Columbus and Other Multilinguals.

I don’t normally link to podcasts when they don’t have transcripts (and why don’t they? grr!), because I prefer reading and don’t want to be forced to spend most of an hour taking things in aurally, but I’m making an exception for the BBC’s Free Thinking episode What language did Columbus speak? (44 minutes):

Christopher Columbus spoke to lots of people: his family and kin in Genova, merchants in Venice, royalty in Madrid, the crew of his ship, not to mention the people he met on the other side of the Atlantic. Today, we would consider this a case of multilingualism. But is that how Columbus would have seen it? What language did he think he spoke himself? In the same period a pidgin language developed to allow linguistically diverse communities in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa to carry out trade, diplomacy, and general communication. We look at the latest research on this language, known as lingua franca, and consider what it might tell us about communication amongst the linguistic communities of the same region today. New Generation Thinker John Gallagher is joined by guests Dr Joanna Nolan, Professor Nandini Das, Dr Birgül Yılmaz, and translator David Bellos.

That gives you a good idea of the material covered, and it’s all extraordinarily interesting. Columbus spoke Genoese, Latin, at least some Greek (he used it for coding), Castilian Spanish (at least for writing, perhaps with help), and doubtless lingua franca (he couldn’t have plied his trade without it); did he think of Latin and its Italian and Spanish descendants as separate languages? How common was the possession of such a linguistic mix? (Spoiler: Quite common.) What was the first encounter with Amerindian languages like? There’s a deep dive into lingua franca with Joanna Nolan: it was a pidgin, probably with a Venetian lexical base plus Genoese, Sicilian, Spanish, etc.; its pronunciation seems to have been influenced by Arabic (only three vowels); it became established by the early 17th century, but was first mentioned in 14th-century JavaDjerba, and was originally “a language for giving orders.” (I posted about it back in 2005.) A Belgian diplomat who spent time in a bagnio (OED: “An oriental prison, a place of detention for slaves”) said 22 different languages were spoken there. There was a sort of lingua franca in camps like Auschwitz (Primo Levi is quoted), and there are comparable “linguistic repertoires” in refugee camps in Greece today (refugees are resistant to learning Greek because of bad experiences — they prefer English or German). In some places it’s normal to switch naturally between languages and registers. The program ends with Edward Sapir’s quote about all languages being equal in their ability to express things but not equal in power, and GallagherDavid Bellos won my heart by saying we “need to get over the great romantic nonsense of ethno-linguistic nationalism.” (Incidentally, he says “multi-ling-you-al” and “mono-ling-you-al” with four five syllables, which surprised me; it isn’t a UK thing, because the OED has only /ˌmʌltɪˈlɪŋɡw(ə)l/, /ˌmɒnə(ʊ)ˈlɪŋɡw(ə)l/.) Thanks, Maidhc!


  1. J.C. Wells’ LPD lists the pronunciation with [gju] as one of the British variants.

  2. Thanks; I wonder how widespread it is?

  3. I’ve heard a Californian pronounce bilingual that way.

  4. Now, that’s very weird.

  5. Trond Engen says

    [Lingua Franca] was first mentioned in 14th-century Java

    Wow, I trust (meaning “I don’t quite trust”) that it’s really Lingua Franca and not just any Bahasa of the Farang,

    (But really: Wow!)

  6. I’m pretty sure she said 14th, but it’s possible she misspoke and said 14th meaning 15th (years beginning with 14..), as people do. She certainly seemed to know what she was talking about.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    14th century Java and coding in Greek…

    I’m probably being dense, but what was Columbus doing with the Greek?

  8. “multi-ling-you-al” and “mono-ling-you-al” with four syllables

    Confused me for a moment; I think you mean five syllables?

  9. British English normally pronounces jaguar as three syllables and commonly even Nicaragua as five.

  10. Confused me for a moment; I think you mean five syllables?

    Oops, sorry — yes I did! I used the Del function to leave the mistake there to remind me to count more carefully.

    British English normally pronounces jaguar as three syllables and commonly even Nicaragua as five.

    Yes, I’m aware of that, and I was perfectly willing to add the -lingual words to that group, but as I say, the OED shows no such pronunciation.

  11. But they don’t say “ling-gyoo-uh frank-uh”.

  12. What is the plural of lingua franca? It was lingue franche in Australian publications during my graduate school days, IIRC. Is lingua francas now more common? In Melanesian linguistics, you need the plural a lot.

    More currently, how many syllables does Eugenio Suarez have in his first name? He regularly gets one syllable for each vowel from Anglophone baseball commentators: eh-you-hen-ee-yo. He should get an extra RBI or two in compensation for each hit.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Quoth one online source (wiktionary, so worth what the contributors are paid for it?) “The most common plural form in English is lingua francas; however, the plural forms lingue franche (following the Italian) and linguae francae (in the style of Latin) are both fairly common as well. Also attested, but quite rare, and probably nonstandard, is the form linguas franca (treating lingua alone as the noun and taking franca as an adjective; compare attorneys general, forests primeval).” I might use “linguas franca” myself if I were feeling a bit ostentatious or mischievous. I regret to say I don’t remember ever seeing “lingue franche” in the wild, which probably speaks poorly of my knowledge of Australia-published scholarly literature from the Seventies.

    Of course I know nothing about how two-word NP’s were pluralized in the original capital-L Lingua capital-F Franca. What’s the endonymic plural? I’m not willing to just assume it’s identical with the modern standard Italian plural

  14. AmE jaguar is ja-goo-wahr or jag-wahr, or (my favorite) jagwire.

  15. What is the plural of lingua franca?

    There was a discussion of this burning question earlier this year. For some reason that’s what the entire comment thread was about.

  16. how many syllables does Eugenio Suarez have in his first name?

    Three. Eu-ge-nio. “Eu” and “io” are diphthongs.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Update: perhaps there’s a sense in which “Lingua Franca” is an exonym since apparently one of the characteristics of the pidgin in question was the loss of grammatical gender and case and thus any need for noun-adjective agreement. One source says that nouns were sometimes pluralized with -s in the Romance fashion and other times pluralized in other fashions similar to Arabic, but doesn’t deal with pluralizing multi-word NP’s.

  18. @Pancho: yes, that’s how I would have divided it. I guess he can’t complain too much about all the positive coverage. I’m well-resigned since childhood to rendering my given name in Japanese with 4 katakana characters in three syllables. ジョエル。(Ziyo-E-Ru)
    @hat: thanks for the link. I’ll have to go back and review that one.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    @Joel: Do you pronounce your name in English as /ˈdʒoʊəl/ rather than /ˈdʒoʊl/? Or is the エ an artifact of a katakanization by a grown-up who was not focused on pronunciation variation in English? I am not 100% sure, because I have not had occasion to write my name in katakana in many many decades (and don’t have childhood examples of having done so close to hand), but I *think* I was taught to katakanize my first name (John) as ジョン rather than ジャン, which in hindsight seems unhelpful – sort of a “spelling pronunciation” transliteration that treats “John” as homophonous with “Joan” rather than “Jahn.”

  20. “Don’t normally link to podcasts when they don’t have transcripts (and why don’t they? grr!), ”

    Money money money

    I recall at least one BBC Radio program ceased providing transcripts. They cited budgetary reasons.

  21. That figures. Sigh.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    British, and I expect American, people pronounce Lyon as two syllables, and go so far as to stress a syllable that isn’t there, treating the y as a syllable.

  23. I think generally Lyon(s) follows the usual pattern of stress for two-syllable French words in English, with British people stressing the first and Americans the last syllable. But I might just consider it to be the English name of the city. I wouldn’t complain about English speakers pronouncing a nonexistent consonant at the end of Paris.

  24. I’m not sure I’ve heard an American say Lyon — it’s not a city we talk about much — but I would be surprised if anyone here used the British “Lion” pronunciation; we generally make a vague effort to sound French for anything but Paris.

  25. I don’t think Athel was suggesting Brits pronounce Lyon like the English word lion, /ˈlaɪən/ — at least, I’ve never heard anything like that in the wild. What I expect from Brits is /li.ɔ̃/, or at worst /ˈli.ɒn/. Modern British pronunciations of French placenames/loanwords are usually analogous to USian pronunciations of Spanish ones — shoehorned fairly roughly into our own phonotactic repertoire, but starting from the actual original pronunciation, not based on complete orthographic misunderstandings, unlike the beautiful monstrosities Brits often make of jalapeno and tortilla and USians of Versailles and croissant.

  26. I don’t think Athel was suggesting Brits pronounce Lyon like the English word lion, /ˈlaɪən/ — at least, I’ve never heard anything like that in the wild. What I expect from Brits is /li.ɔ̃/, or at worst /ˈli.ɒn/.

    Oh. Well, /li.ɔ̃/ is what I would expect from a Yank with at least minimal French; I guess /ˈli.ɒn/ is what Athel had in mind (“go so far as to stress a syllable that isn’t there, treating the y as a syllable”).

  27. The Oxford American Dictionary gives /liˈɔn/ for ‘Lyons’. For BrE, Longman’s Pronouncing Dictionary has “ ˈliːɒ̃ -ɒn; ˈlaɪ ̮ǝnz ‖ liː ˈɑːn -ˈɔːn ”.

  28. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I guess I wasn’t clear. I certainly wasn’t suggesting the English word “lion”. I was thinking of people who were aiming for a French pronunciation of Lyon. /’li.ɔ̃/ is what British people say, but in French there is only one syllable, and the name is pronounced /ljɔ̃/

  29. For BrE, Longman’s Pronouncing Dictionary has “ ˈliːɒ̃ -ɒn; ˈlaɪ ̮ǝnz ‖ liː ˈɑːn -ˈɔːn ”.

    Aha, so some Brits still do say Lions!

  30. Oddly, the OED has an entry for Lyons; the old version had (ˈlaɪənz, liɔ̃), but the new one (entry from 1976) says “Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈliːɒ̃/, U.S. /liˈɔn/, /liˈɑn/, /liˈoʊn/.”

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I think my father did, and he certainly said Marsales. However, if he were still alive he would shortly be celebrating his 114th birthday.

  32. Oddly, the OED has an entry for Lyons

    Proper names get in if they have attributive or figurative uses. Even the First Edition already included cities such as Birmingham, Geneva, Genoa, Jerusalem, Leyden, Limerick, London, Maracaibo, Modena, Monterey, Naples, Newmarket, Oporto, Orleans, Oxford, Panama, Seville, Shiraz, Sonsonate, Tours, Yokohama, and others, with many more added in the 1933 Supplement and subsequent editions.

    the old version had (ˈlaɪənz, liɔ̃)

    That’s from 1976, when the entry was first published.

    the new one (entry from 1976) says “Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈliːɒ̃/, U.S. /liˈɔn/, /liˈɑn/, /liˈoʊn/.”

    That’s a Third Edition pronunciation; you can tell because it’s separated into “Brit.” and “U.S.” variants. Since the rest of the entry isn’t revised, this pronunciation is probably less than ten years old — I don’t think they were doing pronunciation-only updates before then. (Insert usual complaint about their obscure date-marking.)

    They should mention the old /ˈlaɪənz/ pronunciation when this entry gets its full revision, since recording changes like that is their job.

  33. Thanks, and man, is that confusing.

  34. Java

    Djerba!!!! (20:00)

    (See “Lingua Franca”: The Story of a Term Henry and Renée Kahane, p 35.)

  35. Although Lyon is usually pronounced as [ljɔ̃] in French, it is also possible to pronounce it in two syllables as [li(j)ɔ̃]. French has some cases of [j, w] that can optionally be fully syllabic as [i, u]. Similarly, lier or lion can be pronounced as two syllables, and liaison as three. However, lieu [ljø] can only be pronounced as one syllable, and atelier is only ever [atəlje]; in these words, the [j] never becomes [i].

    All this to say that there’s nothing wrong with approximating Lyon with two syllables in English.

  36. Djerba!!!! (20:00)

    Woops! Fixed, and this is why I hate having to depend on aural transmission. (Also, I’m glad somebody actually listened to the whole thing.)

  37. I connected the two facts (that the Asian name for Europeans is farang- and the name of lingua franca) in my head only recently*. How else would they call the language of Franks if not “the language of Franks”, if they call Europeans ‘Franks” anyway? So it was tempting:)

    *In pre-Internet times my friend once recorded a disc from mp3-s with Celtic/English tunes found on my PC and named it “blood of fishermen, slaves and pirates runs in our veins” (в наших жилах течёт кровь рыбаков, рабов и пиратов). Except “fishermen” (but fishermen are present in my mental seascape, because fishermen are there, you can meet them and talk to them, and there are not pirates and slaves in the modern Mediterranean. Of course fishermen do contribute in this language exchange) this is the context where people usually place lingua franca.

    Meanwhile Franks in the East in that time are… pilgrims? Merchants? But those need a language too:)

  38. See “Lingua Franca”: The Story of a Term Henry and Renée Kahane

    I’ll quote:

    The early records (like the later ones), minimal in bulk, are widely scattered in time and space. The earliest — from the island of Djerba, off Tunisia — dates probably from the 13th century. [60] Cortelazzo has called attention to fragments from Alexandria, A.D. 1484 [?], and from Tunisia, A.D. 1528 (“Lingua franca”, p. 110). The early traces of the label Lingua Franca as applied to precisely this reduced form of communication, are ambiguous: Thus the Venetian Ambrogio Contarini described in his 1486 travelogue a situation (taking place in Tbilisi) in which “eravamo abbandonati da tutti, salvo che da un vecchio che sapeva poco franco“,[61] which S. Battaglia’s team of lexicographers interprets as exemplifying the corrupt Italian contact language of the Eastern Mediterranean. [62]

    [60] G. Grion, “Lingua franca del Dugento”, AGI, XII (1890-92), 183f. Cf. Fronzaroli, p. 217n 1.
    [61] Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Navigationi et viaggi (Venezia, 1563-1606), II, 119F.
    [62] Grande Dizionario della lingua italiana, s.v. franco₁ (1970).

  39. Cf. Fronzaroli, p. 217n 1.

    Over the years, several studies have cleared up various facets of the Lingua Franca, as, for example, those by H. Schuchardt (1909), the trail-blazer;[1] by P. Fronzaroli, who focused attention on the Algerian variety;[2] and G. Folena, who cautiously silhouetted Venice’s dominant rôle in the spread of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca.[3]

    [1] “Die Lingua franca”, ZRPh, XXXIII (1909), 441-461.
    [2] “Note sulla formazione della lingua franca”, in Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere “La Colombaria”, Atti e memorie, XX (1955), 211-252.
    [3] “Introduzione al veneziano «de là da mar»”, BALM , X-XII (1968-70), 331-376.

  40. Trond Engen says

    Thanks! The article also touches on the Aljami of the Maghreb.

  41. I’m probably being dense, but what was Columbus doing with the Greek?

    In Columbus’ day Genoa still had important trading outposts/colonies in the Greek speaking world, notably Chios and Lesbos. Genoa also had had a major presence in Constantinople and Smyrna before the Ottoman conquest and some level of trade, presumably still mostly in Greek, continued throughout the 15th century.

  42. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    There was an exhibition in Marseilles of Columbus’s library a few years ago. (Genoa had been trying to borrow his books for years, but Seville always refused, fearing that they wouldn’t get them back again. However, Marseilles was OK because, as everyone knows, there is no crime or dishonesty in Marseilles: it’s like Japan in that respect.) I was very impressed both with the books and with Columbus’s annotations, which showed him to be much more cultivated than I had realized. When I said this to my wife, she said yes, the English always think that Columbus was as ignorant and uneducated as El Pirata Drake.

  43. >>I’m probably being dense, but what was Columbus doing with the Greek?

    >In Columbus’ day Genoa still had important trading outposts

    Sure. But my guess is that Jen was asking about “coding in Greek”, hence her playful inclusion of “14th century Java” in the question.

    I wasn’t sure either. Was he using a letter transposition code to communicate secret information? If that’s the meaning of coding, why do (only?) that (only?) in Greek?

  44. Presumably because he thought the people around him wouldn’t be likely to understand it.

  45. Obfuscating the code…

  46. The bit on Greek is

    He also at least knew how to write Greek. How much Greek he really knew we don’t know—is not knowable, but there is a kind of secret coded copy of the journal of the voyage in the Greek alphabet and in mirror writing—Greek written backwards—to make doubly sure no one else could make head or tail of it.

  47. Jo Nolan’s own introduction in LF can be found here (the book – this one – is available on sci-hub too)

  48. And about their another guest, Nandini Das: it is quite annoying that it is impossible to learn from Wikipedia or CVs what is a person’s L1. Anyway, she is interested in travel writing, and travel writing is what I read often. And she’s Indian, so I am a bit curious.
    At least Russians find literature about Russia highly amusing.

    As I am supplying the podcast with references… They mention Everett (I have no idea what Everett is doing here, but Everett as a hero of linguistics and Pirahã in the role of the most famous world language are harmless and funny) and his monolingual demonstration. I watched it once. 1, 2. It reminded me something we (my freind and I) tried, that is monolingual teaching (rather than eliciting).

  49. And about their another guest, Nandini Das: it is quite annoying that it is impossible to learn from Wikipedia or CVs what is a person’s L1.

    She’s a reviewer for the Journal of the Odisha Society of the Americas (formerly Journal of the Orissa Society of the Americas), if that helps.

  50. It does, thank you! Not that it has any practical consequences but I habitually want to know such things.

  51. Me too.

  52. I was annoyed on her behalf whenever one of the other participants called her nan-DEE-nee, because I used to know someone named Nandini, pronounced roughly NUN-dih-nee, who had that problem (and a couple of other South Asian women with names ending in -ini who too often got penultimate rather than the correct antepenultimate stress). But what do I know? Maybe she does say it that way, at least in English contexts.

  53. In this video it sounded like Arundhati Nath was saying it with penultimate stress at 1:31, but at 2:07 and elsewhere it sounded more clearly initial; Jonathan Gil Harris clearly says it with initial stress (4:40 et seq.).

  54. ktschwarz says

    Gallagher won my heart by saying we “need to get over the great romantic nonsense of ethno-linguistic nationalism.”

    Though Gallagher, the host, no doubt would endorse that, it was said not by him but by guest David Bellos (at about 41:56). Gallagher responds with “Joanna Nolan, I see you nodding and laughing there,” and then Nolan talks about somebody who preferred to speak lingua franca instead of pure Tuscan because it was more democratic.

    David Bellos’s translations have been discussed several times here, and he even responded in the comments to Hat’s discussion of his translation of Perec.

  55. Damn, I was sloppy that day! Thanks, emended accordingly.

  56. John Cowan says

    I feel I must point out that professionally produced transcripts are often full of such howlers as these, especially when what’s being transcribed is a group discussion where, if the transcriber doesn’t know what A said, still less do they know what B made of it.

    Java was, I believe, the first programming language in which one could write in Greek; that is, as to the user-chosen parts of the program (the keywords such as class, int, if, etc. are fixed and thus must appear in the Latin alphabet). I believe this feature assisted the adoption of Java in Japan, though it wound up not being used in practice.

  57. Stu Clayton says

    Jawa puroguramingu !

    Butthurt in 2019:

    I see Japanese in code comments, or else just in strings.

    Some languages allows Japanese characters to be used for names of the variables, but nobody ever uses that. Of course it’s better for us Japanese programmers to have more Japanese in code as not everybody reads English, and name convention could be more straightforward, but idioms are always in English. (Like the other comment said, Japanese programming language is nearly non existent: however there are full Chinese version of C.) Anyhow, there aren’t much benefit in using Japanese word in variable, so we pretty much refrain from using the as much as possible. Also, Japanese characters has its own alphabets (like A and 0 (double-byte) for A and 0), and that will mess with the code.

    var foo = 0 + 1;// error
    var bar = 0 + 1; // 1

    So, again, we avoid them.

    The worst fucker is the double-byte space character ” ” in place of normal space. They are treated as different character from normal spaces, and newbies often puts this somewhere inside the code (perhaps after typing out strings or comments and forgetting to exit the Japanese language input mode), and it becomes invisible in the most editors but still throws errors.

    Japanese learners definitely has steeper learning curve as English is nearly vital to get used to idioms (and reading documents, participating in developer’s community, etc), so there are somewhat higher chance in programmers in Japan more familiar to English language.

    And like the other comment says, we have the problem about encodings. Now that UTF-8 is popular thanks to emoji and new standardization, it’s becoming less of the problem, but this is so much butthurt for reading old source codes. Many Japanese programmers knows extensively about encoding conventions. (Probably Chinese and Koreans too?)

  58. Stu Clayton says

    Even a lingua franca is a bitch when it’s not your everyday lingua. I hope the Chinese don’t take over the world, since I don’t know a word of Chinese (or whatever passes for a word – there’s that difficulty in addition). Do the Chinese hold spelling bees ?

    Well, I mean, it’s not as if Anglophones had actually taken over the world at some point. I think our economies just happened to be still running over after several rounds of wars elsewhere in which everyone else destroyed their economies. Now the UK is out of the game, there’s only the US to default on its debt. I have read that the Chinese can’t afford to let the US default, because the US owes them so much money. That’s a relief, I guess.

    Full disclosure: it should be clear that I understand squat about these matters.

  59. Stu Clayton says

    Since the Chinese language does not need spelling, the closest to a spelling bee is a Chinese character contest. Today the most popular Chinese character contest is probably the Chinese character writing contest organized by CCTV: CCTV节目官网-中国汉字听写大会

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