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My question on rpg.stackexchange.com seems to have reached a point where a "history-person" would be quite suitable to answer it. So let me rephrase it, so as to be at least marginally suitable for this site.

Which were the continent-wide common languages during human history (I can think of English, Latin, Greek in reverse time order)? What percent of the populace spoke those languages? What percent of the literate populace spoke those languages?

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Do you literally mean continent wide or is that just an expression for a large area? I doubt Greek was being spoken continent wide (in the former sense). Greek had two glory periods --classical antiquity and medieval Byzantine era. In both periods, Greek usage was pretty much confined to Greece (& Co.), Asia Minor, and Egypt. If you mean latter, then see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lingua_francas – Apoorv Khurasia Aug 2 '12 at 14:00
Some more languages: Aramaic was a 'lingua franca' in old times. But there are also other possibilities: China had no common language (there was Mandarin, but I think it was never a common spoken language all over China), but there is a common Chinese writing. – knut Aug 2 '12 at 14:12
@MonsterTruck - Greek wasn't widely spoken as a first language, But it would be known by some people everywhere, either as a trading language (Macedonia-Roman period) or a scholarly language (Medieval). So a book written in Greek might be read anywhere in Europe - at least in monasteries. – none Aug 2 '12 at 14:32
@ Monster Truck, I mean spoken in an area, as large at least as Europe ... but on the other hand, I wouldn't be satisfied with something, spoken in a small part of vast Asia. Hmm, good question, yours [thinking]. Also, It doesn't need to be spoken as a first language - just to be known to the extent that now nearly everyone speaks English. Maybe I should merge these clarifications in my question? – Vorac Aug 2 '12 at 14:33
There is no relation between a common language among populations and the geographic notion of "continent"... For example latin was the common language of the western Roman Empire and greek (the Koinè) in the eastern part but the territory of the Roman Empire was not a "continent"... May be this question have to be reformulated... – climenole Aug 4 '12 at 18:14
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Well, these days I'd say Spanish certainly counts. It is spoken as a first language in just about every country in the Americas south of the Rio Grande (Brazil being the most prominent exception). North of there, English has roughly the same status.

Historically, the best analog I know of is Mongol, which at one point was spoken across Asia from Russia to Manchuria (China too, but only by the rulers). I don't have numbers on 13th century Asian literacy, sad to say. I'd guess that few Mongols were literate. Their alphabet was brand new at the time of their empire, and being pastoralists by culture most of them would have had little use for it. Then again, your typical Chinese or European peasant didn't have much use for literacy in the 13th century either. (I should note here that these days Mongolia's literacy rate is a respectable 97.5%, which is quite a bit better than neighboring China, and puts them slightly more literate than Greece)

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French is an official language in Canada and is spoken by almost a quarter of it's population (mostly in Quebec). – American Luke Aug 2 '12 at 14:50
@Luke - Yes, French would be sort of the North of the Rio Grande analog to Portugese south of that river as a significant exception. It is also spoken natively in some rural areas of Louisiana. You could make cases for Spanish and some Native American languages too (particularly Inuit in the far north). Considered mentioning that, but aside from acknolwedging that they exist, I really don't like my answers to be overwhelmed by progressively more minor technicalities. – T.E.D. Aug 2 '12 at 16:11

I'm going to introduce my definition of "Continental" size as an entity with at least 1 million square miles, and 100 million people in its modern population.

English is one such language, spoken in "North America," specifically Canada and the United States. Not to mention a number of countries that make up the former "India" and the current Indian subcontinent.

Spanish is spoken in the most of the South American Continent (except for Brazil). Porgtuguese is spoken in Brazil, which meets my definition of "Continental size.

Greek was spoken not only in Greece, but in the "subcontinent" of Asia minor, basically the empire oe Alexander the Great. Ditto for Persian, in Asia Minor, when they ruled before Alexander.

Under the Roman empire, Latin was spoken in southern western Europe, enough of Europe to meet my definition of continent."

Chinese is spoken in China, a "confederation" of land and people of Continental size. Russia, where Russian is spoken, is larger than most continents.

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While the answer is fine itself, I wonder how this definition treats Australian Continent, with it's 30-40 millions of population. – Darek Wędrychowski Apr 10 '13 at 23:14
@DarekWędrychowski: Although technically a "continent" (land mass), I don't consider Australia a continent because of the small number of people. Japan, on the other hand, has enough people and too little land. Now if you could merge the two... – Tom Au Apr 10 '13 at 23:16

From the question:

You and I speak "Common" – it's called English. But this is the result of the recent globalization made possible with the advent of the Internet.

This is incorrect. It is the result of Imperial Conquest, and that, I think, is the real heart of the matter.

If you look at Common as an imperial language - an official language of government - then yes, human kingdoms at war and "non-humans" (and let's be frank, that notion is grounded firmly in Tolkein's quaint victorian notions of race) would both speak it and their own language, even if the empire is a fading memory.

Take, for instance, not a continent, but two subcontinents - India and Europe.

In medeval Europe, if you knew Latin, you could generally find someone in town who knew it as well - clergyman or clerk - and you could fake your way through a conversation in a place that spoke a romance language, if you hit your language rolls. So, Latin as "Common" would still require a player to sink some stats in languages if they want to talk to random villagers.

In modern India, you have the language of Empire, English - if you do business or deal with the law or government, you speak it. You also have the language of faith - Hindi - which even non-hindus learn in order to communicate with others in the community. Then you have twenty one "mother tongues" - languages learned from your mother, this is the official language of the place where you live. Of course, there are even more unofficial "mother tongues", the language of your ethnicity, of your social caste, of your particular village that's different than the province's.

So, you would have an imperial language or two, "Common1, Common2", and some NPCs might know one better than other NPCs, but most everyone would know a smattering of either. Mother Tongues can be then broken down by race (ethnic-centric language) and alignment (caste-centric language).

So the way to run the campaign is to make the players roll language skill to speak common, to see if they can actually communicate. Knowing another "Mother Tongue" fantasy language, elvish or evil, improves the ability to talk to those NPC's that might also know them, even in passing.

Jaques Cousteau has a story of his wife, French, trying to hail a Greek captain on a nearby yacht, and both parties are attempting to say hello in every language they know - and tho France and Greece are only a few hundred miles apart, they wind up speaking in Japanese! In this way, learning languages should improve a character's ability to speak with others generally.

See also, Lingua Franca a "third language" that people who don't know each other's languages communicate in, and poorly.

Everyone knows Common. No-one knows common very well.

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This is quite a good answer for the question over on the RPG site. It's not good for this history site. – Joe Aug 3 '12 at 19:44

Well firstly, what do you mean by 'continent'? Is Europe a continent? Is India?

Remember that now lots of people in the same country (upper & lower class) speak roughly the same language. However that wasn't always the case. You can see this in some places where minorities who have very little power would not speak the language of government. e.g. serfs in the field speaking Old English and the Norman lords speaking Norman French.

Also, people in different classes/professions would know different languages. e.g. catholic priests and other educated people would know Latin, Orthodox preists might know Greek in the mediæval period. In later centuries, educated people might know French. But that doesn't mean the common man on the ground might know Latin or French.

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Europe is a continent, India is a sub-continent. – American Luke Aug 3 '12 at 12:50
What about North America & South America? Two continents? Or one continent ("Americas")? The Olympic Rings were for a while based on 'one ring for one continent', with North & South America being 1 continent. People's definitions of 'continent' change often. – Rory Aug 3 '12 at 14:52

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