Language is a complicated thing often used for simple ends: to communicate, to warn, to woo, to trade, to learn. Its development can demonstrate history in miniature, yet writ large upon global events.

Take the phrase “lingua franca,” for instance. Meaning any language used between those who do not share a common tongue, it could be a pidgin or creole-like corruption or conjunction of two languages, developed between parties with a mutual need for understanding – in commerce or communication. 

Such was the case with the original lingua franca – a pidgin, or combination, language which was used in the middle half of the last millennium by traders and diplomats around the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Based on a simplified Italian but borrowing words from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Greek, Turkish and Arabic, this first lingua franca was named – perhaps ironically, perhaps fittingly – after the Franks: Germanic peoples whose name was used, by those from the Byzantine Empire, to represent all Western Europeans.

Then again, a lingua franca can be a language imposed from above, either voluntarily when a certain culture dominates by pre-eminence at a formative period – for example, the standard usage of Italian in opera and musical notation, or French in ballet – or more forcefully as part of a military campaign of subjugation and control. 

This superimposition explains the eminence of English as one of the globe’s most widely used languages. The British empire took its usage around the world, and even in the post–imperial phase many former colonies have continued to use it as the primary tongue, often as a unifying common ground above a multiplicity of indigenous languages. And as that empire waned, another Anglophone culture grew into global pre-eminence.

“Whatever way you look at it, English is the dominant language in the world,” Gaston Dorren tells CGTN Europe – and he should know, as a linguistics author who speaks six languages, can read another nine and has written books in several of them. 

“That’s because of the very successful colonial past, whatever your take on that is,” he says. “But it’s also because of very dominant American culture, through Hollywood, it’s because of American military power, economic power, World War II, and so on.”

As communication and transport has shrunk the globe, English has solidified as the world’s lingua franca. As Dorren has put it, “In recent decades, when American economic, cultural, political and military predominance coincided with globalization, English became the default language in practically all domains of global communication, from cinema and pop music to science and civil aviation.”