Mediterranean Lingua Franca

Mediterranean Lingua Franca
Region Mediterranean Basin (esp. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, 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]


Lingua franca means "language of the Franks" in Late Latin, and originally referred specifically to the language that was used around the eastern Mediterranean Sea as the main language of commerce.[3] However, the terms "Franks" and "Frankish" were actually applied to all Western Europeans during the late Byzantine Period.[4][5] Later, lingua franca came to mean any contact language. Its other name in the Mediterranean area was Sabir, deriving from a Romance base meaning "to know".

Based mostly on Northern Italian languages and Occitano-Romance languages in the eastern Mediterranean area 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 .... Algerian French was indeed a dialect of French, although Lingua Franca certainly had had an influence on it. Lingua Franca also seems to have affected 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.[6]

Hugo Schuchardt (1842–1927) was the first scholar to investigate the Lingua Franca systematically. According to the monogenetic theory of the origin of pidgins he developed, 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 present Algerian slang and Polari. There are traces even in geographical names, like Cape Guardafui (that literally means cape "look and escape" in Lingua Franca and ancient Italian).

Example of "Sabir"

An example of Sabir is found in Molière's comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.[7] At the start of the "Turkish ceremony", the Mufti enters singing the following words:

Se ti saber
Ti responder
Se non saber
Tazir, tazir

A comparison of the Sabir version with the same text in each of similar languages, first a word-for-word substitution according to the rules of Sabir grammar and then a translation inflected according to the rules of the similar language's grammar, can be see below:

Sabir Lombard Italian Spanish Galician Portuguese Occitan (Provençal) French Latin English

Se ti saber
Ti responder
Se non saber
Tazir, tazir

Se ti savè
Ti respond
Se non savè
Taz, Taz

Se te sè
Se te sè no
Tas, Tas

Se tu sapere
Tu rispondere
Se non sapere
Tacere, tacere

Se sai
Se non sai
Taci, taci

Si tú saber
Tú responder
Si no saber
Callar, callar

Si sabes
Si no sabes

Se ti saber
Ti responder
Se non saber
Calar, calar

Se sabes
Se non sabes

Se tu saber
Tu responder
Se não saber
Calar, calar

Se sabes
Se não sabes

Se tu saber
Tu respondre
Se non saber
Tàiser, tàiser

Se sabes
Se non sabes
Taise-ti, taise-ti

Si tu savoir
Tu répondre
Si tu ne savoir
Se taire, se taire

Si tu sais
Si tu ne sais pas
Tais-toi, tais-toi

Si tu sapere
Tu respondere
Si non sapere
Tacere, tacere

Si sapis
Si non sapis
Tace, tace

If you know
You answer
If you do not know
Be silent

The Lombard, Italian, Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, Provençal, French, and Latin versions are not correct grammatically, 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 for each language is given in italics.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Lingua Franca". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Lingua franca del Mediterraneo or sabir (in Italian), article of Francesco Bruni
  3. Definition of "Lingua franca" from the Oxford English Dictionary (subscription based); translation is direct from Italian
  4. Lexico Triantaphyllide online dictionary , Greek Language Center (Kentro Hellenikes Glossas), lemma Franc ( Φράγκος Phrankos) , Lexico tes Neas Hellenikes Glossas, G.Babiniotes, Kentro Lexikologias(Legicology Center) LTD Publications. ISBN 960-86190-1-7. Retrieved 2015-06-18. Franc and (prefix) franco- (Φράγκος Phrankos and φράγκο- phranko-
  5. "An etymological dictionary of modern English : Weekley, Ernest, 1865-1954 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive". Retrieved 2015-06-18.
  6. Parkvall, Mikael (2005). Alan D. Corré, ed. "Foreword to A Glossary of Lingua Franca" (5th ed.). Milwaukee, WI, United States. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  7.; there is a translation here


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