There are several languages around the world which act as Linguae Francae, that is, a common language used by people whose native languages are not mutually intelligible. Often, these languages have a small number of native speakers as most people speak it as a second language. Examples of such languages are:
- Swahili – Official language of Kenya and Tanzania but spoken throughout East Africa, including Uganda and the eastern part of the DRC.
- Urdu – Official in Pakistan but spoken natively by a minority. Most know it as a second language. It is also used in some states in India.
- Indonesian – Official in Indonesia. It was the trade language of the Malay Archipelago where it is common to have 5 or 6 native languages spoken on one island (Over 800 in the case of Papua).
- Tok Pisin – Speaking of Papua…Tok Pisin is one of the official languages of New Guinea. They obviously needed a way to talk to each other.
- Modern Standard Arabic – Official in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It would be safe to say that this is a language which everyone knows but nobody speaks.
- Putonghua – Standard Chinese, based on the Beijing dialect. It is official in China and other countries in South-east Asia. On the mainland, most people outside Beijing speak a different variety.
- Latin – Once used throughout the Roman Empire
- Russian – A common language for the former Soviet states in Central Asia (The ‘Stans)
- French – Most native French speakers are either European or Canadian. However, in many African countries it is used for business and commerce. The largest French speaking city after Paris is actually Kinshasa in the DRC, where oddly enough, people use another Lingua Franca – Lingala – for unofficial purposes.
- English – It’s the global language, what more can I say?
Ok, so what’s the point? People need to talk to each other and if their native languages aren’t the same, they’ll need another one to facilitate communication. It all makes sense.
It doesn’t make sense
Or at least, one very important thing doesn’t make sense. And that is the fact that the reasons why a language might become a lingua franca have nothing to do with the language itself. It’s explained quite well in this video.
What that basically means is that a language could be the most nonsensical, most illogical, most difficult, most complicated thing ever – *cough*cough*English*cough*cough* – but people will still learn it for the purpose of wider communication.
Many of the languages listed above have features that make them unsuitable for lingua franca status:
English spelling is a nightmare. Even the name of the language is spelt incorrectly. Also consider the words tough, cough, through, and bough. All the same spelling, but all different pronunciations. And what genius decided that ‘gh’ should make a ‘f’ sound? English also has too many irregular verbs. Some kind of make sense, for example, sit-sat, come-came, see-saw, eat-ate. But others are just dumb: am/are/is-was/were, go-went.
French spelling is also a nightmare. Vingt is pronounced kind of like “ve” and Temps is pronounced kind of like “to”. Vingt enfants, meanwhile, is “Vetofon”. French also has a somewhat complicated verb conjugation system with many irregular verbs.
I don’t know much about Russian other than it’s noun case system which can get quite confusing. It’s spelling and pronunciation is not as nightmarish as English and French but it has special silent letters to indicate hard and soft sounds (I think). Either way, still not a great lingua franca.
Latin has complicated verb conjugation system and a complicated noun case system. Obviously the Romans were evil.
Chinese grammar is surprisingly simple. Its script is what makes it impractical (although it has its advantages). Also, being a tonal language, pronunciation can be difficult for non-natives. For example the word “mao” can mean “cat” or “hat” (or a whole lot of other things) depending on the intonation.
Swahili grammar is also quite simple. There is only one verb which is really irregular (kuja which becomes njoo in the imperative mood) and conjugation is very straightforward. For example, “ninasema” means “I speak” where ni=I, na=present tense, and sema=speak. “I spoke” is “nilisema” where li=past tense. However, Swahili also has several noun classes which kind of act as genders. Verbs and adjectives all have to agree with the noun class. For example, “mtoto mzuri anasema” (good child speaks) “watoto wazuri wanasema” (good children speak) “kitu kizuri” (good thing) “vitu vizuri” (good things). There are 16 noun classes, which kind of ruin an otherwise good lingua franca.
Modern Standard Arabic is ok when it comes to verbs. Although there are many irregular ones, they follow very basic rules. The difference between past and present conjugations could be a simpler, however. Irregular plural nouns and adjectives are what make this language unsuitable as a lingua franca. For most common nouns, there is no hard and fast rule which determines how the plural is formed. It needs to be memorised, like Irregular verbs in English. For example, “Bayt” (house) becomes “Buyuut”, “Qalb” (heart) becomes “Quluub”, “Kalb” (dog) becomes “Kilaab”, “Kitaab” (book) becomes “Kutub”, “Qalam” (pen) becomes “Aqlaam”, and “Baab” (door) becomes “Abwaab”.
So with all these Linguae Francae having features that make them hard to learn (and thus making them unsuitable as a Lingua Franca) what is the solution?
Hindi is not the easiest language on the list shown previously (that title goes to either Indonesian or Tok Pisin), however I still believe it is one of the best choices as a global Lingua Franca. Consider the following:
- Hindi has only five irregular verbs (or six depending on your standard of “irregular”), most of which are irregular only in the past tense and imperative mood.
- In verb conjugation, the person, number, gender and tense indicators are mostly separated, meaning that conjugation is simple and involves less memorising.
- While Hindi is a gendered language, the biggest problem this creates is for the formation of plurals. It has a small effect, if any, on verb conjugation.
- The writing system, Devanagari, is relatively simple.
- Hindi is an Indo-European language – the largest and most widespread language family in the world – meaning that cognates can be found in languages from Icelandic to Persian
- Due to the influences of Arabic and Sanskrit, cognates can also be found in languages from different families making it slightly easier for native speakers of those languages to learn as well.
- Hindi is already a Lingua Franca in much of South Asia and has over 400 million native speakers. And since colloquial Hindi is mutually intelligible with colloquial Urdu, that number goes up to over 500 million.
There are obviously various dialects and registers of Hindi, so which one should be used as the global Lingua Franca? The answer is simple: The one which most people know – Bollywood Hindi.
The films are watched throughout India, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, and are understood by people whose native dialects may be vastly different. Bollywood Hindi is nowhere near the “Shudh Hindi” promoted by the government (It’s fairly Persianised/Arabised/Anglicised), but it has done a better job at uniting people.
What about Indonesian? or Tok Pisin?
While these two languages are much simpler than Hindi, and therefore much easier to learn, Hindi wins by numbers. There are about 200 million speakers of Indonesian and mutually intelligible Malay. And Tok Pisin has only around 4 million speakers.
Hopefully I’ve presented a good case for Hindi here. The next step is for speakers of the language to realise that it is not reaching its full potential. This would involve taking some pride in the language, not switching to English so often, and not flocking to English medium schools. It is this factor (that of being a prestigious language) which Hindi lacks. Ironically, prestige is really the only thing needed to make a language successful.
So wake up Indians, you’re missing your chance. The Indonesians might just beat you to it.