Lingua francas exist because they allow people with different native languages to communicate, with an emphasis on flexibility to the detriment of rigor. Were a lingua franca's spelling made strictly phonetic, it could result in different spellings of the same words depending on the native language of the speaker, which would hurt communication.

English is currently the global lingua franca, and mostly as a quirk of history has much less phonetic spelling than comparable languages. I would argue that the relative divorce between English spelling and pronunciation helps it be a lingua franca, and that English's role as a lingua franca retards efforts to rationalize English spelling.

Have lingua francas historically resisted phonetic rationalizations, and have they lost lingua franca status when such efforts have altered the spelling of words?

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    Latin was very phonetic. French was pretty phonetic, once you internalized all the complex spelling rules. English is not phonetic at all. Jul 30, 2014 at 3:12
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    Spelling belongs to a language irrespective of whether it is a lingua franca or not, and speaking of how much the spelling is phonetic is absolutely irrelevant, take Aramaic, which used to be a lingua franca for centuries, with its spelling being not only unphonetic, but I'd say even anti-phonetic, which resulted in such a phenomenon as heterograms in the neighbouring languages.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 30, 2014 at 6:05

1 Answer 1


Even a brief look down the list of Lingua Francas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lingua_francas) will show you that there is no tendency toward more opaque spelling systems.

But there are more fundamental misassumptions here that are worth pointing out.

  1. Lingua Francas do not require to be written at all. They can be spoken or written or both.
  2. Lingua Francas vary in how much their structures are impacted by their cross-communicative function. English for instance has not developed any notable structural features in its role as Lingua Franca.
  3. Do not confuse Lingua Franca with concepts like Pidgin or Creole. While there are certain limited features that we can expect many Creoles to have in common, there is no such commonality with Lingua Francas. I suspect you will find certain commonalities in their use by non-native speakers due to imperfect learning but this may or may not have an impact on the language structure itself depending on context of use.
  4. I wonder if the question may have been inspired by the case of Chinese where the orthography itself serves as a sort of Lingua Franca. Divorce between orthography and pronunciation is very useful for the many Chinese languages that use the characters without regard to pronunciation because the characters don't give any hints as to pronunciation. But this is not the case with English (or any non-pictographic system of orthography).
  5. There's really no such thing as 'phonetic spelling'. It is much better to talk about opaque and transparent orthographies. The latter are more predictable but they will still adhere to some sort of an ideal representation (often linked to a standard) rather than represent speech directly. English is one of the more opaque systems but this in no way enables communication. It simply makes it harder to learn. Also, English has resisted long-standing efforts at spelling reform long before it became the Lingua Franca it is today.

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