Mediterranean Lingua Franca

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Mediterranean Lingua Franca
Region Mediterranean Basin (esp. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sicily, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus)
Extinct 19th century
Pidgin, Romance based
  • Mediterranean Lingua Franca
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pml
Glottolog ling1242[1]
Linguasphere 51-AAB-c
Map of Europe and the Mediterranean from the Catalan Atlas of 1375

The Mediterranean Lingua Franca, or sabir, was a pidgin language used as a lingua franca in the Mediterranean Basin from the 11th to the 19th century.[2]


The literal meaning of lingua franca in Italian is "Frankish language",[3] and this description was extended to any language used by speakers of different home tongues to communicate with one another. Its other name in the Mediterranean area was Sabir, deriving from a Romance root meaning "to know".[citation needed]

Based mostly on Northern Italian languages and Occitano-Romance languages in the eastern Mediterranean at first, it later came to have more Spanish and Portuguese elements, especially on the Barbary coast (today referred to as the Maghreb). Sabir also borrowed from Berber, Turkish, French, Greek and Arabic. This mixed language was used widely for commerce and diplomacy and was also current among slaves of the bagnio, Barbary pirates and European renegades in pre-colonial Algiers. Historically the first to use it were the Genoese and Venetian trading colonies in the eastern Mediterranean after the year 1000.

As the use of Lingua Franca spread in the Mediterranean, dialectal fragmentation emerged, the main difference being more use of Italian and Provençal vocabulary in the Middle East, while Ibero-Romance lexical material dominated in the Maghreb. After France became the dominant power in the latter area in the 19th century, Algerian Lingua Franca was heavily gallicised (to the extent that locals are reported having believed that they spoke French when conversing in Lingua Franca with the Frenchmen, who in turn thought they were speaking Arabic), and this version of the language was spoken into the nineteen hundreds, witness Schuchardt. Holm's suggestion that it was this variety of Lingua Franca which through relexification developed into Algerian French seems somewhat far-fetched – as can be seen from Lanly's study, Algerian French was indeed a dialect of French, although Lingua Franca certainly had had an influence on it. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Lingua Franca did have an impact on Algerian French. Lingua Franca also seems to have had an impact on other languages. Eritrean Pidgin Italian, for instance, displayed some remarkable similarities with it, in particular the use of Italian participles as past or perfective markers. It seems reasonable to assume that these similarities have been transmitted through Italian foreigner talk stereotypes.[4]

Hugo Schuchardt was the first scholar to investigate the Lingua franca systematically. According to the monogenetic theory of the origin of pidgins he pioneered, Lingua Franca was known by Mediterranean sailors including the Portuguese. When Portuguese started exploring the seas of Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, they tried to communicate with the natives by mixing a Portuguese-influenced version of Lingua Franca with the local languages. When English or French ships came to compete with the Portuguese, the crews tried to learn this "broken Portuguese". Through a process of relexification, the Lingua Franca and Portuguese lexicon was substituted by the languages of the peoples in contact.

This theory is one way of explaining the similarities between most of the European-based pidgins and creole languages, like Tok Pisin, Papiamento, Sranan Tongo, Krio, and Chinese Pidgin English. These languages use forms similar to sabir for "to know" and piquenho for "children".

Lingua Franca left traces in today's Algerian slang and Polari.

Example of "Sabir"[edit]

An example of Sabir is found in Molière's comedy, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.[5] At the start of the "Turkish ceremony", the Mufti enters singing the following words:

Sabir Lombard Italian Spanish Portuguese Occitan (Provençal) Latin English
Se ti saber Se ti savè (Se te sè) Se tu sapere (Se sai) Si tú saber (Si sabes) Se tu saber (Se sabes) Se tu saber (Se sabes) Si tu sapere (Si sapis) If you know
Ti responder Ti respond (Respund) Tu rispondere (Rispondi) Tú responder (Responde) Tu responder (Respondes) Tu respondre (Responde) Tu respondere (Respondes) You answer
Se non saber Se non savè (Se te sè no) Se non sapere (Se non sai) Si no saber (Si no sabes) Se não saber (Se não sabes) Se non saber (Se non sabes) Si non sapere (Si non sapis) If you do not know
Tazir, tazir Taz, Taz (Tas, Tas) Tacere, tacere (Taci, taci) Callar, callar (Cállate) Calar-se, calar-se (Cala-te) Tàiser, tàiser (Taise-ti, taise-ti) Tacere, tacere (Tace, tace) Be silent

The Lombard, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Provençal, and Latin versions are not grammatically correct, as they use the infinitive rather than inflected verb forms, but the Sabir form is obviously derived from the infinitive in those languages. The correct version in each language is given in parentheses.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Lingua Franca". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Lingua franca del Mediterraneo or sabir (in Italian), article of Francesco Bruni
  3. ^ Definition of "Lingua franca" via the Oxford English Dictionary (subscription based); translation is direct from Italian
  4. ^ "Introduction" of Mikael Parkvall
  5. ^; there is a translation here


  • Dakhlia, Jocelyne, Lingua Franca – Histoire d'une langue métisse en Méditerranée, Actes Sud, 2008, ISBN 2-7427-8077-7
  • John A. Holm, Pidgins and Creoles, Cambridge University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-521-35940-6, p. 607
  • Henry Romanos Kahane, The Lingua Franca in the Levant: Turkish Nautical Terms of Italian and Greek Origin, University of Illinois, 1958
  • Hugo Schuchardt, Pidgin and Creole languages : selected essays by Hugo Schuchardt (edited and translated by Glenn G. Gilbert), Cambridge University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-521-22789-5.

External links[edit]