According to the Economist: The Ottoman caliphate: Straddling two worlds

Ruling from Istanbul, the caliphs kept polyglot courts, reflecting the multiple religions and races represented there. French was a lingua franca at the Ottoman court; Persian, Armenian and Arabic were also spoken.

I'm interested in French as a lingua franca.

When exactly did French start having this status? And what does it exactly mean? Was it the main language of the court, or was it only spoken by foreigners who couldn't speak Turkish? The quoted passage also says that Persian, Armenian and Arabic were "also spoken", but does say that they were "lingua franca", does it mean that French have preferred status over other languages?

  • 2
    Please consult wikipedia before asking on H:SE. How to Ask states that we are intended to supplement that site, not replace it.
    – MCW
    Dec 22, 2015 at 23:48
  • @MarkC.Wallace I looked at some related Wikipedia articles, didn't see any discussion there about the status of French in the Ottoman court.
    – user69715
    Dec 23, 2015 at 0:21
  • 4
    "lingua franca" does not mean "main language" at all. In fact, it is the language that two people that not share a common "main language" will probably use. For example, nowadays English is a "lingua franca" in Western Europe, but inside each country the respective language is the main one.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 23, 2015 at 9:03
  • I think the wikipedia article on lingua franca answers the question.
    – MCW
    Dec 23, 2015 at 12:21

1 Answer 1


A small edit to put this answer into a broader perspective.

In a broader perspective, French acquired the status of lingua franca amongst the European powers in the areas of commerce, science and international politics somewhere in the seventeenth century, and arguably did not relinquish this status until the early twentieth (in favour of English). Now, in the case of the Ottoman empire, there is more at play than just this general development, which I hope to explain below.

You need to understand that of all Christian nations, the French have long been strategic allies of the Ottomans. This fundamentally has to do with the Habsburg ascendancy, created when both Spain and Austria (and thus the Holy Roman Empire) were under the control of members of the Habsburg family.

This implied France was surrounded by rivals, and, following an ancient adagium (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), it allied the Austrian arch-nemesis: the Turk. It also implied, given the Christian-Islamic divide, that the Christian world spoke ill of this blasphemous alliance, the Austrian emperor first among those.

Now, this whole ordeal started off concretely in 1536 with the (first) French-Ottoman alliance. It was never the first or main language at the court of the sultans, nor were Persian, Armenian or Arabic. It needs to be stressed that the Ottoman empire was truly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic: many languages were spoken within its borders, and the court merely reflected this. While they were all spoken at the court, and all were important as such, for the main matters of state, Ottoman Turkish (heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic, and not very related to modern day Turkish) was still the language of preference.

I would not argue that French was preferred over these other languages, but given that it was the language of the sole European ally the Ottomans had during the entire early modernities, it was important and it increased in importance as the power of European nations (including France) increased during this period.

  • 1
    +1, naturally. Not bad. I'm not sure I got the "[...] Persian, Armenian or therefore Arabic." Huh? Do clarify.
    – Ricky
    Dec 23, 2015 at 0:54
  • @Ricky oh, I wrote this post in one go, and I do agree that Arabic is now unnecessarily stressed. I should however remark that Arabic is has also always been an important language for religious reasons. I'll correct it in an edit, give me a second :).
    – Nelewout
    Dec 23, 2015 at 1:03
  • Ottoman Turkish (not very related to modern day Turkish) you said. Nope you are definitely wrong, and this is some dangerous information right here. There is no such thing called "Ottoman Turkish", there is not a specific turkish language of the ottoman dynasty. There is this thing called "Old Turkish" where it takes people of turkey at maximum a week to learn the alphabet and start reading it. The only problem you encounter is vocabulary (which I believe, an Englishman reading Medieval English would encounter too)
    – Kuantew
    Nov 20, 2017 at 1:46
  • Not just ancient adagium. 10 YEARS before 1536, How actually first French-ottoman interaction Began. Here ottoman sultan helped the French king Francis (was imprisoned back then). Check the wikipedia article where a copy of the letter where Francis begs for help and Suleiman helps is givenhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Ottoman_alliance#Alliance_of_Francis_I_and_Suleiman
    – Kuantew
    Nov 20, 2017 at 1:52
  • 1
    @Xenidia My knowledge of Ottoman affairs in the early-modern period is somewhat limited, I admit, so I welcome more knowledgeable comments correcting me. But what do you make of this Wikipedia article about Ottoman Turkish? Further, in response to your second comment: of course there is a background to any formal alliance, but it was not signed until 1536 - this is clearly explained in the Wikipedia article you've linked to above.
    – Nelewout
    Jul 19, 2019 at 8:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.