1000 Languages

1000 Languages

The Worldwide History of Living and Lost Tongues

Edited by Peter K. Austin



There are an estimated 6,900 languages spoken in the world today. They range in size from very large, with hundreds of millions of speakers, to very small with as few as one or two speakers. This book aims to give an overview of the languages of the world, organised by broad geographical regions.

The languages of the world are unevenly distributed geographically and across speaker populations. Just 4% of all languages [around 275] are spoken by 96 percent of the world's population or, in other words, just 4 percent of the world's population speaks 96 percent of its languages. The largest eight languages alone have over 150 million speakers each and together account for 40 percent of the world's population. These are the "major languages" discussed in World Languages Chapter [pages 10-35]. More than half of all languages today have fewer than 10,000 speakers; more than a quarter have fewer than 1,000 speakers. In some cases of highly endangered languages in Australia or the Americas, there are just one or two elderly people who speak them. Geographic distribution of languages is also very uneven. The largest numbers of languages are spoken in Africa and Asia, and much smaller numbers elsewhere. Papua New Guinea stands out as a single island with 820 languages. Vanuatu, with 120 languages among its 200,000 population, has the highest language density of any country in the world. Each chapter of this book covers a different geographical region and presents a number of feature languages with shorter discussions of other selected languages. The chapters cover such topics as history and origins of languages, numbers of speakers, writing systems, special features, and basic vocabulary items.

Distribution of languages by area of origin
ContinentLiving languagesNumber of speakers
  Count Percent of total Count Percent of total
Africa 2,09230.3675,887,15811.8
Americas 1,00214.547,559,3810.8
Asia 2,26932.83,489,897,14761.0
Europe 2393.51,504,393,18326.3
Pacific 1,31019.06,124,3410.1
Totals 6,912100.05,723,861,210100.0
From Gordon, Raymond G., (ed.) 1995 Ethnologue. Languages of the World. Fifteenth Edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International.

So what is a language? In ordinary speech we often use the terms "dialect" and "language", however it is very difficult to distinguish these terms clearly. People often think that a language is written while a dialect is spoken, however only about one-third of the world's languages have a form of writing, and most exist in spoken form only. Alternatively, dialects are thought of as rural and highly variable while languages are urban and standardised. Again, this does not apply in most of the world. It is also often said that dialects are "mutually intelligible", that is speakers of different dialects can readily understand one another, while speakers of different languages can not. This also is difficult to apply in practice since intelligibility is a function of people and situations not languages and dialects. The more someone has travelled or been exposed to different dialects the more readily they are able to understand speech with features quite distinct from their own. Someone who has only ever lived in rural Tasmania speaking local Australian English, for example, will find a person speaking strong Glasgow English dialect very difficult to understand. On the other hand, speakers of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, said to be three separate languages, generally have no trouble understanding one another. Intelligibility can also be non-mutual: rural dialect speakers can often understand urban educated speech because of exposure through the media, however this may not apply vice versa. Often the difference between a dialect and a language is more a question of politics than linguistic features. The famous Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich once jokingly wrote that "a language is a dialect with an army and navy", meaning that the political status of the speakers of a particular variety influences its perceived status as a language or a dialect. Thus politically Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are different languages because they belong to separate countries while "Chinese" is counted as one language even though speakers of Mandarin from the north and Cantonese from the south are unable to comprehend each other's speech. Similarly, what was once Serbo-Croatian is now divided into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian in line with political changes in the Balkan states.

Languages and dialects can be classified into families and sub-groups according to similarities due to their common origins. Thus, English and German are members of the "Germanic sub-group" because they derive from a common ancestor called proto-Germanic once spoken several thousand years ago (and Russian and Polish descend from an ancestor proto-Slavonic, and so on). Linguists arrive at sub-group and family classifications through careful comparison of vocabulary and grammatical structure between languages that share features in common. Some classifications, such as the Indo-European family which covers most of the languages of Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and northern South Asia are well worked out and have been deeply studied, others are more tentative and require further work. Throughout the chapters of this book you will find references to language classifications and families but it is well to remember that some of these are less established than others. Note also that languages can share words and features in common for another reason, namely contact between the peoples speaking them. For example, English and French share many words in common, however a large number of these arose from English borrowing words for French beginning during the Norman Conquest (1066) and continuing until today. English has borrowed words from hundreds of languages (think of kangaroo from Guugu Yimidhirr in Australia or sushi from Japanese, for example) and today contributes vocabulary to lots of languages via its influence as the language of global communication. A few languages, like Chinese and Icelandic, resist borrowing but most of the world's languages show evidence of borrowed vocabulary arising from historical patterns of contact.

The normal situation throughout the world and throughout human history is multilingualism, that is, people regularly speaking two or more languages. Communities which are monolingual, speaking just one language, are extremely rare. Most typically, multilingual communities use different languages for different purposes (one language for trade, another for education, a third for ordinary conversation, for example, or one language for writing and formal situations and another for speaking and informal contexts), or for different people (one language for in-group communication and another for speaking to outsiders, for example). Multilingualism allows people flexibility in communication and language use that is absent for monolingual societies. Sometimes we can distinguish between a language learnt in childhood as a "first language" and one learnt later as a "second language". In many of the chapters in this book multilingualism will be highlighted and the use of particular tongues as first or second languages will be mentioned.

Sometimes contact between communities speaking different languages results in the rise of a "lingua franca", a common tongue which serves as a neutral vehicle for both sides. These lingua francas have existed throughout human history, and often have very wide geographical coverage. Thus, Swahili is a lingua franca over a wide area of eastern Africa, used for trade between people speaking a huge range of different languages. Ex-colonial languages like French serve a similar function in parts of west Africa. Occasionally special contact languages are developed called "pidgins" that are simplified mixtures that are noone's native language. If such languages are learnt as a first language they expand their vocubulary and grammar to become a full language called a "creole". Examples are Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea or Krio from Sierra Leone. Today, English has become a global lingua franca as the vehicle of everything from air traffic control to computer technology and popular music.

As mentioned above, roughly a third of the world's languages are written, and the majority of languages with writing systems have acquired them relatively recently, often as a result of education introduced during the 19th or 20th centuries. Most written languages have taken their writing systems from a neighbouring language, just as the Romans borrowed writing from the Etruscans who borrowed it from the Phoenecians and so on. Writing is a human invention that has developed independently only a few times in human history. In the chapters of this book the writing systems of different languages and groups will be illustrated, and patterns of borrowing and change identified.

Even if a language is not written, it will have an oral literature comprised of the myths, tales, stories and songs that encapsulate the culture and history of the people who speak it. All human societies have oral literature, and indeed much written literature originates in oral story telling, such as the Ancient Greek Odyssey written down by Homer or the fairy tales like Cinderella collected by the Grimm Brothers in nineteenth century Germany. Similarly, all languages have rich vocabularies to describe the environment, actions, thoughts and feelings of the people who speak them, and complex grammatical systems to express relationships between words and sentences. There is no such thing as a "primitive language", and indeed most minority languages have grammars as complicated and difficult as any large standardised written language. The complexity and beauty of all human language is exemplified in the pages that follow.

We hope that you enjoy exploring the diversity, structure, relationships and history of the many thousands of languages of the world displayed in the following pages.

Professor Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department
School of Oriental and African Languages
February 2008

1000 Languages is published by Thames and Hudson and University of California Press