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A lingua franca or diplomatic language is language widely used beyond its native speakers, primarily for international commerce and extending to other cultural exchanges. The term lingua franca is Italian (literally "Frankish language"), derived from the Arabic connotation of the "Franks" (ancient Germans) as a generic term for Europeans.
Originally "lingua franca" referred to a mix of mostly Italian with a broad vocabulary drawn from Turkish, Persian, French, Greek and Arabic. This mixed language (pidgin, creole) was used for communication throughout the Middle East as a diplomatic language, hence the term "lingua franca" has become common for any language used by speakers of different languages to communicate with one another.
In an important sense, the terms "lingua franca" and "diplomatic language" remain distinct; the latter refers largely to spoken languages which find common use, while the former is typically limited to common written systems which do not directly find use among the common public. A good example is the Akkadian, which (as shown in the Amarna letters) was used for correspondence between Ancient Egypt, and the Phoenicians, among others. This diplomatic-level communication would, over time, serve language (hence cultural) transculturation, eventually developing the Greek and Roman writing systems, that we currently use today.
During the Roman Empire and for the following millennium the lingua franca was Greek in the east and Latin in the west. The French language also served as lingua franca later on. French has been the language of diplomacy in Europe from the 17th century, and as a result is still the working language of international institutions and is seen on documents ranging from passports to airmail letters. German served as a lingua franca in portions of Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in business and science (physics). English is the current lingua franca of Western international business and has displaced French in diplomacy.
In other regions of the world, other languages perform the function of a lingua franca: Portuguese served as lingua franca in Africa and Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries. Swahili in East Africa, Russian in areas formerly associated with the Soviet Union, Hindi (along with English) in India, Malay in South-East Asia, Bislama in the Pacific Islands, and various Pidgin languages in other locations and times. Mandarin Chinese also serves a function of providing a common spoken language between speakers of different and mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects.
See also: international auxiliary language
In a specific sense
Lingua Franca meaning "Frankish language" was an early language, used in the Mediterranean area from the 14th century or earlier and still in use in the 20th century. Lingua Franca was known by Mediterranean sailors including the Portuguese. When the 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 crew tried to learn this "broken Portuguese". Through a process of change the Lingua Franca and Portuguese wordstock was substituted by the languages of the people in contact.
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