval quarter huddle side-by-side around the harbour.) The earliest examples are to be found in medical prescription recipes, to be followed by accounting, and later by clothing: to this day in the Middle East, words such as 'fatùra'(= bill of expenses), 'msura' (= misura, size), 'bruva' (= prova, fitting trial), 'bandalòn'(= pantaloni, trousers), 'sgarbìne' (= scarpine, ladies' shoes), or 'modelo' are of daily use. There was a parallel transfer from Arabic to Italian of words such as 'ricamo' (= needlework, from the Arabic raqm, figure), 'cifra' (=figure, from sfr, zero), or 'ragazza' (= girl, from raqqàs, waitress at the inn). In Genoa we might still hear complaints about 'il terribile vento garbino' (= the dastardly westerly wind), while the 'bora' northerly wind (from the Greek 'vorra') blows over Trieste.

The Dawning of North Africa

Later examples of a very similar language sprout up in North Africa from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. In Egypt it was known as 'Lisàn al Ifràng' (language of the Europeans) later abbreviated to 'Ferenghi'; it must be reported that Egypt always had a sizeable community of Italian ancestry, which nevertheless was raised in proper Italian schools and did frown upon the use of so coarse an idiom; but it was inevitably adopted to some extent in cross cultural contacts with other groups. Elsewhere in North Africa it went by the vague name of 'Sabìr' and later 'Aljamìa' (same as in the Middle East it took the adjective of 'ajnabi,' or foreign.) Indeed the western variant was heavily spiced with Spanish flavour, even mixed with Haketia, as spoken by the Jews expelled from Spain, but still the Italian element could be noticed and understood, as this was never a cultivated language, but served well its immediate purpose.

The prevalence of Italian over the French and Spanish elements in the Lingua Franca can be partly explained by the fact that most of the enslaved sailors in Barbary came from southern Italy, their uncertain scribblings could be picked up along the courtyard walls at the Bardo palace: 'Io Natale Sorrentino dalla Torre del Greco cascato Schiavo alli 10 Luglio 1786 il detto fu Guardaletto di Hamud' (quoted by Riggio, here below; notice the characteristic expression 'tumbled slave.') To be fair, an equal number of North African slaves were sold in Malta to Italian cities, spreading further Lingua Franca.

Consular Excerpts

The European communities in Tunis and Tripoli were headed each by a consul, who acted also as a notary, and it was not only in the Italian consulate, but in those of France, England, Denmark or the Low Countries that bookkeeping was usually held in an Italian of some sort: most of the contracts, receipts, insurance reports, Patenti di Corsa (privateering licences) and other legal papers had to be drafted in the only language that was equally spread among merchants and sailors, notaries and shipowners, renegades and captives. Typical expressions include 'Guardian Basci o delli schiavi,' 'Bassà,' 'Sciausc,' 'Tunesina' (instead of Tunisina) 'lo mattò' (he masted it), 'bigiutterie', and the usual obsession with berets and caps consignments. Maone had nothing to do with Genoese merchant guilds, but mean Port Mahon, on the island of Menorca.

The documents include some colorful signatures: 'osta morato fermo 1607' (signed Osta Muràd); 'io Assan Genovese afermo' (I, Hassan from Genoa, state); 'Io Solima, Basia di Tunisi afermo' (I, Suleiman, Pasha of Tunis, state); 'Agostin bianco alis [sic] morato raixi genovesz' (Agostin Bianco, a.k.a. Captain Muràd from Genoa); 'Regeb Reneghato de lo Sig. Mamed Bey, che lo Sig. Dios guarde de malle' (Regeb, renegade of Muhammad Bey, may the Lord God protect him); 'Io Amato Napolitano' (I, Ahmed from Naples); 'Iou Regeb Caito de la diona ho rescevoto ly mille e sey cente equaranto nove che son escritto a qua supra e non altro' (I, Regeb, the Head of Customs have received in 1649 what is written only according to this receipt.) A longer document, dated 14 September 1637, and published by Grandchamp, stars 'Io Isouf Dei, Capitan di li Milissia di questo Regno di Tunis aio fatto franco et libro Claudio Eymo et Pedro Bremond di Marsilla per haver ben servitto.' From the same year and source a French renegade, Osman de Arcos, takes the trouble to correct by hand a document written in Italian. The first diplomatic treaty between France and Tunis of 1621 (now in the Marseilles Chamber of Commerce) was couched in Italian, and the anonymous Histoire Chronologique du Royaume de Tripoly in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris mentions that around 1675 passports were usually written in Italian 'as the Deys have always to deal with Christian Princes and European merchants...they keep a Christian secretary, who deals with correspondence in Italian' and goes on to say that European consuls generally adopt the Italian language 'it being resonably spread in Barbary.' It is odd to notice what insults were directed at that time against their usually Christian opponents: 'Cane Giudeo, perché non mainar' = Jewish dog, why not lower (the sail.) Another habitual curse, 'senza fede' (faithless) is reported again 250 years later barely distorted (sanza fida) allowance being made for the Semitic distortion of vowels (by Rossi, see below.)

Eighteenth Century Travellers' Quotes on Barbary

Dr. John Covel, when visiting the ruins at Carthage in 1670, mentioned in his diary his guide, speaking 'broken Italian and Lingua Franca, which is bastard Spanish with words of most trading nations.' In 1788 Venture de Paradis, in describing the court of the Bey of Algiers, mentions a Christian slave, whose curious title was Capitano Prove, and had the duty to chant aloud twice each morning from the gallery 'Bonjorno Effendi.'

Other than official correspondence, which was confined to standard definitions, the esprit de langage can be gleaned from short literary quotes in the reports of Redemptorist and Mercedarian friars, assisting the captives. Abbot Diego de Haedo, a nephew and namesake of the Archbishop of Palermo, in his History of Algiers, published at Valladolid in 1632 gives some examples of their arguments: 'Dio grande, no pigliar fantasia. Mundo così così. Si estar scripto in testa andar, andar. Si no, acà murir.'

Another report from a mission to Algiers in 1670 gives some of the most common words: Yorno, matina and manchar (day, morning and to eat.)

One of the most fitting and precise accounts of the Lingua Franca was given by Charles Etienne de la Condamine, after a visit to Algiers around 1731:

Le Mauresque est la langue du pays. Les Turcs parlent Turc entre eux; mais la langue dont se servent les uns et les autres pour se faire entendre aux Européens est ce qu'on appelle la Langue Franque. On dit qu'on la parle dans tout le Levant et dans tous les ports de la Méditerranée, avec cette différence que celle qui est en usage du côté est plus en avant vers le Levant est un mélange de provençal, de grec vulgaire, de latin et surtout d'italien corrompu, au lieu que celle qu'on parle à Alger, et qu'on appelle aussi Petit Mauresque, tient beaucoup plus de l'espagnol que les Maures on retenu de leur séjour en Espagne... On ne sert presque pas d'infinitifs [sic!] dans ce jargon, qui s'entend aisément quand on est accoutumé à l'accent ... c'est celui des divertissements turcs du Bourgeois Gentilhomme, et de l'Europe Galante.'

The Turkish Ceremony episode of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme had the incidental music and text by Lully, who, coming from Florence, was more attuned to Lingua Franca antics.

Population Transfers across the Mediterranean

Presently the only Spanish towns in North Africa are Ceuta (since 1580) and Melilla (since 1496), but Spain did control much of that coast, including Oran (1509-1792), Algiers (1509-29), and the Tunisian shores (1535-74), then Larache (1610-89), and Mamora (1614-81) [presently Kenitra, and Port Lyautey from 1913-1958] some of the garrisons being composed of contingents from the Spanish Kingdom of Naples. In 1530 Malta was ceded by Emperor Charles V to the Order of Saint John, which had lost Rhodes and adjoining territories in 1522, on condition that it would keep the fortress of Tripoli, occupied in 1510, and it was defended at great expense until 1551. The Order of Saint John statutes specified that French was to be the language of the central administration, but for its navy the paramount language was Italian. In today's Italy such family names can be spotted as: Algeri, Barbaresco, Bengasi, Brega, Cairo, Cartago, Cirenei, Derna, Egitto, Libeccio, Marocco, Melilla, Moresco, Nador, Orano, Tangerini, Tagiuri, Tamietto, Tripoli, Tunisi. Corresponding family names connected to the Levant include Aleppo, Bagdalli, Berutto, Caiffa, Caiazzo, Cipro, Damasco, Dervisci, Di Persia, Edessa, Efrati, Gazes, Levante, Libani, Loturco, Orfali, Ottomaniello, Palestini, Persiano, Rodi, Salonicchio, Samarra, Saraceno, Simi, Sinai, Siriano, Smirne, Soria, Stambouli, Stampalia, Terrasanta, Turcato.

The Genoese Settlement at Tabarka

A fishing community from Genoa settled in La Calle since the 15th century to exploit the tuna and anchovy fisheries. In 1555 the Lomellini banking family with a loan to the Spanish Crown won a coral exploitation concession at Tabarka, that continued until 1741. Most of the settlers had been moved in 1737 to Carloforte on the island of San Pietro off the Sardinian coast, but in 1798 the entire population (about 1000) were again made slaves by the Tunisians, who in 1815 made another 125 slaves on the nearby Sant'Antioco Island: the raiders were kept in check by the cruises of Lieut. Decatur in 1804, Commodore Decatur in 1815, and Lord Exmouth in 1816, who obtained the liberation of slaves from the Kingdoms of Naples, Sardinia and from the Ionian Islands: the distinctive 'Tabarchino' Genoese accent can be still heard today at San Pietro.

Giovanni Pagni was dispatched as official surgeon to the Court of Tunis in 1667-68 and most painters and architects were Italian, perhaps on account of the proximity; an engineer, Tomaso Farina, had a hand at the Manouba palace, and his name is underlined by the works of the outer moorings of the Tunis bay at Porto Farina (Dhar el Melah.)

The Opening of the Port of Leghorn

Besides, most of the trade contacts were effected primarily by Italian merchants, notable Jews from Leghorn, called 'Gurni', who often kept their correspondence with the warehouses at Venice or Marseilles in this sort of approximate Italian.

Leghorn had been plotted as a free port by B. Buontalenti on the remains of the port of Pisa on the birthday of Francis I dei Medici 'all'ora sedicesima e 2/3 del 28 Marzo 1577 secondo l'astrolabi e l'oriuoli.' Its charter of 1609, the 'Costituzione Livornina,' begins:

A tutti voi, mercanti di quisivoglia nazione, Levantini, Ponentini, Spagniuoli, Portoghesi, Greci, Tedeschi et Italiani, Hebrei, Turchi, Mori, Armeni, Persiani et altri, salute.
making it a perfect cradle for the recast Lingua Franca. The most valuable Italian philatelic cover on record is an envelope of 7 January 1861 from Leghorn to Alexandria in Egypt, franked with provisional Government stamps (the temporary administration that preceded annexation to Italy.) It might well have contained a letter in Lingua Franca.

The Jewish population of Tunis was split between merchants from Livorno and local craftsmen, who yearned for a Tuscan passport; but Article 2 of the treaty negotiated by Ferdinand III with Tunis on 11 October 1822 read:

E quelli Ebrei che vi verranno in avvenire non saranno considerati e riguardati come sudditi Toscani che venendovi di passaggio con il loro passaporto; ma manifestando nell'atto del loro arrivo in Tunis l'intenzione di fissarvisi e di commerciare per del tempo, o se dopo due anni di dimora vi si stabilissero e vi fissassero domicilio colla loro famiglia, allora saranno annoverati nel numero degl'altri Ebrei così detti Gurana, e di sudditi Tunisini.

19th Century Travellers' Quotes

Reports from the 19th century indicate little change in the language. Doctor Louis Frank, who attended the Bey of Tunis from 1806 to 1815, noted in his book Tunis published in Paris in 1862, that the expatriate community of that town was mainly composed of people from Genoa, Corsica, Naples and Rome; among the most common turns of phrase was the expression 'Star la usanza' (this is the way.) Once he heard a Moslem beggar pleading: 'Donar mi meschino la carità d'una carrouba per l'amor della Santissima Trinità e dello gran Bonaparte.'

Don Felice Caronni, a priest from Milan, while aboard a Napolitan bark returning from Palermo was captured by Barbary corsairs and brought to Tunis; in his account published in Milan in 1805 and sold to collect funds for the redemption of fellow prisoners, he gives quite a few such sentences: 'buono, questo star buono' (this be good) 'perchè non mangiare' (why not eat?) 'cosa stare questo' (what be this?) 'cosa avere detto Papasso?' (what say the priest?) 'stare usanza di mare' (this be sea custom) 'tu dire questo per iscapolare' (you say this to avoid [a chore] -- then suddenly:) 'Buona presa!' (good catch) and, in good Italian, 'Padre, avete freddo?' (Are you cold, Father?)

Filippo Pananti, a writer from Florence, was captured by Algerian pirates off the Sardinian coast, and wrote in 1817 his Adventures and Observations on the Barbary Coast, which were also translated into English and German, and published as Relation d'un Séjour à Alger in Paris in 1820. In it he observes: 'Italian is understood throughout the Barbary coast,' and in the Florence edition (page 339) he goes on:

the ministers, the merchants and the Jews all use a mixture of Italian, Spanish and African that is called Lingua Franca, all in infinitives and without prepositions, but through which aliens and nationals easily understand each other.

Turning to Tripoli, in the mid 18th century a report of the Chancellor to the English consul, informed him that there were a Khaznadàr Grande and a Khaznadàr piccolo ( a greater and lesser treasurer) and, when going to the Castello for the Ramadàn and Bayràm greetings 'the consul kisses the Basha, wishes Buona Festa, Vostra Eccellenza, and places himself in a chair as also the vice-consul.' A Spanish adventurer passing from Tripoli in 1805, commented that many languages were spoken there, and the Pasha, Yusùf Karamanli, spoke good Italian.

Blaquière's Letters from the Mediterranean inform us in turn that Hamat (Ahmed) who had been Yusùf Pasha's ambassador to Spain, knew Italian particularly well. George Francis Lyon, who was briefly in Tripoli to start his voyage to Socna, Sebha and Mourzuk, reported in his narrative of 1818 that some sort of bad Italian was well know by the town inhabitants, greatly facilitating expatriates' transactions.

Yusùf Pasha, who had loosened for a while the ties with Constantinople (just as the Bey of Tunis, or Muhammad Ali in Egypt) was surrounded by southern Italians who enriched his vocabulary; the archives of the Sardinian consulate at Tripoli bore evidence of this in quoting, often in direct speech, his talking.

Consul Parodi had had to leave in 1824 due to a health problem, and the Pasha missed his services, commenting to one in his retinue:

tuo console nuovo star buono, non cercare me né buono né male, inscialla tutti li consoli star come isso
which is a Sicilian inflection. But on the arrival of his substitute, the Pasha took offence at not receiving the customary gift, protesting repeatedly
Mi conoscer ti aver bona cabesa, pirò re Sardinia mandar sempri Consul sensa rigal? Ti star consul o no star? mi non entender, così aver fatto Re Sardinia per Ugo, i tratato con Sardinia no dicir questo
Cristiane star furbi, Barodi star morto, i Re Sardinia mandar ti Tripoli birché tener bona cabesa i procura no pagar rigal.
That being the time of gunboat diplomacy, Consul Parodi returned the following year escorted by a naval expedition that compelled the Pasha to present his excuses.

Lingua Franca Evolution

The Dictionnaire de la Langue Franque ou de Petit Mauresque, suivi de quelques dialogues familiers et d'un vocabulaire des mots arabes les plus usuels published at Marseilles in 1830 gives some short sentences, such as 'Que hablar in città?' (literally: what is the talk in the town?) or 'mi poudir servir per ti per qualke cosa' (what can I do for you.) Its purpose had been to provide the expeditionary corps with basic communication samples as could be collected in that harbour: in fact the Lingua Franca did not venture beyond a tightly knit urban context of pirates and traders confined to the port vicinity, and was of little use out in the country, where only Arabic or Berber dialects would be understood by the population.

Still, in 1852 the newspaper L'Algerien was bringing a measure of the gradual assertion of French ways in the Lingua Franca: 'Moi meskine, toi donnar sordi' (I am poor, give me alms) and 'Toi biber l'agua' (you may drink from this water.)

The Opening of the first Italian Schools

After the 1848 revolutions many Italian patriots sought refuge in Tunis; among them were Giuseppe Morpurgo and Pompeo Sulema, from Leghorn (even Garibaldi had called at Tunis in 1834 to advise Bey Hussein on the administration of a modern navy; he came back in 1849 and was hosted at Palazzo Gnecco, Rue de l'Ancienne Douane.) Among the exiled was Gustavo Modena, who earned his living by teaching Italian to the Tunisian gentry 'smerciando participi' (peddling participles, in his own inventive expression.) Sulema opened a regular school that was soon patronized by the Jewish minority, both local and from Leghorn, as it was not a confessional one, while the other Italians preferred to follow the Rotonda and Visconti school. Another Italian school was opened in 1845 by Morpurgo, Luisada and Salone, joined later by Sulema, and was closed in 1863. Trading houses of the regency in this period were mostly Italian (Bensasson, Fiorentino, Gutierrez, Moreno, Peluffo, Sonnino.) On 4 January 1874 the Italian community, headed by the Consul, oppened an elementary school that was partly funded by the state: on opening it had 73 pupils, half of them from the Jewish community. The secretary of state of the Bey, today we would say the prime minister of the time, was often an Italian. In 1859 the trade convention between the Bey of Tunis and the consul general of Austria, Giovanni Gasparo Merlato, had been written in Italian; that is no wonder, since in the Austrian Empire as a federal entity, the official language for the Navy and most of the trade was Italian. At the turn of the century there was also an Italian newspaper in Tunis, called L'Unione, which clamored for annexation of the territory; but France was gradually taking hold and, after 1902, foreign lawyers (most of whom were Italian nationals) could not practice unless they had a French degree, and the licence from the Italian High School in Tunis was not adequate to gain access to a French university. In 1924 the Bulletin du Comité de l'Afrique Francaise, under the title 'Les écoles italiennes, foyer d'irredentisme national' accused them d'entraver la francisation du pays, which was probably true, yet the Prince of Naples and Giovanni Meli Italian Schools mustered classes of 100 pupils.

The Picture in the early 20th Century, and linguistic 'neighbors'

As late as 1912, Marcel Cohen was noting that various Lingua Franca words were still used, though exclusively along the coast. For much of the above historical information I am indebted to the profound knowledge and rich library of Ettore Rossi. At the time he was writing, the Lingua Franca of Tripoli had given in almost completely to standard Italian, propounded by new immigrants flanked by a Franciscan mission and a state school. The forlorn remnants of a waning discourse were barely discernible in the harbour vernacular: scìma (= cima, lime), bonazzi (= bonaccia, lull), fortuna (= fortunale, storm.) Or at the market: 'falsu' meant cheat and 'tocca la mano' stood for 'Gimme five,' or as the French Pègre would say: 'Tope-la'; even ingrained military ranks as Yuzbashi and Mulàzim had been superseded by 'Gubtàn' and 'Tninti.'

Alan D. Corré (whose excellent research on Lingua Franca is available here on the web, and can be conveniently consulted with its clear dictionary and abundant bibliography) comes to the conclusion that Judeo-Arabic is a dying language, and a limited survival of Judeo-Spanish is unlikely.

Ladino, or Hakètia (apart from the use of Rabbinic characters) was reasonably like the language of Cervantes; where it diverged dramatically was in the pronunciation, so as to evade comprehension to an untrained ear. Among the few who still practice it, was the family of the Chilean Ambassador to the Vatican at the time of the pontifical mediation in the Beagle Channel dispute. An instance I was given by a common acquaintance in Chile was 'Where is the water?' (Adonde está el agua aquí) which came to sound 'ande talahuaki; and makes you think first of Euskera: to settle its new empire, the Spanish crown had decided to set aside each part for a specific region, thus Texas was reserved to the Canary Islands, Cuba to Catalonia (we may remember José Martí or Xavier Cugat) and Basque family names, but only names, are very common in Chile for this reason. At the other end of the spectrum, Judeo-Arabic reminds the listener of colloquial Maltese, when in the middle of an intricately wrought argument in a Tunisian-like dialect an occasional alien word as 'bazikament' is injected every now and then.

Now both of them as we have seen, were the nearest neighbours to the Lingua Franca of old; its syntax was basically Arabic, and the vocabulary roughly 60% Italian, 20% Spanish, with Catalan, French, Ladino and Turkish words thrown in. As a Pidgin it had several geographic variants that blended gradually into each other so as to preclude a strict dividing line: at least a Levantine, an Egyptian, and one, possibly two, North African strains could be detected. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that it was a spoken language of illiterate people, though it had illustrious albeit short literary quotes ('Qui voler fiora di bella giardina' -- Mozart libretto.) From the above it is apparent that it was always limited to simple words, often insults or commands, at best short greeting formulas, and was unlikely ever to produce longer periods of prose, or poetry.

I travelled extensively (mostly in the Middle East) as did my parents before me, and the funny thing is that I found the Lingua Franca, or what looks like a very close relative, alive and well in the small Levantine communities stretching from Cyprus to Jerusalem. The same happens in Tunisia. (Instances kindly provided by Dr. Mouaily al Mohsen, a Tunisian scholar and legal interpreter based in Milan, include 'meshkito' ('forged,' from 'mischiato'); daily paid workers are hired 'b'ljornata' and simple minded folks are called 'qawalshpata' probably from an old Neapolitan playing card) and I know for a fact that a creole occurs in the Aegean Islands.

Lingua Franca Relics in present day colloquial Discourse

Of the few authors tackling Lingua Franca, only Sarah Arenson declares it to be still spoken, but this is generally discounted as probably referring to convenience jargons that arise ad hoc, and not to the historic Lingua Franca. Actually the first Lingua Franca, born during the Crusades had probably no direct link to the second one, which spanned the Lepanto to Gallipoli period. Its emergence was again primed by political contingencies which adapted an Arabic grammar to a Romance vocabulary that are still the same. True, we are nowadays unlikely to hear exotic tales about a visit to the Palazzo of the Gran Signor to witness a sentence of Bastinado (Falanjca) in front of the Serraglio, but basic catch-phrases as 'gué fatu' (what's up) 'Iu sdai qua' (I'll be waiting here) or indeed 'Vadu dal Bosta' (= Go from [I am going to get] the mail -- an example that is close to what Rossi reported in Libya 70 years ago) are often to be heard now all over the Middle East, coming straight out from a distant past. Tomato, for instance, is a loan from Nahuatl, shared by most western languages. Yet in Italy, where it grows successfully, it received on first being introduced, the pedantic name of pomodoro (golden apple) and, sure enough (before the civil war at least) the Suq el Frenji vendors in Beirut were extolling the virtues of their banadora, slata (lettuce) and bortoqal (oranges; in Rome too some 200 years ago oranges were called Portogalli as they were mainly imported from there.) A meat plate is 'rosto' and vinegar becomes 'negro'; candles are called shàm'a in Arabic, but a lantern is often called al kandìl, and sometimes laterna.

Etymological Clues

As what is left of the historical Lingua Franca is little more than a lexicon, we are faced with the same problem of Etruscan, though a list of words can indeed get across more than their stark meaning. Some words, coming from French presumably denote their newer entry in the vocabulary (achetir, aigre, armuriero, artimon, avalar, bagatela, baguette, brossa, briquet, bureau). Others underline its merchant origin (banqueroute, créancier, or cambiale = bill of exchange.) Coquiare and cortello (spoon and knife) imply southern Italian origins because they are dialect words. The origin of the other ones (gandufa = plague, luta = napkin, or nuba = garrison) is more difficult to explain. Translation is not always straightforward: conciare is to fashion, but cunciar is to do; massar is to kill, but masseria is a farm; meter is to put, but metir is to hoist a flag; oschio is eye, but ochia is goose. Ove means both 'where' and 'eggs,' piano as in modern Italian, both 'slowly' and 'storey.' Shaky orthography and implied meanings added to the confusion: castali (chestnut), dimiterio (bedroom), ferencia (difference), ginazio (knee), labrizou (jail), lepero (hare), nazo (nose), mele (not apples, but honey), mentone (not chin but sheep), paia (not pair but straw), peci (not pitch but fishes), sbendut (bandit).The orthography of 'much' oscillated between multo and mumucho, that of 'wife' from moukere to mugera to mugeros. 'Quattordici' (fourteen) became quartodici. Other common words got a slightly different meaning: 'chiodo' from nail to screw, 'cornudo' from cuckold to dog, 'fantasia' from fancy to offence, 'fugar' (from affogare) from drown to strangle, 'intestato' from addressed to obdurate, 'involtar' from turn to envelop, 'logo' from place to military post, 'mescolar' from mix to forge, 'noia' from boredom to anxiety, 'rame' from copper to leather, 'riclamar' from claim to implore, 'rimportar' from reintroduce to take back, 'scaliere' from step to threshold, 'schifa' from boat to vestibule, 'spachiar' from dispatch to settle, 'suono' from sound to sleep, 'tassa' from tax to cup, 'tempo' from time to season, 'toucar' from touch to kill, ' vernir' from paint to turn;; 'salame' meant just salting, and 'roba' usually clothing. At times the French or Spanish origin of the words explained the difference: carta (letter), cativo (prisoner, locheza (foolish news), lodar (to hire), lunetta (telescope), malsinar (to slander: from the Hebrew malshin, slanderer), mareia (mirror), papas (crawfish), or sangre (family). As the words follow the Arabic grammar, in a Judeo-Arabic context at least, the plural of falta (mistake) is alfaltàt, and the plural of tabla (plank) is attawàl. Words of Arabic origin are comparatively few: adelfa (oleander), bezèf (much), cadi (judge) yshrab (to drink), cheytan (devil), fùnduk (fondaco, hostel), Nicsarane (Christian), taba (seal), usìf (black slave); some are from local dialects, like bernùs (cloak), maboul (crazy), or rubie (spring); occasional ones come from Turkish: bakshìsh (tip), yatagàn (scimitar) or yoldàch (janissary).

Most Pidgin languages have a reduced vocabulary of 700 to 1500 words, and Lingua Franca has over 2000, gathered in the 1830 Dictionary, in the works of Hugo Schuchardt and Marcel Cohen, and occasional quotes from other books, such as Shay Lamora, a Judeo-Arabic trouvaille by Professor Alan Corré, which was written in Oran by Solomon Zarqa and Judah Darmon, and published by the House of Belforte at Leghorn in 1864. Some of the Lingua Franca grammar peculiarities are obvious to an Italian ear: for example, the difference between 'in a month' and 'dobbo una meze' (after one month) is blatant in an Italian context, whereas it is much less offensive in English.

A personal Note

I devoted so much space to earlier relics only to compare them better to present day findings: the samples that are given below, of Palestinian Pidgin and Dodecanese Creole, are from 1970 and 1978 respectively. There were several other people speaking like this, especially in Lebanon and Cyprus, where I was for a longer time, and from the West Bank of the Jordan, or as far as Smyrna, but their limited conversation being always the same, I noted down only such examples that would permit to record texts of an adequate length. Whenever their users did not have an immediate connection with Italy, they used to congregate around the harbour: the surrounding quarter in Beirut is still named 'Karantina.'

My first brushing with this language must have been around 1957 at Athens. My family moved to Beirut in 1962 and at first I was mildly intrigued by this funny way of speaking; it was only ten years later while attending University in Rome that I discovered by chance its glorious past.

Greek Islands Spillover

Around 1971 I met in Dubai a foreign correspondent of a Rome daily newspaper; he had what sounded as a very Italian name, but in introducing himself, he went on 'Io sono Greco dall'isola di Scio' (I am a Greek from the island of Chios.) Once again the English translation does not do justice to the sentence construction, which in standard Italian sounds peculiar. A case in point, as a journalist he had to resist the expressions that would come naturally to his mouth, but his British-born mother, whom I met subsequently in Cyprus, was under so such constraint, and recalled humorously how gentlemen in tail-coat at a diplomatic reception, were referred to as 'scazzaculìn' (that can be roughly translated as 'ass-sweeper'.)

As for the spelling Scio, this was the consecrated form in the 18th century official records, as were Bella Pola (Velopoula), Cerigo e Cerigotto (Kithira and Antikìthera), Millo (Milo), Morea (Peloponneso), Negroponte (Eubea) or Santo Strati (Aghios Eustratos.) Most of the Northern Sporades did belong to Genoa, Chios in particular from 1304 to 1566. Contemporary chronicles refer to Lepanto as the battle of Curzolari, from a nearby achipelago, and the islands of Spetse and Simi were usually called Settepozzi (Seven Wells) and delle Simie (of the Apes): Benedetto Dei, a correspondent of Leonardo da Vinci, wrote in his chronicle, kept at the Royal Library in Munich: 'Sono stato per la costiera della Barberia cioè a Sione e Orano e Archudia, la dove si vendono le scimie e le bertuccie e arreconsi a manzi legate per i piedi di Dreto chome i polli' = I was on the Barbary coast ... where they sell apes and monkeys and tie them up like chickens.)

One of the peculiarities that Lingua Franca shares with Ternateño for example is what can be termed the 'Alamo factor', or the ability to survive on its own after weak cultural links were interrupted; a latter day, turn of the century Lingua Franca derivation in East Africa, that will be dealt with at the end of this paper, concentrated on engineering and technical words, in connection with the railway construction. As can be seen from this short feature, bibliographic references tend to be old, but this is an original subject which never enjoyed much popularity; two modern works devoted to it are H. & R. Kahane and A. Tietze, The Lingua Franca in the Levant: Turkish Nautical Terms of Italian and Greek Origin (Urbana 1958) and most notably Professor John Holm's volume of 1989 on Pidgin and Creoles.

Present Day Situation in the Near East

There is a linguistic continuum between the Lingua Franca used as a pidgin and as a creole. In the first case, it arises spontaneously as a means of communication between expatriate aliens and local people who are not proficient in standard Italian, but were superficially exposed to it through the radio or TV, at church or school (Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, Bethlehem): the contents are plainly intelligible to anybody with a minimum knowledge of formal Italian, but the typical idiomatic expressions, stress and intonation are lost to the occasional listener. Despite the relative isolation and time lapse between instances, the language shows a remarkable level of consistency. As a creole it is lesser used, basically by a few people of Italian origin from the Aegean Islands, who, as with many dialects, think of it as mainstream Italian. It is only a spoken language, but the rare cases of transcription (short quotes) usually follow the French or Spanish orthography; as a creole it is more elaborate, but basic grammar rules for the pidgin medium include:

Colloquial Samples of Palestinian Pidgin and Dodecanese Creole

Two short samples of Pidgin first, and Creole second, together with a literal translation and intended meaning, including some of the typical phrasing will attempt to clarify the picture.
Du visdo li belatsu dal Amiro? Dendro duddu sce: li filio dal Amiro, il molio dal Amiro. Anghe scyulày futàna ... ghè kìamatu questu? (Hai visto il palazzo dell'Emiro? Dentro c'è tutto: i figli dell'Emiro, la moglie dell'Emiro, c'è anche una fontana ... come si chiama?)

You seen the palace from the Amir? Inside all there is: the sons from the Amir, the wife of the Amir. Also you have wench ... what called this? (Did you see the Emir's residence? Everything is in there: the Emir's children, his wives. There is even a fountain [in the garden] ... how do you call it?)

Vedi ghè adèzzo uscirò. Sdo pensando per kuello el novo menistro dalli Esteri ghè gòllabboravamo dalla vekkia ambasciata. Ghè, el kuale, el vradêllo, ghè bella moglie ha a! (Adesso uscirò. Pensavo al nuovo ministro degli esteri, con cui collaboravamo all vecchia ambasciata. Suo fratello, che bella moglie che ha!)

See that now I will go out. I am thinking for that the new minister from foreign affairs that we used to work with from the old embassy. That, which, the brother, what beautiful wife he has! (I am intent on leaving now, on an errand to the new minister for foreign affairs, the one with whom we used to work at the old embassy. His brother [intended: the brother of whom] what a beautiful wife he has.

This last topic-comment sentence comes straight from spoken Arabic, a language of which the speaker was ignorant.

In the main Dodecanese Creole is much more elaborate, and closer to standard Italian than Levantine Pidgin, though it mostly depends on the topic of the conversation. A parting shot I often heard was:

Ghè sèmbre pendzo da non vàto 'rrabiare sua çelendza (that always I think from not made angry his Excellency)
which looks very close to historical examples quoted earlier (a stronger expletive than 'angry' was habitually used, though.) The Dodecanese were wrested from Ottoman Turkey in 1912 (together with Libya) and was transferred to Greek sovereignty in 1947. There was a sizeable community of Sephardic Jews that were deported to Germany in July 1944, following the Italian armistice of September, 1943: 120 from Kos, and as many as 1700 from Rhodes, most of them disappearing in the Holocaust.

Another example of Levantine Pidgin: 'Barlatu dal vakansa' (spoken from the holiday.) Now 'barlatu' can have several meanings ranging from 'he declared' to 'I questioned' and a couple more in between. With some luck, and a little help from the context, it will mean: 'Did you ask him about the leave authorization?'

Official Translations

The previous examples are from the discourse of embassy messengers, which in the quaint jargon of the Italian Foreign Affairs former Eastern Service of around 1910-1939 were termed 'dragomanni ' (= turjumàn, interpreter, from the Arabic verb tàrjama, to translate.) In fact, messengers corresponded to anything between a driver and a doorman, but on rare occasions they did perform legal translation assignments, sometimes with puzzling results, as the following example indicates:
Io c'è il guardia Fares Abu Hàsan da ... Stai Signor Martini danote con donna. Firmato: il dito.
(Me, there is the watchman Fares Abu Hasàn from ... Stay Mr Martini from the night with woman. Signed: the finger = I am the watchman Fares Abu Hasàn assigned to ... [I can confirm that] Mr Martini on that night was [consorting] with a damsel. [By way of] signature a finger[print].
Martini is a fancy name that I chose, for in spite of its Italian sound. it is also at times a name of Turkish origin (Mardini, i.e. coming from the town of Mardin, not far from Edessa, in a Syriac speaking enclave.) From the above short sample the typical occurrence can be drawn of the verb STAY used in place of BE. Another classic quote is from the ballet to Molière's 'Bourgeois Gentihomme': 'Dice Turque, qui star quista.'

Sentence Construction

The primary difficulty with Lingua Franca use lies in the fact that, as a limited means of expression, often it conceals a subtler meaning than what is readily understood, viz. 'ghè, vole bevanda?' (would you like to have a drink?) is not too far from standard Italian, but 'bevanda' in Venice still means wine mixed with water (this is from the Dodecanese creole.) In the Levantine pidgin a frequent word is 'too much' meaning 'a great deal': Gyulay trobbo li soldi = he has too much money. The evidence quoted does not seem to rely on any specific rule except what seemed most expedient to convey a message: in the early seventies, when I was in Kuwait, the young children of the Spanish Ambassador had some problem in distinguishing between 'cuchillo' (Spanish for 'knife') and 'sekkìne' (knife in colloquial Arabic.) 'Pero ellos dicen 'sequillo' y se lo arreglan asì' (But they say 'sequillo' and solve the doubt.) The peculiar trait of this language does not lie so much its ancient origins but rather in the fact that it appeared in the same way and understanding whenever European languages and Arabic were combined: historic Lingua Franca examples point to the use of coupling a verb infinitive with the word 'bisogno' (need) to hint to the future tense; this is just a literal translation of the Arabic locution 'làzim' that in present day broken English is to be rendered as 'màstaba' (must be.) The unusual feature does not lie in the sentence construction that, coming from Arabic has not changed, but rather in the opting for an Italian word at a time when the navies of France and Spain had a higher profile.

A short quotation is required to sum up the concept; Venture de Paradis was a distinguished 'arabisant' reputed by Jomard, the founder of the Institut d'Egypte, and five volumes of his manuscripts are at the National Library in Paris, the first of which is simply titled 'Notes sur Alger' and in 1894 was edited by E. Fagnan to become a slim 180-page booklet. The original text comes from letters written by Venture de Paradis from Algiers throughout 1788 and the early part of 1789, and badly pasted together by the staff of the Paris National Library: the cuts through the paper caused by the steam tongs of the disinfection process are still visible. Most of the Lingua Franca locutions reported in the text as a matter of course, come from Spanish, as 'izbandid/sbandouts' (bandit), contador (overseer of the Treasury), trigo (wheat), Muchache de la golfe (valet, from the Arabic word 'ghorfa', room.) But in describing the sequence of the day, Venture de Paradis whose mother tongue was French, does mention that a flag was displayed from the Government Palace: 'Bandiera arriva' (sic) indicated twelve noon, while 'Bandiera bassa, l'heure de la bastonnade' fell around 1.30 pm. The fact that Italian orthography rules were normally adopted, to the point of contradicting the meaning of the sentence (arriva [coming] instead of arriba [hoisted] ) seems to indicate that Italian at the time was more popular.

The Case of Eritrea

An amazing resonance of the Lingua Franca range comes from the 1890's Italian settlements along the Red Sea coast at Assab and Massawa; as the case had been with the Tay Boy of French Indo-China, with Petjo in the Dutch East Indies, or indeed the Butler English of the Raj, it grew up as a means of communication with household help, but I am told that is still very much in use, as Italian has remained the cultivated language in the area. Unlike the Lingua Franca of old, this offshoot lacked three centuries of progressive development, yet it shared most of its syntactic peculiarities. My father, who had been stationed there for three years in the late thirties, used to say that some of the old-timers had 'gone native' and were unable to express themselves in anything else than this uncouth lingo. Some examples:


Here is a short list of some Lingua Franca locutions mentioned in the text: each identifies the source, year, and prevailing area of use, ALGiers, TRIpoli or TUNis. The cluster sch implies the sound sk.

Abandàgia laundry Riggio 1802 TUN
Bandiera Arriva hoisted flag, 12 noon Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Bandiera Bassa lowered flag, about 1.30 pm: l'heure de la bastonnade Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Birchè because Ferrari 1824 TRI
Bitte Casanadale Beit el Khaznadar= Treasurer's Residence Riggio 1802 TUN
Bitte Laùdo Beit el Oudu= Rest House Riggio 1802 TUN
Bonàzzi lull Rossi ca 1890 TRI
Bonjòrno good morning Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Caìto, Caytto captain Grandchamp 1664 TUN
Capitano Prove chamberlain Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Caravana foreman Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Cavagini, cavacino coffee caterer Riggio 1797 TUN
Ciaùs orderly Riggio 1781 TUN
Coionàr to fool, swindle Gallico 1820 TUN
Compàsso mental sanity Gallico 1820 TUN
Contador treasury overseer Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Cuatr'ora four o'clock Dict! 1830 ALG
Dall'Imèn Imam's Residence Riggio 1802 TUN
Dicir to say Caronni
Diòna customs Grandchamp 1649 TUN
Dolètri Deyletli=Head of the Police Riggio
Effendi master Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Entendèr understand Ferrari 1824 TRI
Fasìr to do Gallico 18l0 TUN
Fortùna storm Rossi ca 1890 TRI
Fortìzza fortress Gallico ca 18l0 TUN
Giardinàri gardeners Riggio 1797 TUN
Grecani north-east wind Riggio 1850 TRI
Guardagolfa Majordomo Riggio 1802 TUN
Guardaròbi wardrobe Riggio 1802 TUN
Guarda Scarpi [sic] shoe valet Riggio ca 1802 TUN
Mainàr to lower the sail Rossi 1675 TRI
Manubi mahbùb=10 Piastres Tunisian gold coin Grandchamp 1806 TUN
Muchache de la Golfe servant, boy Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Mucciaccio [sic] servant, boy Riggio 1802 TUN
Oldàch, Juldag janissary Grandchamp ca 1620 TUN
Ostro Levanti south-east wind Riggio ca 1850 TRI
Ostro Ponenti south-west wind Riggio ca 1850 TRI
Pataca Real de a Ocho Asunciòn 1670 ALG
Pertuseri caulker Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Procurar to manage to Ferrari 1824 TRI
Raìxi captain Grandchamp ca 1610 TUN
Rigàl gift Gallico
Sachegì janissary Riggio 1781 TUN
Sappa Tappa, Sappi Tappa, Zappi Tappa Sàhib at-Tàbi=Lord Keeper of the seals Riggio 18l5 TUN
Scìma mooring line Rossi ca 1890 TRI
Sempri always Ferrari 1824 TRI
Tescherè note, receipt Riggio 1781 TUN
Torcimànio dragoman Riggio 1781 TUN
Trigo wheat Venture de Paradis 1788 ALG
Yorno day Asunciòn 1670 ALG

Glossary References

Volume II of the Diccionário de Escritores Trinitários de España y Portugal, Rome 1899, page 376 et seq. by Padre Antonino de la Asuncion.
Ragguaglio del Viaggio Compendioso in Barberia by Padre Caronni, published anonymously by Sonzogno in Milan in l805, and often erroneously attributed to Ludovico Settala, to whom it was dedicated.
G. Ferrari, La Spedizione della Marina Sarda a Tripoli nel l825, Rome l912.
G. Finotti, La Reggenza di Tunisi, Malta l856.
Augusto Gallico, Tunisi e i Consoli Sardi (l816-1834) Cappelli, Bologna l935 (The same source presumably accounts for GALLICO ca l810.)
These entries are found in: Pierre Grandchamp, La France en Tunisie (l582-1705) 10 volumes, Tunis 1920-1933. The item Manubi, however, is quoted in an article by him in the Revue Tunisienne.
Achille Riggio, Archivio Storico per la Calabria e Lucania, III/IV l938, page 333 et seq.
ROSSI ca 1890
Ettore Rossi, L'Idea Coloniale, Tripoli l0 April l926
Alger au 18 Siècle, edited by E. Fagnan, Typographie Adolphe Jourdan, 4 Place du Gouvernement, Alger, 1898 (a rare booklet of 180 pages: Bandiera Arriva and Bandiera Bassa are quoted at page l58, Trigo at page 91, Muchace de la Golfe at page 54, Contador at page 107. On page 65 Izbandid together with the plural Sbandouts is quoted. This plural is also in the Marseilles list.)

A book not appearing on this list which was very famous in its time was the Geographical and Historical Narrative of a Residence in Algiers by Filippo Pananti (London l8l8), originally published in Florence as Avventure ed Osservazioni sulle Coste di Barberia, in l8l7 and further reprinted in Milan (1829), Genoa (l830), Florence (l83l), translated into French in l820 and into German in l823.


I owe the possibility of quoting so many elusive and hard to find publications to the kind advice of Padre Giovanni from the Trinitarian Convent in Rome, of the staff of the African Institute of Rome, and of the C.A. Nallino Institute of Oriental Studies, which some 25 years ago provided me with texts that were crucial to my doctoral dissertation on the Boundaries of Eastern Arabia, and now enabled me to trace the hidden thread of Lingua Franca.

This study was first published in Englishes, letterature inglesi contemporanee, #8 ANNO 3 1999, pp 42-62. It includes some subsequent additions.

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Alan D. Corré