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How Many Languages Are There?

jason-oxenham-ceo April 7, 2016, 7:26 pm
How many languages do you think there are in the world? Several hundred? Several thousand, maybe? It's a very simple question, but the answer isn't quite so simple. Before we take a look at the numbers, let's talk a little bit about why counting the number of languages in the world isn't as easy as it may seem.

First of all, one of the major difficulties in naming and counting all of the world language is actually finding them. There are many regions of the world such as the Amazon forest and  New Guinea highlands that haven't been explored enough to really identify people who live in them. As you'll discover later, there are many languages in the world today, but we still don't really how exactly how many languages exist because of this.

Identifying all of the world languages isn't the only problem, however. One of the biggest barriers to knowing how many languages really exist in the world today is the very definition of language itself and the complicated notion of enumerating languages.

What Makes a Language, and How Can We Count Them?

If we're hoping to discover how many languages there are in the world, the first step is to define the word "language" itself. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines language as "any one of the systems of human language that are used and understood by a particular group of people." Pretty straightforward, right?

Not really.

This loose definition of language doesn't take into account the many different varieties and dialects of languages there are. It also assumes that any communication system is by its very definition "a language," but that's not so in many cases. Take Mandarin Chinese, for example. There are many Chinese dialects, including Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese, just to name a few. While they are still called "dialects," in reality, these "dialects" are just as different from each other as many Romance languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian.

On the other hand, Hindi and Urdu are actually very similar and essentially use the same spoken system, but they are considered different languages. An even more extreme example of this can be seen with the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian languages. All of these languages were once one and the same (Serbo-Croatian) in the former Yugoslavia and were simply considered different local dialects and writing systems. Just within a few years after the breakup of Yugoslavia, however, three new languages emerged even though their systems hadn't changed at all.

So why is Cantonese considered a dialect instead of a language while Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are considered different languages?  

It all boils down to geography, politics, economics and power. Even though these Chinese languages are not mutually intelligible (and therefore by linguistic definition different languages) they come from the same nation, the same government policy and share a similar writing system. In Pakistan and former Yugoslavia, however, things were a little different: political, government and economic changes led to the naming of new languages and to differentiating between languages that formerly were considered one and the same. Linguist Max Weinreich hit the nail on the head when he explained that "A language is a dialect with an army and navy."

But there has to be a black-and-white linguistic definition of a"language," right?

Yes, but it's not foolproof. If we try to differentiate between languages purely on a linguistic level, one basic test to see if different forms of the same language are in reality different languages is the mutual intelligibility test. This is quite simple: if speaker X can understand speaker Y, then X and Y must be the same language. It's the perfect solution, right?

Unfortunately, mutual intelligibility isn't the best way to discern between two languages for many reasons. First of all, it doesn't account for the fact that while speaker X may understand speaker Y, speaker Y may not necessarily understand speaker X as well. In Nigeria, for example, Nembe speakers claim that they can understand Kalabari quite well, but the more economically successful Kalabari speakers claim that their impoverished neighbor's language is incoherent.

Second of all, mutual intelligibility doesn't account for dialect continua, or the ranges of dialects spoken across a large area that gradually decrease in mutual intelligibility as the distance between them becomes greater. As an example, let's go on a long hike in Europe. Starting in Madrid, we'll be surrounded by Spanish speakers, but as soon as we head northeast, Catalan will start to take over. We'll make our way through Catalonia and up towards France, and as we cross the Pyrenees mountains and enter southern France, more and more people will speak French. While the people you interact with in the same day will most likely be able to understand each other, the French at the end of your trip and the Spaniards at the beginning of your trip won't. In some areas, this continuum can stretch for thousands of miles and be very gradual, while in other regions (such as many parts of Europe), languages and dialects change quite quickly, and it's difficult to label exactly where one language ends and another begins.

The same can be said about languages gradually changing over time. If we compare an Old English epic such as Beowulf to the work of Chaucer (from the 1400's), Shakespeare (from the 1600's), and a Harry Potter book, none of them will seem to come from the same language. So when did Old English become Middle English, and when did Chaucer's language transform into Shakespeare's language? Even though scholars can pinpoint a few gradual changes, languages definitely don't transform over night, so it's very hard to put a label on them.

Needless to say, defining what a language is and deciding what is and isn't a language isn't as easy as it seems.

But if you're like me, you weren't just looking for a linguistic explanation of what makes classifying and counting language so difficult. You want a number, right?  

There Are More Languages Than You Think...

Before reading on, I'd like you to try and guess how many languages there are in the world. 1,000? 2,000, maybe? Keep your guess in mind as you read on...

Thanks to more and more linguistic research such as the fascinating Ethnologue project, we can now give a very good estimate as too how many languages there really are in the world today...and the answer will shock you.

According to the SIL International catalog, there are over 7,907 distinct known living languages in the world today. That's an astounding amount of linguistic diversity!

While the world may be filled with nearly 8,000 living languages, it's interesting to note that these languages are not all distributed equally.

Just as some regions of the world are more diverse in plant and animals species than others, so too are some regions more diverse in languages. Only 230 languages are actually spoken in Europe, a pretty small number compared to the 2,197 estimated spoken languages in Asia. The size of the region may have little impact on how many languages are spoken. In Canada and the United States, for example, only about 101 languages are spoken, while over 832 languages are spoken in the small region of Papua New Guinea, an area with a population of only about 4 million.

It may seem unbelievable that so few languages exist in the United States and Canada considering our history of indigenous languages, but there's one very sad reality to keep in mind: many languages once spoken in the US and Canada have died, along with hundreds of languages throughout the rest of the world.

...But Fewer and Fewer Each Day

While it may seem like an impressively large amount of languages exist, that amount is unfortunately becoming smaller and smaller every year. The world's linguistic diversity is steadily declining as major world languages (such as English) take over and languages with less speakers begin to die out, or lose native speakers. When a language is no longer learned by young children, that language is considered dead.

Almost a quarter of the world's languages have less than a thousand remaining speakers, and many linguists estimate that at least 3,000 languages are guaranteed to become extinct within the next century. And when a language dies, an entire culture and way of seeing the world dies with it.

If you're a language lover like me, you probably find this sad truth very unsettling. After all, what will happen to the beautiful diversity that makes the world so interesting? How will many communities be able to understand and connect to their own history? And what can we, as speakers of one of the major world languages, do to help?

The answer is quite simple. If we hope to preserve the world's linguistic diversity, we need to respect it by doing our part to encourage its existence and, most importantly, encourage foreign language learning.

You can do your part by learning more about the different world languages and cultures, embracing and respecting linguistic diversity, supporting organizations that seek to preserve minority cultures, and, of course, by starting to learn a foreign language today.

This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer.

Before you go: If you liked it then please share this post on social media!
How Many Languages Are There?
Dan-H24 April 8, 2016, 11:31 am
Jason: Thank you for this interesting article. The idea of languages gradually changing over distances was especially intriguing to me; I had not thought of that before but it makes perfect sense. The ambiguity of defining what a language is reinforces my opinion that languages are more art than science.
How Many Languages Are There?
caderatt April 10, 2016, 2:55 pm
Thank you very much for this article: it's full of commitment and definitely busts the will to study more languages. I find very interesting the definition that "a language is a dialect with an army and navy". And indeed, as the power globally gets concentrated more and more, more languages are disappearing. And as they die, so also the culture of these population, their relation with the envirnoment and, sometimes, the same environment where those populations were living gets completely changed. An idea arises naturally: is there a connection between the shrinking number of languages as well as of biodiversity that we are living? 
How Many Languages Are There?
Steven-W15 April 11, 2016, 8:26 am
Clever insight, caderatt. How about "Economic Darwinism"?*

Diversity is being eroded in every area of life:
- Languages. You get "more bang for your buck" by learning a language spoken by the many.
- Environment. Deforestation, strip mining, poaching...
- Companies. How many times has your bank been bought out and changed names?
- Technology... 
- Etc.

* Survival of the financially fittest.
How Many Languages Are There?
natashawells3080 April 12, 2016, 6:30 pm
There are so many hidden places on the planet that I feel we may never be able to get a true count of the languages in the world.
How Many Languages Are There?
natashawells3080 April 12, 2016, 6:37 pm
I would like to see a universal language of Earth emerge! Something we all can speak and understand as Earthlings. Unfortunately, I think the governments will not be too pleased to exist in such conformity. I guarantee it will make the world an more peaceful place.
How Many Languages Are There?
Alexander Petsch April 12, 2016, 6:38 pm
I imagine that it's less to do with hidden places and more to do with the amount of small cultures with their own identity that until industrialisation has been relatively isolated.
How Many Languages Are There?
Dan-H24 April 12, 2016, 8:11 pm
Natasha: I don't know what country you are in, but if it is the USA, please don't say that too loudly. There are enough people in this country already who believe that the United Nations is a vast, secret plot to form a New World Order. Suggesting a single Earthling language would likely be hazardous to your health.
How Many Languages Are There?

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