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In this many-tongued world, just how many languages are there?  The answer most linguists will give you is “it depends”.  It depends on what you mean by “language”, how you draw the boundaries between different languages, what counts as a language and what counts as a dialect, etc etc.  While these are all very real considerations and the subject of some very lively debates, I like it when people are bold or foolish enough to draw lines in the sand and give you straight answers to questions that don’t have any.  Enough with nuance!  Let’s be black-and-white about this!

And for that I have the wonderful SIL International, whose authoritative Ethnologues are THE resource for anyone looking for statistics and overviews of all of the languages of the world (that we’ve discovered so far, at least).  SIL is done with the debate, and they are ready to give you an answer.

So just how many languages are there?  6,909.  (Note: That’s living languages; this edition of the Ethnologue catalogs a total of 7,358 languages all told.)

Every edition of the Ethnologue documents a startling increase in the tally; in the past two editions the number has increased on average by over 100.  This is NOT due to brand-new languages cropping up every month or so; rather it’s the credit of the SIL field linguists who tirelessly seek out the uncontacted and the undocumented.

In fact, despite the statistics, we know that the number of the world’s languages is actually shrinking.  The general consensus is that the total will decrease by half over this century.  On average, that works out to one language dying every two weeks.[i]   I think it’s magical that we have almost 7,000 different languages spoken in this world.  I’m very troubled that this diversity might be cut in half in my lifetime.  I hope I, and this generation of linguists, can do something to reverse that trend.

So, just how many languages are there?  It depends.


[i] 1- Grenoble, L.A., & Whaley, L.J. (2006).  Saving Languages: An introduction to language revitalization.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.