Linguae Francae: Some What-Ifs

When you think about it, it’s rather odd that this blog is written in English rather than Portuguese. And I’m not saying that because I have Portuguese heritage, but rather because the first truly global sea routes were pioneered by Portugal, whose princes, explorers, and traders led the Age of Discovery.

By all rights that first-mover advantage really should have been hard for anyone to surpass as far as establishing a global seafaring merchant empire is concerned, especially since even in real life Portuguese established itself as the lingua franca in the Indian Ocean and was able to establish itself in South America in the form of Brazil. To its credit Brazil is a large and fairly important country, but it really seems like more should have amounted of Portugal and its language in the end.

Sure, Portugal is a small country, but the very fact it was able to spawn a monstrosity such as Brazil attests to some real potential, as does the fact it was able to be the lingua franca of Indian Ocean trade for a long time, not to mention how (for all I know) it’s still widely spoken in places like Angola and Mozambique, which were Portuguese colonies for a long time. And besides, if size was all that mattered then the English would be using an Indian language as their lingua franca rather than the reverse. The Portuguese were capable, to the extent anyone was.

Perhaps if the Spanish hadn’t stolen their thunder with the conquistadors things would have been different, but as it was the Spanish weren’t able to establish their tongue as a true lingua franca of the world. One factor, of course, is that the real common tongue among educated people in the age stretching from Henry the Navigator clear to Isaac Newton was Latin, rather than any vernacular language.

A Latin World?

As I understand it only the cultural prestige and pre-eminent geopolitical position of France in a few centuries’ time was able to establish a tongue other than Latin as the lingua franca among educated Westerners: namely, the French language. Which honestly was an unfortunate development, along with the trend starting in the Reformation to vernacularize everything.

Because sure, your scientific text or biblical translation or whatever can now be read by the masses of your own country, but you know who can’t read it now? Educated people from other countries. Which is kind of a big problem, because you need to be able to converse with educated people from all over the world to have an intellectual, scientific, or technical scene.

Which is why a lingua franca re-emerges under such circumstances, the first instance of this being French, but then extending in various scientific fields to German, English, and even Russian by the time we reach the Soviet era. Meaning not only do scholars have to learn a whole new language (or, more frequently, languages, plural) but all prior work (most of which was in Latin or Greek) has to be laboriously translated into the new lingua franca.

Seems like a lot of trouble for no reward, especially considering that you go from a situation where you have a lingua franca natively spoken by nobody to one that is natively spoken by some and not others, which seems much less fair. One might think somebody or another would have raised such an objection and people would have kept using Latin? It gets even weirder when you consider that the sheer effort of translating everything (and remember: no translation is perfect, so much would be lost in the transition regardless) should have given scholars pause.

In the final event by the 21st century English is becoming entrenched as the global lingua franca, with no doubt the version of English everybody worldwide is learning fated to ossify into a classical standard against later developments and divergences within the language, the British Empire having been the closest thing the West has approached to the sheer scale and glory of Rome…and, perhaps, having left a similar linguistic legacy. English serves its purpose well enough; it ought to be considered salutary that we once again are coming into a world where educated people speak the same language.

But how much better would it have been if we had just kept speaking Latin? People think of Latin as this dead language just used for Catholic liturgies and written correspondence by scholars who had to work by quill pen under cover of darkness, rather than anything practical that the masses could have ever learned and used in everyday life even in the context of conducting global business and writing bachelor’s theses, but it’s really not a harder second language than English. If billions of people can be immersed in English courses and successfully pick it up in school, then surely the same could have been done with Latin.

By the Age of Discovery Latin of course was a liturgical and scholarly language, but modernization means mass literacy. Consider that billions of people in their media, workplace, and intellectual habits live in a sea of English even when they’re not native speakers. In large parts of Europe today when people go online they all default to using English, because why not? If Latin were still the common tongue among intellectual elites it’s entirely feasible to see this expanding with modernization downward to the masses, who would, as with English today, live in a sea of Latin in their media, workplace, and intellectual habits.

Today an organization like OPEC has no countries that speak English natively and meets in a German city, yet English is used to conduct their meetings. Latin could serve the same purpose in an alternate timeline.

The net effect is that rather than being largely confined to the Republic of Letters Latin would experience a massive resurgence in everyday life of ordinary people starting with the modernization process in the 19th and 20th centuries, and continuing onward into our own time. Now that would be really interesting. In that timeline you’d of course be reading this blog in Latin, not English.

And we’d be receiving reports that in some of the more developed regions it’s not even really necessary to learn the vernacular to integrate and do basically anything; just your Latin as a second language skills will do. Much like we hear about English in Amsterdam today.

Geography as Destiny?

Might be cooler than Portuguese. Though seeing Portuguese everywhere as the global language everybody can understand on signage and the like would be really neat. And probably the coolest option if we have to vernacularize everything, because if one of the vernaculars is to become the global lingua franca it’s likely going to be one of the global seafaring powers, which by the Age of Discovery means a western European power with access to the open Atlantic. Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English all answer to this description.

Morocco and Norway are two areas that enjoy much the same geographical advantage. If the Basques could have been a bigger deal, then maybe their language could have become more widespread, but this would take a real substantial Basque republic of some sort to take off; obviously just being an oppressed nationality under the thumb of larger powers isn’t going to get them anywhere. An even more out-there possibility would be some form of Italian, if an Italian power could establish dominion and influence over Iberia (perhaps southern France too) and convince educated elites that their Romance dialects should look up to Italian as being the literary standard. For that matter, if there was a seagoing power girdling the western Mediterranean from Catalonia to Tuscany through the Riviera some form of Occitan could have taken off, though extending across Iberia to the Atlantic coast would likely be required, making this power something of a super-sized alternate Spain that had its elite power base in Occitania. Weird stuff, but I suppose possible. But really just variations on a theme. Morocco might have been a more interesting player, considering they spoke Arabic.

Geography means that Europeans will be after the spice trade (and new routes around Africa to reach it) and the logic of the volta do mar suggests that they’ll run into the New World with all that implies, all but assuring world domination. But one supposes it’s possible for some Arab, Indian, Chinese, or even Malay power to have made it. As it was the Arab traders made it far enough down the African coast for the Swahili language to emerge, a regional lingua franca consisting of a Bantu base with a heavy blending of Arabic loanwords. Malay too became widespread across Indonesia courtesy of the spice routes, and India even has some geographically favorable terrain for early industrialization, coupled with a society that might have been advanced enough to make the leap. Heck, speaking of industrialization, China is thought to have been close under the Song dynasty, and who can forget Zheng He and his treasure ships?

China was primarily a land power, but the southern and coastal elements have long thrived on maritime trade to far-flung places, so if the empire broke up permanently might some of the southern pieces have competed against each other in their infinite greed for riches and power, geography dictating that this be, unlike a united China, by sea, and made the leap to an Age of Discovery? After all, Spain and Portugal weren’t much to look at under the Roman heel, but when they were freed…well…

In that case we might be writing and reading blogs like this in classical Chinese. A favored scenario among alternate history writers and fans, and not without good reason. An even more out-there possibility is if Japan had made the leap, but this would have required some sort of killer advantage the Japanese lacked in real life; an early exploration and colonization of the New World through the Alaskan route by whatever means would have done it, however, and would be absolutely fascinating, considering how distinctive (and, frankly, alluring) the Japanese culture is. Already an important country, yes, but a world that was in large measure shaped in Japan’s image? Hoo boy…

Even more exotic and unexpected possibilities abound, of course. I’ve entertained thoughts of an alternate history where the natives of Cascadia establish a much more advanced civilization, in which case something like Chinook Jargon would be in prime position to be both a classical language and the world lingua franca. Honestly it’s not as unlikely as you might think. I’m sure an enterprising mind, like many of my dear readers no doubt possess, can spin some even more intriguing timelines…

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