How Many Languages does the World have?
Recently, I came across an interesting article on the number of languages in the world, and it seems there is no fixed number to that. Either the numbers presented by various linguistic societies vary or there are several geographical areas which haven’t been covered yet.
A report by Stephen Anderson of the Linguistic Society of America explains how complicated this topic is. According to him, estimates have increased over time. The 1911 (11th) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, implies a figure somewhere around 1,000 languages, and this number has climbed steadily over the course of the twentieth century. Phew!!! And the reason for this is not due to increase in the number of languages, but a better understanding and detailing of how many languages are spoken in regions not covered earlier. So it’s a herculean task to list the number of languages. But Anderson is trying to streamline it for us.
In his report, Anderson further mentions about the Ethnologue organization, an authoritative body, who claim that there are 6809 distinct spoken languages. The widely spoken languages are those of the Indo-European family, to which English belongs. Here’s an interesting tidbit, Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse countries on Earth, with around 832 indigenous languages and at least as many traditional societies, out of a population of just over 5 million.
In India there are about 22 regional languages spoken throughout the country, which are recognised by the Constitution of India. Ethnologue also reports a total of 238 languages in the United States, around 162 of which are ‘living’.
Unfortunately, whatever the linguistic diversity there is a steady decline in the regional languages as modern forms of speech catches on. Just like Sanskrit, which is a forgotten language in India, in spite of the fact that our ancient literature and the holy texts are written in Sanskrit. It has ceased to exist in India, not learnt any more by our young generation.
As the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica put it,
“[…] all existing human speech is one in the essential characteristics which we have thus far noted or shall hereafter have to consider, even as humanity is one in its distinction from the lower animals; the differences are in nonessentials.”