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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?

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  • 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
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    "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
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    I think the wikipedia article on lingua franca answers the question.
    – MCW
    Dec 23, 2015 at 12:21
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    I don't agree with answer below but I don't have time to answer at the moment. The lingua franca in this period (19th century) is Romance language, not formal French (as The Economist implies). Due to conquest of Algiers by France in 1830, not earlier. This affected the lingua franca of the the so-called Regencies (i.e. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli). The reason for Romance (French-derivative) was because of commercial trade in the Mediterranean and commoners (Muslims) dislike of Italian pidgin (Rome). If you need a full-answer, tell me and I'll find the time to develop this point further.
    – Pūnicus
    Dec 15, 2023 at 6:22

2 Answers 2

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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 favor 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.


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 adage (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 modern era, it was important and it increased in importance as the power of European nations (including France) increased during this period.

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  • 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
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    @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
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What does it mean: "French was a lingua franca in the Ottoman caliphal court?"

Trivially, it means that the members of the court spoke different native languages, and used French as a common language to communicate among themselves.

The other answers have already pointed out that in those times French used to be the international lingua franca, just in the same way as English plays this role today. It is also true that for political and economic reasons French had more influence at the Ottoman court than, e.g., British or Germans - hence the dominance of French, rather than another European language. (As an anecdote, Walter Laqueuer in his History of Zionism describes how Abdulhamid II tried to flatter Herzl by saying that he regularly read Herzl's newspaper Neue Freie Presse, which was very surprising, since the Sultan didn't know German.)

Among the additional aspects that worth mentioning are the following:

  • Ottoman Empire was multinational (including Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, etc.), but lacked a common language
  • Modernization required using terminology that was non-existent in the languages of the Ottoman Empire
  • Successful career required mastering foreign languages, and many schools provided education in French - which led to French becoming the language of Ottoman intellectuals (not unlike it became the language of Aristocracy in Russia earlier)
  • There was vibrant French press in the Ottoman Empire

French as lingua franca

Le français devient, dans cette période, un moyen de communication tant avec l’étranger qu’à l’intérieur du pays. Car les divers groupes ethno-religieux qui constituaient l’Empire n’avaient pas de langue commune. Ce problème s’est posé par exemple au Parlement ottoman inauguré le 19 mars 1877. Selon la Constitution, la langue officielle était le turc, mais cette Assemblée réunissait environ sept cents députés de onze confessions différentes venus de toutes les régions. On y utilisait seize langues, sans parler des grandes différences entre le turc parlé et l’osmanli écrit et entre les dialectes. Cette situation linguistique de l’Empire est l’une des causes de l’emploi du français dans certaines institutions de première importance. En effet, la langue de travail du ministère des Affaires étrangères était le français de 1854 jusqu’en 1910. Qui plus est, des diplomates ottomans et des employés de ce ministère parlaient français entre eux, car des sujets qui ne savaient pas le turc pouvaient devenir fonctionnaires d’État conformément au principe de l’égalité imposé à la Sublime Porte par l’Europe. La Banque ottomane chargée de tenir lieu de banque centrale, la Régie des tabacs, les Chemins de fer et les Dettes publiques, chacun un véritable État dans l’État, et le Conseil international de la santé, utilisaient, comme le ministère des Affaires étrangères, le français qui était désormais langue d’enseignement, des sciences et de la presse.

French became, during this period, a means of communication both abroad and within the country. Because the various ethno-religious groups that made up the Empire did not have a common language. This problem arose, for example, in the Ottoman Parliament inaugurated on March 19, 1877. According to the Constitution, the official language was Turkish, but this Assembly brought together around seven hundred deputies of eleven different faiths from all regions. Sixteen languages were used there, not to mention the great differences between spoken Turkish and written Osmanli and between dialects. This linguistic situation of the Empire is one of the causes of the use of French in certain key institutions. Indeed, the working language of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was French from 1854 until 1910. What's more, Ottoman diplomats and employees of this ministry spoke French among themselves, because subjects who did not know Turkish could become state civil servants in accordance with the principle of equality imposed on the Sublime Porte by Europe. The Ottoman Bank responsible for acting as a central bank, the Tobacco Board, the Railways and the Public Debts, each a real State within a State, and the International Health Council, used, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs , French which was now the language of education, science and the press.

La dernière étape de cette évolution aurait sans aucun doute été l’adoption du français à qui on assignait le rôle de fusionner les diverses communautés ethniques et religieuses, comme langue officielle de la nation ottomane, qu’une partie de l’élite du pays projetait de créer pour arrêter le recul et la dislocation. C’est de cette élite qui constituerait le noyau de la nation ottomane que le français deviendrait la langue commune. En d’autres termes, la pax ottomana que l’Empire s’était donné la mission de faire régner sur les terres qu’il avait conquises, allait être remplacée par la pax francofona sous la pression des puissances occidentales.

The final stage of this evolution would undoubtedly have been the adoption of French, which was assigned the role of merging the various ethnic and religious communities, as the official language of the Ottoman nation, which part of the country's elite projected to create to stop backsliding and dislocation. It is of this elite who would constitute the core of the Ottoman nation that French would become the common language. In other words, the pax ottomana that the Empire had given itself the mission of making reign over the lands it had conquered, was going to be replaced by the pax francofona under pressure from the Western powers.

French press in the Ottoman Empire

A compter de 1795, date à laquelle le premier journal voit le jour, plus de 700 titres de périodiques entièrement ou partiellement écrits en langue française sont publiés dans l’aire ottomane. Ce chiffre est le fruit du travail de G. Groc et İ. Çağlar, qui ont recensé la presse francophone en Turquie entre 1839 et 1980. Environ 400 titres ont été publiés pendant la période ottomane. Les auteurs n’ont pu accéder qu’à 234 titres conservés dans les bibliothèques, les autres étant cités dans des livres, des revues ou dans des annonces de journaux. Ce recensement correspond à tout le territoire ottoman, y compris l’Egypte, qui à elle seule compte 131 titres. La presse des opposants, en exil au temps du sultan Abdulhamid II, et celle des Jeunes-Turcs font aussi partie de ces titres. Pour l’époque ottomane, les deux tiers des titres de ce catalogue sont entièrement en français, le reste étant publié dans des éditions bilingues voire multilingues dans lesquelles le français côtoie le turc, l’anglais, l’arabe, l’arménien, l’allemand, l’hébreu, le bulgare, le russe ou encore le syriaque.

From 1795, the date on which the first newspaper was published, more than 700 periodical titles entirely or partially written in French were published in the Ottoman area. This figure is the result of the work of G. Groc and İ. Çağlar, who identified the French-speaking press in Turkey between 1839 and 1980. Around 400 titles were published during the Ottoman period. The authors were only able to access 234 titles kept in libraries, the others being cited in books, magazines or in newspaper advertisements. This census corresponds to the entire Ottoman territory, including Egypt, which alone has 131 titles. The press of the opponents, in exile during the time of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and that of the Young Turks are also part of these titles. For the Ottoman period, two thirds of the titles in this catalog are entirely in French, the rest being published in bilingual or even multilingual editions in which French rubs shoulders with Turkish, English, Arabic, Armenian, German, Hebrew, Bulgarian, Russian and Syriac.

(The article on the French press is also available in English, but the translation is somewhat incongruous.)

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  • The jump from "French was spoken by diplomats and in organizations with more foreign workers" to "French would undoubtedly have become the official language" seems quite large. The situation re. French seems actually not so different from other European countries at roughly the same time? E.g. Germany where Prussia's Frederick the Great in the 18th century was more fluent in French than in German?
    – Jan
    Dec 15, 2023 at 13:28
  • The last quote basically says "We found 700 titles of French-language publications, of which at least 234 really exist. About 160 of those 234 are conpletely in French, the other partially." Correct?
    – Jan
    Dec 15, 2023 at 13:31
  • @Jan regarding the first comment: by that time most educated persons already spoke French. I think the penetration of French was much deeper than in other European countries, perhaps even deeper than in Russia - it was basically the language of educated people, well beyond the court. Googling francophonie ottomane produces quite a few hits about the French press (in French) - apparently a subject of pride for the French.
    – Roger V.
    Dec 15, 2023 at 13:35
  • @Jan regarding the publications: 234 are actually preserved in libraries, while the other publications were identified via indirect sources - mentions, citations, etc. 131 were published in Egypt. It is worth noting that in those times every small town probably had its own newspaper, even more than one, but published in small quantities.
    – Roger V.
    Dec 15, 2023 at 13:48

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