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Lingua Franca

Updated on March 18, 2019
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Dr. David Thiessen is an educator, writer, pastor, and speaker. He has authored several books on a variety of topics including Archaeology

What is it about

It is a term I am beginning to hate not because it does anything wrong but because the people who use it cannot seem to tear themselves away from the phrase and use a thesaurus to find other words to say in its place.

The phrase is used a lot in the archaeological, scholarly world for the purpose of identifying one language used more than the rest for communication throughout the known ancient world. One of the earlier languages used as the international tongue was Akkadian:

This involves the famous Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt. The letters, written in Akkadian cuneiform, the diplomatic lingua franca of the day, consist of over 300 pieces of diplomatic correspondence between two Egyptian pharaohs (Amenophis III [1391–1353] and Amenophis IV, also known as Akhenaten [1353–1337]) and local rulers in Canaan.

BAR 23:04 (July/Aug 1997). 1997 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society

Did Jesus speak Aramaic only

Later, Aramaic took the role as the international language of the day and many scholars and archaeologists assume that all people spoke the language while rejecting their own tongue:

During the Babylonian captivity (sixth century B.C.) many Jews had been cut off from their homeland; in Babylonia, they had come to use the dominant lingua franca, Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew. After their return, some of the returnees probably used Hebrew, but the use of Hebrew does not seem to have been widespread.

BAR 18:05 (Sep/Oct 1992). 1992 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society

Eventually, they leapt to a conclusion and decided that Jesus spoke only Aramaic:

That Jesus spoke Aramaic there is no doubt.

By Jesus’ time numerous local dialects of Aramaic had emerged. Jesus, like other Palestinian Jews, would have spoken a local form of Middle Aramaic† called Palestinian Aramaic.

BAR 18:05 (Sep/Oct 1992). 1992 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society


Aramaic was the vernacular in Palestine at the time of Jesus. It became the lingua franca of the Levant during the period of the Persian empire (539–331 B.C.).

BR 07:06. 2004 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society.

That assumption comes with no proof whatsoever but is a gigantic assumption that cannot be proven in this lifetime. then the final example of these leaps to conclusions comes from the example of Josephus:

Did Josephus speak Aramaic

Josephus also tells us that he composed his Jewish War “in his native tongue.”† This must mean Aramaic,

BAR 18:05 (Sep/Oct 1992). 1992 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society.

Notice the huge leap to a conclusion without presenting any evidence at all. The word ‘native’ does not indicate an imported language from another country which Aramaic would be, but the original language of the nation which would have been Hebrew. I do not think Josephus was referring to writing in Aramaic but rather in Hebrew. I only have the word ‘native’ to go on but that is more than those who suggest that Aramaic was the language Josephus wrote.

Since we do not have Josephus’ original manuscripts, we will never know what language he considered native or wrote in. By his words we do learn that people studied other languages much like they do today.

In reading these works by archaeologists and scholars I began to have doubts that they really understand how a lingua franca works or is perceived by the people of different nations.

Do natives give up their mother tongue

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples and compare them to the modern era’s practice of lingua franca. In the second quote above, it does present a possibility that the Hebrews taken into captivity could have forsaken their own language and learned Aramaic only. But that is the ideal not the reality.

Most likely, the captive Hebrews maintained their own language in order not to lose their identity while learning Aramaic in order to thrive and survive in their new land. We can learn from the many immigrants taken to the new world especially from China.

The enclaves of San Francisco and Vancouver, still hold many signs in Chinese today and the many inhabitants still speak the language while their children learn both Chinese and English. The same can be said for other immigrants in New York, Toronto and other major cities. The native language was and is still spoken by those who came to the Americas even though their families have enjoyed over 200 years of residency.

In reading that article, the author presents not one iota of evidence that the Hebrews forsook their native tongue and took up the new one. History teaches us the opposite as even those in former British colonies where English is the major language spoken today. The native languages were not dropped and they are still found in existence throughout the British Commonwealth.

It is not a replacement language

A second piece of evidence that leads me to believe that archaeologists and scholars do not grasp the reality of the idea of a lingua franca is the situation surrounding the modern international language. As time continued, Aramaic gave way to other languages just like Akkadian did and now English sits at the top of the heap.

People from many nations are learning English for a variety of reasons. One being of course, diplomatic. Being able to communicate to the leaders of other countries is very important. Another reason is economic. International trade would be at a stand still if businessmen could not communicate with their counterparts in other nations.

This brings us to a third reason, employment.people need to work and the ability to communicate in other languages makes the potential employee very valuable. Yet at NO time do these learners of English forsake their native language and speak English only.

One example is the Philippines where their educational system is in English and follows the American methods but one of their main languages, Tagalog, thrives and is spoken and understood better than English.

Another good example is the people of Korea who feel it is necessary for their students to learn the English language. The Korean government has employed hundreds of thousands of English native speakers over the past 25 years approx., giving them year-long contracts to teach English to their students.

Yet, in all that time the Korean people and government have not forsaken their native language and adopted English as their own. Korean is used more than English is even though there are bilingual signs throughout the cities and highways and despite the growing number of English books in the land.

The misuse of lingua franca

Just because a language is declared the lingua franca of the world does it mean that it replaces the native language of the people of each nation. That is just an absurd thought. That ridiculous assumption tells us that the scholar or archaeologist who think that way think that the ancient people had no national pride nor pride in their own tongue and discarded it like yesterday’s trash at the first chance they got.

Just because a few inscriptions or manuscripts appear with Aramaic in Israel does it mean that Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the common language of the day. Far from it. Sure, many people probably learned it but as a second language for whatever reason they had.

In Korea, as mentioned earlier, many signs are written in English, some also have Chinese and Japanese on them as well but those signs do not indicate a rejection of Korean. Rather they indicate the Korean acceptance of the fact that some people come to their country and cannot speak Korean.

It is a courtesy that such signs are made and put up for the convenience of the visitors or immigrants who visit Korea.

How does all this relate to the time Jesus and other ancient peoples? Simple, Aramaic probably was the international language of its time but it was not a replacement language. The loss of mother tongues would be great if this idea were true. It was used for many purposes and not everyone spoke it. Most spoke their native tongues and learned Aramaic as a second language.

Jesus most likely spoke any language He wanted. He is God and has abilities we cannot fathom. I do not think He had to go to school to learn a language because He did not divest Himself of Who He was when He came to earth. He knew He was God’s son even as a child and I doubt He lost any of His power when physically on earth.

Some final words

The disciples most likely spoke Hebrew and those who could learn more languages probably did. Not everyone can learn a second language. Lingua francas do not replace, they are added to the native speaker’s language arsenal and if one cannot learn the new international language then they hire translators to help them out.

Archaeologists and scholars just do not know the reality when it comes to languages and people. They are in too much of a hurry to construct their own version of the past and refuse to look for the truth of how the past really was.

The ancient world wasn’t much different from the modern one when it comes to people, their desires, their greed, their goals and communication. They would not give up their own language to speak a foreign tongue unless forced and even then it is hard to make people give it up. The Japanese tried when they occupied Korea. They failed and so would any ancient nation who tried the same thing.

© 2019 David Thiessen


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