MARE NOSTRUM: When the Mediterranean used only one language, Sabir

In ancient times the most spoken languages in Western Europe and some Mediterranean areas were Greek and, afterwards, Latin, but around 1500 the pirate republics of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis gave birth to a common language, Sabir. This can be considered the oldest pidgin language, a dialect born from regular contacts over a long period of time between different communities that have the need to communicate with each other and lack a lingua franca. The Sabir vocabulary has been gathered in 1830 in the Vocabulary of lingua franca or small Moorish, completed with a phrasebook for the everyday life’s use; a 70% of it comes from Italy (Venetian and Genoese) and a 10% from Spain, with elements from Arabic, Catalan, Greek, Occitan, Sicilian and Turkish. It was the language used by Muslim pirates to be understood by Franks, the occidental Europeans that used to be captured on ships, kept as slaves, forced to work in the crew and serve in their houses, in expectation of a ransom. The origin of the name Sabir to refer to this whole language is quite interesting, since it actually is a modern term, coming from a famous excerpt out of Molière’s “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme”, in which Muftì starts the ceremony telling the main characters these words: «Se ti sabir, ti respondir. Se non sabir, tazir, tazir», translated as “If you know, answer. If you don’t know, keep quiet.”. Therefore, the word sabir was used to name the whole language. Sabir was not only a “language of necessity”, a mere collection of expressions to use in commercial or diplomatic exchanges, nor a “crew dialect”, since it doesn’t focus on seafaring terminology; on the contrary, due to its long life – at least three centuries – and its width that allowed a various usage in daily life, Sabit was the most ancient and long-lived pidgin language among the known ones, a “convenient language” thanks to which numerous Hebrews and Muslims managed to communicate with Europeans, without the effort of learning the grammar and use of a Christian language, something considered unbecoming in that time. Sabir was in use until the end of ‘800, but in that period was more and more influenced by French to the point of deeply changing its vocabulary, so much that French spoken in Maghreb can be considered the real successor of the lingua franca. More pidgin languages are Chinglish, spoken some time ago in South-Eastern Asia mixing Chinese and English, Spanglish, Goleta English, spoken in Puerto Rico, and Fanakolo, born in Southern Africa among the gold mines’ workers.

Marilena D’Asdia


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