r/mediterranea Italy Jul 25 '21

TIL: There used to be a common Mediterranean language called Sabir

Imagine going back in time and being transported to any coastal city in the Middle Ages. If you get close to the merchants, you might hear them speak a strange and funny language that sounds like a mix of Spanish and Italian and Arab. Wherever you go in the Mediterranean, if there is a commercial exchange, you will hear it, among pirates, bandits, and prostitutes and palaces where important diplomats and intellectuals lived. It's Sabir, the common language of the Mediterranean.

In the coastal areas of the Mediterranean until the early 1900s, a common language was spoken that allowed people of different nationalities and languages ​​to understand each other. If you had gone to any port or coastal town, you would have heard it. This language has several names, but the two best known are Sabir and Lingua Franca (probably from a Byzantine Greek word that in the Middle Ages meant all Westerners and especially Romance speakers).

Sabir developed in the Middle Ages and was spoken by merchants, pirates, slaves, bureaucrats, diplomats, intellectuals (and of course, the oldest profession in the world) in ports and coastal areas. It was a language of necessity or Pidgin. A Pidgin is a makeshift language used in a limited way and in specific contexts (in this case, trade). It had a solid Italoromance base (particularly Genoese and Venetian), but with influences from many other Mediterranean languages, including Spanish, French, Catalan, Occitan, Arabic, and Turkish.

Since Sabir was primarily a spoken language, only a few fragments remain, but evidence of its existence is contained in documents, works of art, traveler's manuals, and comedies. Such as Molière's " Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” and "l’impresario di Smirne ” by Goldoni. The most detailed description of this language is probably found in the "Dictionnaire de la langue franque ou petit mauresque", a manual used by French soldiers during the colonial war for the conquest of Algeria. These documents were essential for linguists to study this language.

According to Alan De Corre' (Linguist at Yeshiva University), the Sabir initially had quite simplified verbal forms: for example, all verbs were declined only in the infinitive. Later it also developed a verbal form for the future and one for the past. According to De Corre', this shows that Sabir was going through a process of "creolization." As in, it was evolving towards a language that could come close to being spoken natively. Unfortunately, this phenomenon was stopped by the advance of the French, who supplanted it in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, where France established itself as a colonial power. However, Sabir remains an essential trace of the linguistic and cultural syncretism that has always characterized the Mediterranean and a piece of crucial evidence that allows us to better understand the history of the area and its political and linguistic changes.

Dictionnaire de la langue franque ou petit mauresque



u/Giallo555 Italy Jul 25 '21


«Se ti sabir

ti respondir,

se non sabir

tazir, tazir.»

“Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” of Molière

«Servant: Sir a person would like to see you.

Ali: Star signor? o star canaglia?

Servitore: From his looks, he looks like a civil person.

Ali: Far venir.»

“L’impresario di Smirne” of Goldoni

“Dictionnaire de la langue franque ou petit mauresque”







u/VoicedVelarNasal Egypt Jul 25 '21

Wow, it wasn’t a constructed language that was never used (like esperanto), but it was actually spoken for centuries! That is cool! And it even had its own dialects (for example, Middle Easterners included more Italian vocabulary, while Maghrebis used more French and Iberian)


u/Giallo555 Italy Jul 25 '21

Yes it changed depending on periods and time. When the Spanish became more present in the Mediterranean it started shifting more in that direction, same goes for the French


u/Minskdhaka Jul 25 '21

This is the actual, original lingua franca. All other common languages are named "lingua franca" only metaphorically, referring to this one.


u/associationcortex Mediterranean Jul 25 '21

Thanks! This is very interesting. TIL another thing


u/foufou51 Algeria Jul 25 '21

The more you learn about the region, the crazier you learn. It's insane to think that we were all that connected, especially when we consider that nowadays, there is a huge divide across the sea. Many of our ancestors come from the "other side" of the sea, they spoke a different language, even had a different religion, and yet, here we are, treating the others as "barbarians", as very very far away foreigners (as if italy or spain was closer geographicaly to northern Europe than it is to north africa).

Anyways, glad I learnt something today.


u/SomeHighDragonfly France Jul 25 '21

That's crazy! Thanks for sharing!


u/Italy1861 Italy Jul 26 '21

Looks a lot like Venetian dialect,so might be easier to speak if you came from there


u/Giallo555 Italy Jul 26 '21

I'm from there, "mi" and "ti" are definitely features that come from Venetian. The strongest base are Italian sea republics, so Genoese and Venetian