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I'm curious about the concept of vernacular vs lingua franca. Historically there is a negative connotation to the word 'vernacular,' where it was used to refer to an inferior language (of the slaves) and hence subservient to a higher, more common language. Whether this connotation remains today, I don't know.

But could you illustrate with examples from other countries? Can German, which is the mother tongue in Germany, be a vernacular in other nations? And for a tongue to be a lingua franca, must it necessarily be an outside language that's gained currency?

Lots of points, but I'd appreciate any inputs/debate on this.

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You should look up vernacular in a dictionary. It is not subservient to a more common language, it is the common language. – mgkrebbs Aug 9 '11 at 21:33
@mgkrebbs, The OP is actually hinting at the etymology of vernacular (the Latin word vernula being used to designate the condition of a young slave by birth) - vernaculus meaning "home made" or "belonging to the house". – Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 9 '11 at 21:58
Consider: "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.", given at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_V,_Holy_Roman_Emperor – Hexagon Tiling Feb 13 '12 at 12:07
I knew a number of academics who would say "or to put it in the vernacular" just before swearing. "This is a very poor turn of events, or to put it in the vernacular, I'm pissed off." I think if you spent time around these people you would pick up the connotation that it was a word for the language of the lesser people or a lesser language. – Kate Gregory Feb 13 '12 at 12:36
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Yet another answer, only slightly different from the other ones.

The case of German is actually interesting, and I'll come back to this later. But first we need definitions.

In theory a vernacular language and a lingua franca are exact opposites. The latter being also termed a vehicular language.

  1. As you have correctly hinted in your original post, the origin of the phrase vernacular language is that of "the language of the servants".
    This is becoming clearer if one remembers that the ruling class in the imperial1 provinces of the Roman Empire was dominated by Latin speaking colons (originally veterans having been awarded a plot of seized land) and by the imperial administrative staff. Cities also abounded in migrants from all corners of the empire who could only use Latin to communicate with each other2. As a result, the indigenous languages of the colonised populations were usually overshadowed by Latin and could only survive by being used by such classes as the slaves and the servants.
    Latin instead, in these circumstances was the vehicular language because it allowed various non native speakers populations to communicate without having to learn each and every one of the hundreds of languages spoken in the empire. The typical difference between a point to point topology and a hub topology.
  2. To figure out the origin of the lingua franca, one has to travel another millennium in time and imagine that the Mediterranean was crisscrossed by a multitude of ships and that the crusaders had taken the control of the major Islands and several important ports at least on the northern rim. The vehicular language was therefore a kind of pidgin evolved from Old French: the so called Lingua Franca – "language of the Franks". On the southern rim, the lingua franca was still spoken by the “roumi” (roman) slaves and their integrated descendants.

Now to your reference to German. There are indeed a number of minorities in eastern Europe who speak German because of their origin (Hanseatic League, Teutonic Knights, Peter the Great guests... to name only the most well known cases) and an even greater number of people who speak very well German simply because they have learned it (possibly as migrants in Germany or because they do business in German). This is particularly true in the Balkans, in Turkey, in Poland in the Czech Republic etc...

Just remember how, before the advent of the Euro, many countries had two currencies: their own and the Deutsch Mark.

So in this sense yes, German has all the characteristics of a lingua franca. It is however obviously competing with Russian in the former communist countries.

To label German a vernacular language however, one has to go more than 15 century back in time.

1  As opposed to the senatorial provinces which were the result of "older" conquests (typically made under the Republican era).

2  Or Greek for the eastern half of the Empire.

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Vernacular and lingua franca mean quite different things. They can both be glossed as “a common language”, but for two rather different meanings of the word common.

A vernacular now means the language that (some group of) people speak in informal situations. Generally this will be a common language in the sense of being the language that those people speak most frequently.

A lingua franca is common in the sense of being shared. It means a language used to communicate within a community in which people have a variety of different first languages.

In mediæval England, Middle English was a vernacular, but not a lingua franca. It was most people’s first language, but people with different first languages would be more likely to have Latin as a shared language.

Similarly, in Europe of that period, Latin was a lingua franca, but not a vernacular.

On the other hand, the categories can overlap. During the “age of sail”, in ports where people from many countries met to trade, varieties of pidgin English (or French or Spanish) were often both a lingua franca and the local vernacular.

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As mgkrebbs says in the comments, a vernacular is just the common language of a place. It has nothing to do with slavery.

A lingua franca is one kind of trade language used by people from different places and different vernaculars to communicate with each other. The name comes from the Lingua Franca that was used in medieval times for communication around the Mediterranean Sea.

A pidgin is another kind of trade language, when people speaking various different languages settle in one place under the control of a higher-prestige group that speaks another language. They all want to speak the high-prestige language but their native languages interfere.

Pidgins and Lingua Francas can develop into Creoles when they become the first language of subsequent generations.

Haitian Creole is an example of a pidgin that developed into a Creole. Swahili is an example of a Lingua Franca that developed into a Creole.

The best-studied Creole that derives from a pidgin is Tok Pisin in New Guinea. It's well studied because it arose while there were linguists to pay attention.

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I think you're mixing two things that can't be really compared.

Vernacular is a language or dialect used in a given country by the ordinary people. It has no link to slaves or similar stuff. Almost every village/town in every region in every nation has some vernacular.

Lingua Franca is a language used by people who speak different languages in order to be able to communicate.

See for example, English is a lingua franca at the moment, because it's the language used to communicate in the world. Even in this site we're not all from English-speaking countries, but still we all speak English.

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I think a vernacular language can be a lingua franca if it is the most common language in a nation.

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protected by Daniel Feb 14 '12 at 1:26

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