Chapter 4: How lingua francas become lingua francas

The following rule has been demonstrated again and again throughout the linguistic history of the world: If your society possesses disproportionate cultural, military, or economic strength, then your language will achieve dominance over neighboring languages. A language does not succeed because of its own qualities; a language becomes dominant because the people who speak it have been extraordinarily successful.

This chapter examines the processes by which a handful of major languages ascended to lingua franca status. We will also take a look at the empires, kings, and peoples who gave these languages their power.


Many readers will remember Aramaic from Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. Aramaic was the primary language of New Testament-era Palestine, and much of the Middle East. Aramaic’s star has since fallen. Less than a million people speak the language today; and most of them live in areas that current geopolitics have made unsuitable for Western travelers: Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and a few other corners of the Middle East. Aramaic exists in the twenty-first century mostly in the form of Syriac—a minority tongue that is used primarily for liturgical purposes. 

Aramaic has its roots in distant Mesopotamia, the so-called “cradle of civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. It became the dominant language in Mesopotamia after supplanting two earlier languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, which subsequently passed into history. 

Aramaic, like Arabic and Hebrew, is a Semitic language. Unlike Sumerian and Akkadian, which were written in cuneiform symbols, Aramaic looks vaguely “modern,” if a bit exotic.  Aramaic script closely resembles the written form of modern Arabic.

The Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians

In its heyday, Aramaic had influential sponsors. The Aramaic language was propelled to world-class status by three ancient powers: Assyria, Persia, and Babylonia. Each of these three nations played a role in making Aramaic the language of New Testament-era Palestine.

The Assyrians were the early ancient world’s most aggressive empire-builders. The Assyrians practiced systematic terror; they were known to behead entire villages, and impale prisoners on sharpened poles that had been driven into the earth. These practices gave them a fearsome reputation, even by the standards of the ancient world. The Assyrians ruled a vast swath of the Middle East with an iron fist from 900 to 612 BCE. At its height, the Assyrian Empire included western Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.

For about half of this period, Aramaic was the official language of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were more often feared than emulated; but their empire made Aramaic the language of power in the Middle East.

In 626 BCE, another Aramaic-speaking nation, Babylonia, rebelled against the Assyrians. The Babylonians finally sacked the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh in 612. But the Babylonians weren’t given much time to build their own empire. The Babylonians were absorbed by the mighty Persian Empire in 540.

The Persian Empire grew to extend as far east as India, and as far west as Libya. (This area included Palestine.) King Darius I of Persia made Aramaic the official language of the western half of the Persian Empire in 500 BCE. The Persians continued to rule the region for several hundred years, during which the Aramaic language flourished and became further entrenched as the prestige language of the Middle East.

There is more to the story of Aramaic than armies and empires. Aramaic was also the language of settlers. Aramaic-speaking nomads, farmers, and merchants dispersed throughout the Middle East during Old Testament times. Although their names are not recorded in history books, these common people also contributed significantly to the spread of Aramaic.

What about Hebrew?

Hebrew developed in the land known as Canaan (present-day Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon). Hebrew closely resembles ancient Phoenician and Moabite, two other Canaanite languages which are now extinct. The first five books of the Old Testament, known collectively as the Torah (תורה), are written in Hebrew.

As a spoken language, Hebrew declined as Aramaic flourished, and several books of the Old Testament (including Ezra and Daniel) were composed in Aramaic. By the time Jesus was born, Aramaic was firmly established as the language of daily life in Palestine. Hebrew was still studied by religious scholars; but few Jews of the period would have been able to hold a conversation in the language.

The Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE following the Bar Kokhba revolt against Imperial rule. Jerusalem was renamed as a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden live there. The Jewish nation subsequently dispersed from the region to a variety of countries in Europe and the Middle East. Hebrew was now completely abandoned as a language of daily life, but it was retained for liturgical purposes for the next 1800 years.

Hebrew was revived as a “living language” in the late nineteenth century. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a Russian Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1881. He began the movement to revitalize Hebrew as a language for Jews living in the old lands of ancient Israel. The idea initially met with skepticism. (Imagine a Catholic movement to revive Latin as a language of daily life.) However, the Hebrew language movement gained momentum in the early twentieth century, when Jewish immigration to Palestine increased.

Modern Hebrew is based on ancient Biblical Hebrew; but the influence of the diaspora years is apparent in the language that Israelis speak today. Some characteristics of Modern Hebrew can be traced to Russian, German, and English.

When everyone aspired to speak Greek

Another force rolled into the Middle East in 332 BCE. This time, the invaders spoke Greek. Israel, Palestine, and Syria became part of the vast Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great. Alexander was originally from the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon, and his empire spread Greek language and culture as far away as India.

During the period of Greek domination, the Greek language became the official administrative language of the Holy Land. Aramaic persisted as the lingua franca of daily life, but many local residents also learned to speak Greek. The drive toward Hellenization was aided by the founding of Greek colonies in the area. Some Jews eagerly embraced Greek culture. Violence erupted when particularly zealous advocates of Hellenization tried to establish the cult of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple.

Historical trivia buffs were quick to point out that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ contained no Greek. If you saw the aforementioned film, you likely remember the scenes in which the Roman and Jewish characters communicated in Aramaic. There was also a scene in which Jesus briefly spoke in Latin. 

No one can say for sure which languages Jesus spoke, but we can make some guesses based on historical language trends. He almost certainly spoke Aramaic, bits of Hebrew, and some Greek. Few Jews in New Testament-era Palestine spoke Latin.

The Roman soldiers who occupied Palestine of course spoke Latin. Some of them may have learned to speak the local Aramaic. However, Greek would have been the natural “link language” between the Roman occupiers and the Jewish residents of Palestine.

Rome supplanted the empire of Alexander as the new power in the Holy Land by the first century BCE.  The Romans made no attempt to de-Hellenize the lands they inherited from the Greeks. On the contrary, the Romans were enthusiastic students of Greek language and culture; and Greek—not Latin—became the language of administration in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire.

The Greek language was a towering lingua franca of the ancient world. The ancient world’s reliance on Greek had nothing to do with the ease of learning Greek, or the innate suitability of Greek as a common language. The currency of the Greek language was a result of the universal respect for Greek culture. Greek achievements in philosophy, art, and literature inspired admiration and imitation in neighboring societies.

The Romans admired Greek culture much as nineteenth century Americans admired European culture. The Romans borrowed from Greek architecture, sculpture, and urban planning techniques. Even the Roman religion had its roots in Greece: the Roman god Jupiter was patterned after the Greek god Zeus. Minerva was a Latin version of the Greek goddess Athena. Neptune was a Romanized Poseidon.

A command of the Greek language was considered to be a mark of refinement for an ancient Roman. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his famous Meditations in Greek—not Latin. When the Roman Senate passed a decree that needed to be conveyed to other parts of the Empire, it was most often translated into Greek, because Greek was the language shared by educated people throughout the Empire. In the early days of Roman Christianity, most of the gospels were recorded in Greek—rather than the Latin that would later become the language of the Catholic Church, or the Aramaic in which Jesus actually preached.

The Greek influence on world languages

Although Greek is no longer the world langage that is once was, its influence lives on in numerous Western European languages—including English. Modern English contains numerous Greek prefixes and suffixes. For example, the Greek prefix mega- (“great”) is the basis of the English words megadose, megalomoania, and megahertz. (The Greek term Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος ( Megas Alexandros) means “Alexander the Great.”)

The Rise of Latin

When viewed through the retrospective lens of history, the Roman obsession with the Greek language seems a bit ironic. Rome itself would leave an even more significant linguistic legacy on Western Civilization with its own Latin. In the western portion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the lingua franca. Local versions of Latin would eventually develop into the modern Romance languages. Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian are all modified versions of Roman Latin.

The Roman view of the Celtic west contrasted starkly with their view of the Greek east. When the Romans arrived, the eastern portion of the empire was already dominated by advanced cultures with Hellenistic influences; and the Greek language was an established lingua franca. In these areas, Roman rule was comparatively lenient, and the local languages outlived the Roman Empire.

The Greek culture that was so celebrated in the Mediterranean made only minor inroads into ancient Western Europe. Pre-Roman Europe was dominated by the Celts, a tribal people who were fierce warriors. Alexander the Great encountered the Celts in 335 BCE and was impressed at their capacity for making war. At the height of Celtic power (about 400 B.C.), the Celts controlled an area stretching from Ireland to the northwestern corner of Turkey.

The Celts spoke a variety of languages. When the Roman Empire expanded into Western Europe, Latin became the official language of much of the Celtic world. This would eventually lead to the death of a handful of Celtic languages—mostly notably Celtiberian (spoken in ancient Spain) and Gaulish (spoken in France).

To Roman eyes, ancient Western Europe was a remote, uncultured hinterland. The Romans regarded Celtic culture as inferior to their own. If the Greeks were worthy of imitation, the Celts were “barbarians” who had to be “civilized.” Historians have since pointed out that Roman biases overlooked the richness of Celtic art, literature, etc. On the whole, however, Celtic culture lacked the monolithic quality of Greek civilization. There was no Celtic Plato or Socrates; nor was there a Celtic equivalent of the Athenian Acropolis.

The Celts also resisted Roman rule with a ferocity rarely seen in the eastern portions of the Empire. The Romans battled some Celtic tribes for generations, and both sides endured heavy casualties.  During the reign of Julius Caesar, for example, an independent tribe of Gallic Celts known as the Carnutes slaughtered all the inhabitants of the Roman town of Cenabum (modern-day Orléans), and staged violent raids on other Roman settlements in occupied Gaul. The Romans encountered similar resistance throughout Western Europe. In Britain, Rome was finally forced to abandon the conquest of large areas of Celtic territory—opting instead to keep the barbarians out with fortified walls.

Celtic intransigence likely contributed to the more aggressive assimilation policies that the Romans adopted in Europe. The invading Romans would have had a desire to stamp out all vestiges of the enemy culture—including its language. In some cases, the demise of local languages can even be linked to specific rebellions. The decline of the aforementioned Celtiberean language accelerated sharply following the locals’ defeat in the Numantine War, a particularly bitter conflict that hardened Roman attitudes toward the native population of Spain.


The Gauls were good at learning Latin.

The Gaulish language spoken in pre-Roman France was remarkably similar to Latin. Historians have speculated that this similarity may have contributed to the rapid demise of the Gaulish language in ancient France. In other words, the Gauls had minimal resistance to adopting the Roman language because Latin was relatively easy for them to learn.


The Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity following his own conversion in 312 A.D., and the Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire in 380 A.D. The Roman Empire in Western Europe collapsed around 476 A.D.; but a new force was now spreading the Latin language in Europe—the Christian Church.

When God spoke to the Roman Emperor, He spoke in Greek.

Constantine legalized Christianity in Rome following a prophetic dream that resulted in a military victory. The night before a battle, the emperor dreamt of a blazing cross suspended in the sky. Beneath the cross were the words, “By this conquer.” History records that the words were written in Greek—rather than the Latin of Rome.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian Church was the dominant institution of European culture, education, and politics. Latin was therefore the European language of learning and administration. Latin retained its position of power even in later years, when Church power had been largely ceded to national governments, and other languages were on the rise. In 1726, Sir Isaac Newton—an Englishman—published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Newton wrote not in his native English, but in Latin. (This work is now in the public domain, and a copy of the original Latin text, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, is available on the Internet.)

Although no one uses Latin for practical purposes today, the language lives on in the fields of medicine and science. The scientific names of plants and animals are based on Latin (and Greek). It is impossible to earn a law degree without becoming something of an expert in the language of the Caesars. Legal terms such as habeas corpus, caveat emptor, de facto, de jure, locus delicti, pro bono publico, and many others are pure Latin.

Latin also left its mark on much terminology that is uniquely American. The quarter in your pocket bears the Latin slogan, E Pluribus Unum—”One from many.” The motto of the Marine Corps—Semper Fidelis—is also Latin. When troops went into battle in the American Civil War, their regimental flags were often adorned with Latin phrases.

Latin remained the language of catechism for millions of Catholics until the mid-1960s. Catholics no longer conduct mass in Latin, but they continue to hold on to remnants of the language. When I learned the popular Christmas hymn, Ave Maria, during my 1970s-era Catholic grade school days, I learned the words in Latin (though I did not understand what the words meant.) Some Catholic traditionalists still cling to the language. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave his first homily as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, he notably addressed his congregation in Latin.    

Even Shakespeare studied Latin.

The ability to speak Latin carried considerable prestige in Elizabethan England. (Queen Elizabeth herself spoke the language.) A thousand years after the fall of Rome, many educational institutions in 16th century England were focused entirely on teaching their students Latin. In fact, William Shakespeare is thought to have attended a Latin school in Stratford-upon-Avon during the 1570s.

Parle Vous Francais?

What was the language of power in 12th century Britain? Hint: It wasn’t English.

In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of the French region known as Normandy, successfully invaded England. This was the beginning of a period of French rule over England, during which the cultural and political spheres of France and England would be closely intertwined.

The Norman victory in England also made Norman French the language of power in England. William deposed the English-speaking nobility (some of whom were sold into slavery in Muslim Spain), and installed French-speaking nobility. Church positions and commercial posts were also doled out to French-speakers.

For about 300 years, England was a nation of three languages: Norman French, Latin, and English. English was clearly at the bottom of the hierarchy. French was the language of government and wealth; Latin was the language of the Church and scholars. English, meanwhile, was the language of day laborers, peasants, and the town market.

The decline of a distinct, French-speaking ruling class would not occur until the mid-1300s, when the devastation of the Black Death pandemic reconfigured the power structure of English society. The French-speaking nobles, who were always a minority, were killed in such numbers by the plague that it was no longer practical for them to maintain themselves as a distinct class. In the years following the plague, they were effectively forced to assimilate with the English-speaking majority.

The Rise of Parisian French

As Norman French was declining in England, another variant of French—Parisian French—was gaining momentum throughout Europe. Parisian French was based on the language spoken in the educated circles of Paris. During the 1400s, this variant of French began to distinguish itself as the global language of choice. Latin was still used by the Church, but French was now preferred by many diplomats and merchants in Europe.

Over the next several hundred years, French became especially entrenched within the European nobility. A nineteenth century Prussian nobleman once remarked that he only spoke German—his native language—to his horse. French was especially popular among the pre-Bolshevik Russian nobility. Russian aristocrats were often heard speaking French rather than Russian among themselves.

The legacy of French linguistic power persists today in international institutions. Although a relatively small percentage of United Nations representatives can actually speak French, most of the signs in the UN building are in French as well as English. French is also the second most common language (after English) on international documents like visas and passports.

The official languages of the United Nations

The United Nations officially conducts business in six languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The Age of English

In the early twentieth century, the phrase, “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was no empty boast. Great Britain’s imperial possessions prior to World War II included (among other countries): Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Uganda, and Kenya. Three self-governing “dominions” were also nominally part of the Empire: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Britain’s rise as an imperial power began during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547), who established the modern British navy. From the late 1600s until World War II, the British Royal Navy was the most powerful navy in the world. The Royal Navy allowed Britain to secure colonial possessions in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Europe, and the South Pacific. 

Britain’s imperial expansion was based on a clever fusion of economic and military institutions. While the Royal Navy ruled the seas, quasi-governmental commercial institutions like the Massachusetts Bay Company and the British East India Company exploited economic opportunities in the colonies. England soon developed a vibrant mercantile economy based on carefully administered trade with its far-flung possessions throughout the world.

The British Empire was inevitably challenged by resistance from within the colonies. The Empire suffered a few major setbacks prior to the mid-20th century—the most significant being the loss of the American colonies in 1789. It began to unravel more rapidly in the wake of World War II, as nationalist movements gained momentum throughout the world. Britain was commercially and militarily exhausted from the war, and there was no national will to hold the Empire together by force. India became an independent nation in 1947, and numerous secessions followed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1997, the last major overseas colony, Hong Kong, was returned to the People’s Republic of China.

The British Empire lives on in the English language that is still spoken in many former colonies. In most of the Empire, English coexisted with local languages; and it continues to enjoy associate status in some former Asian colonies. In Hong Kong, both Cantonese and English are official (although Mandarin is growing in importance.) In Singapore, English shares official status with Tamil, Chinese, and Malay.

India was Britain’s most populous colony. There is considerable debate about what percentage of the Indian population is proficient in English. Most estimates cite figures between five and ten percent. India is somewhat of an anomaly among nations: hundreds of regional languages are spoken within its borders; and the Indian constitution recognizes eighteen languages. Although less than one percent of the population speaks English as its primary language, English is an important “link language” between regions that speak different tongues. English is also a prestige language in India—much as French was a prestige language in nineteenth century Europe. However, the indigenous Hindi (the primary “official” language of India) is more important in daily life. Hindi is the first language of about 300 million Indians; and 500 million more have at least basic proficiency in the language.


Late in 1941, the government of Adolf Hitler was concerned that American culture was becoming too popular in Germany. The Nazis had declared war on America a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was necessary to paint Germany’s new enemy in a negative light.

The Nazis responded to the challenge with a propaganda film. The documentary Rund um die Freiheitsstatue (Round the Statue of Liberty) highlighted American “decadences” such as swing, jazz, and risqué fashions. Both Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda) and Adolf Hitler himself personally screened the film before its release.

The film backfired as a propaganda piece. Young people in Germany’s big cities flocked to Rund um die Freiheitsstatue, and emerged from theaters even more enthralled with American culture. Hitler’s attempt to persuade young people to abandon popular American music, movies, and fashions was a complete failure. American swing and Dixieland music was illegal in Nazi Germany, but record sales thrived on the German black market throughout the war. (Ironically, many of the records were obtained from German soldiers who looted private collections in occupied Europe.)

Since the early twentieth century, American popular culture has had an almost universal appeal. Every American musical trend—swing, jazz, rock-and-roll, disco, rap—has swept the planet. Hollywood blockbusters become international blockbusters. The world’s consumers may have a preference for Chinese-made microwaves and Japanese cars, but they still have a clear preference for American culture.

Why is American culture so successful in the global marketplace? With few exceptions, American artists have been able to work with unprecedented freedoms. The American systems of free enterprise and intellectual property rights protection have enabled not only artistic expression, but also the marketing infrastructures that transform a film, a book, or a piece of music into a product for mass consumption.

History has proven that when a culture spreads, the language of that culture spreads along with it. When a young person in Vietnam or Bulgaria greets a foreign visitor with a few words of English, he is able to co-opt a bit of American culture for himself.

The Role of Russian During the Era of Soviet Communism

During the Cold War era that lasted from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, the world was bipolar, linguistically as well politically. The United States not only had economic power, but we were also the bulwark against the spread of Marxism. This distinction greatly increased the significance of our language in the countries that feared the Soviet Union and Communist China.

If American English was emerging as the language of the free world, then Russian was emerging as the language of global communism. In the Warsaw Pact countries, Russian was often the only widely available second language option. For a while, even the Chinese were enthusiastically learning it; many Chinese who attended school in the 1950s and 1960s can converse in Russian.

For a brief period during the late 1950s, Americans seriously considered integrating Russian language courses into mainstream educational institutions.  In October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Спутник (Sputnik) Satellite into orbit around the earth. Although one prominent U.S. rear admiral dismissed the 184-pound device as “a hunk of metal that almost anyone could launch,” other experts drew more dire conclusions. The Soviets had beaten the United States into space. Elmer Hutchisson, then the director of the American Institute of Physics, predicted that the American way of life was “doomed to rapid extinction.” Life magazine likened Sputnik to the first shots fired by the British at Lexington and Concord.

One of the Eisenhower Administration’s many responses to Sputnik was to propose an overhaul of the American educational system. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 appropriated $1 billion of emergency educational aid. Most of the money was earmarked for increasing the number of teachers in key subjects—including foreign language.

In the aftermath of Sputnik, there were reports that Soviet schoolchildren were reading Shakespeare in the original English. (This was probably a gross exaggeration, given the comparatively low level of English skills in Russia and Eastern Europe today). The Eisenhower Administration reasoned that American strategic interests would therefore be served if American children developed an equal level of attainment in Russian. Some Russian-language programs were successfully piloted at a handful of U.S. high schools. These efforts soon fizzled out, however; and widespread American proficiency in Russian never materialized.


After terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, enrollment in college-level Arabic courses dramatically increased.  A similar upsurge in enrollment occurred ten years earlier, during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Unfortunately, our awareness of the importance of Arabic during the first Middle Eastern conflict did not create a sustained national interest in the language. At the time of this writing, we are still dependent on native speakers for our Arabic translation needs.

Older Americans often remark that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the 9/11 of the mid-twentieth century. Since few Americans spoke Japanese in 1941, there was a shortage of people who could serve as interrogators and battlefield interpreters. During the early days of World War II, the American government hurriedly established the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. The program was abandoned once Japan’s defeat became inevitable.

Economic reasons can also motivate an urgent desire to learn a language. Japan’s economic boom of the late 1980s inspired a brief boom in Japanese language studies in the United States. Political changes in Europe—the fall of the Soviet Union, the implementation of the European Union’s Single Market, and the unification of Germany—inspired a renewed interest in certain European languages. But most of these trends were limited in scope and short-lived. 

Will history repeat itself again? No one can say for certain. Hopefully the renewed sense of urgency about learning Arabic will result in more Americans being able to wield this strategically important language in the coming decades.

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