Sabir: the Mediterranean lingua franca

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The Origins and Evolution of Sabir: A Pidgin Idiom in Mediterranean Ports.

The Mediterranean lingua franca, also known as sabir, was a pidgin idiom spoken in all Mediterranean ports between the 11th century and throughout the 19th century.

Other researchers believe it arose between the 15th and 16th centuries, during the formation of the corsair republics of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis, all of which were subordinate to the Turkish empire. Although there were various varieties, the most common one had a 65-70% Italian lexicon (with heavy Venetian and Ligurian influences) and 10% Spanish, with terms from other Mediterranean languages like Arabic, Catalan, Sardinian, Greek, Occitan, Sicilian, and Turkish. Many parts of Sabir are still hotly debated, and various researchers hold opposing views. This is because this Lingua Franca was predominantly an oral language, with occasional reports and examples in literature but relatively few actual examples of the language in practice. This might also represent the language’s fluid and ever-changing character.

Related article: The etymology of the word “Ciao”


Petit Mauresque (French for Little Moorish), Ferenghi, ‘Ajnabi, or Aljamia were all names for this lingua franca. The term sabir may be a mispronunciation of Catalan saber, which means “to know”; the language, on the other hand, is derived from Arabic lisān-al-faranğī (from Latin lingua franca). The latter phrase developed to refer to any idiom that links speakers from various origins.

This auxiliary language connected European traders with Arabs and Turks; slaves from Malta (in the so-called bagnio), Maghreb privateers, corsairs, and European fugitives seeking refuge in Algiers all spoke it. Morphology was simple, and word order was unrestricted. To compensate for the lack of some word classes, such as possessive adjectives, prepositions were often used. It also had restricted verbal tenses: the future was generated with the modal “bisognio”, and the past was formed with the past participle.

The first document in the language was written in 1296, and it is the oldest portolan map dealing with the whole Mediterranean, titled Compasso da Navegare. An significant document was later discovered at Djerba, Tunisia, in 1891. In 1830, Marseille produced the Dictionnaire de la langue franque ou Petit mauresque, a guidebook written in French during the French campaign to Algeria to take Algiers. It was intended for French soldiers to use to learn and understand the Sabir language. Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian writer, portrayed Ali, a character who communicated himself in lingua franca, in his play L’impresario delle Smirne.

Explorers and travelers took up on other, more “Frenchified” variations. According to Charles Farine, in the second part of the 1800s, French commander Pierre Hyppolite Publius Renault met with a representative of the French-employed Algerian militia.

Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927) was the first academic to conduct a thorough study of the Lingua Franca. Lingua Franca was known by Mediterranean seafarers, including the Portuguese, according to the monogenetic hypothesis of the genesis of pidgins that he proposed. When the Portuguese first set sail for the oceans of Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania, they attempted to converse with the inhabitants by blending a Portuguese-influenced form of Lingua Franca with the local languages. When English or French ships arrived in order to compete with the Portuguese, the crews attempted to acquire “broken Portuguese.” The Lingua Franca and Portuguese lexicons were replaced by the languages of the peoples in contact as a result of relexification.

Most European-based pidgins and creole languages, such as Tok Pisin, Papiamento, Sranan Tongo, Krio, and Chinese Pidgin English, are explained by the hypothesis. These languages have words like sabir, which means “to know,” and piquenho, which means “children.”

Even today, some terms of the “Sabir” such as “vira” and ‘”maina” survive in the naval language.

Key features of the lingua franca and examples

  • lack of distinction between singular and plural. Amigo means “the friend” as much as “friends.”
  • verbs use for the present, imperfect, and sometimes future a single infinitive and unconjugated form valid for all persons. Questi Signor star amigo di mi: these gentlemen are my friends
  • the imperative corresponds to the same infinitive form, but usually preceded by the pronoun
  • for the past tense, periphrastic forms such as mi estar andato (or andado, per influence of Spanish or Venetian dialect), in which estar is the most common auxiliary
  • adjectives distinguish masculine from feminine gender unless they end in -e (good/bona, but prudent´e/prudent´e)
  • the future corresponds to a periphrastic form: bisogno mi andar (I need to go) “I will go.”
  • In interrogative sentences, the word order remains the same, and only the tone changes of voice, subject to the presence of interrogative pronouns to introduce the sentence, as in: cosa ti ablar? “what do you say?”
  • the vocabulary is a mixture of Italian, Spanish, and French, in many cases with multiple attested forms (bono/bueno, testa/cabeza)

Lord’s Prayer in sabir

Padri di noi, Ki star in syelo, noi voliri ki Nomi di Ti star saluti. Noi volir ki il Paisi di Ti star kon noi, i ki Ti lasar ki tuto il populo fazer Volo di Ti na tera, syemi syemi ki nel syelo. Dar noi sempri pani di noi di cada jorno, i skuzar per noi li kulpa di noi, syemi syemi ki noi skuzar kwesto populo ki fazer kulpa a noi. Non lasar noi tenir katibo pensyeri, ma tradir per noi di malu. Amen.


A few samples of Sabir are found in Molière’s comedies.

In The Sicilian, or Love the Painter, in which Moliere portrays a Turkish slave who meets Don Pedre proposing to buy him saying:

«Chiribirida ouch alla
Star bon Turca,
Non aver danara:
Ti voler comprara?
Mi servir a ti,
Se pagar per mi;
Far bona cucina,
Mi levar matina,
Far boller caldara;
Parlara, Parlara,
Ti voler comprara?»

Don Pedre replies:

«Chiribirida ouch alla,
Mi ti non comprara,
Ma ti bastonara,
Si ti non andara;
Andara, andara,
O ti bastonara.»

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme


Se ti sabir
ti respondir,
se non sabir
tazir, tazir.

Mi star Mufti:
Ti qui star ti?
Non intendir:
Tazir, tazir.

If you know
You answer
If you do not know
Be silent, be silent

I am Mufti
Who are you?
You don’t understand:
Be silent, be silent

Si sabes,
Si no sabes,
Cállate, cállate.

Yo soy el muftí:
Tú, ¿quién eres?
Si no entiendes:
Cállate, cállate.

Si tu sais
Si tu ne sais pas
Tais-toi, tais-toi

Je suis le Mufti
Toi, qui es-tu ?
Tu n’entends pas
Tais-toi, tais-toi

Carlo Goldoni (L’Impresario delle Smirne)

«SERVITORE: Signore, una persona brama di riverirla.
ALI: Star signor? o star canaglia?
SERVITORE: All’aspetto pare una persona civile.
ALI: Far venir.»

Featured image: Map of Europe and the Mediterranean from the copy to XX century of Catalan Atlas of 1375, second chart, first cartography.
Source: Wikipedia, La lingua franca barbaresca by Guido Cifoletti

Châtel-Argent, Aosta Valley

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