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To what extent is the world multilingual?

Language is self-expression. It is the most powerful tool that humanity has access to, even beyond opposable thumbs. Verbal and written communication brought our simple ancestors to the moon, deciphered the existence of black holes, and played a key role in the invention of literally everything. Therefore, studying the many tongues that have sprouted up and are currently in use is as much a study of history as it is of language.

Many languages like Latin, Coptic, and Sanskrit are no longer in use by the masses, but traces of them can be found in many modern-day lexicons and grammar structures because languages tend to merge and borrow over time, as well as develop new words. This mixing results in new languages once a population speaks something unidentical to the original, and that process can take hundreds and thousands of years. Currently, Ethnologue reports that there are 7,151 recognized languages in use, which are distinct from pidgins and creoles.

How Languages Form

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'Thank you' in different languages.

New languages often develop due to geographic isolation and lack of standardization, which occurs through schooling and educational systems. However, languages also steadily evolve over time and new languages sprout and blossom from neighboring languages as well as previous iterations. For example, Old English is almost incomprehensible compared to modern English, as its use around 1000 CE was marked by vastly different sentence structures and vowel pronunciations. Icelandic is remarkable because average citizens today can read ancient writings, which is a result of intentional cultural preservation.                                          

A similar change is occurring called The Northern Cities Vowel Shift throughout American cities like Detroit, Madison, and Buffalo, wherein words like black and block sound identical to their speakers. These changes are indicative of more dramatic evolutions that have taken place in the past several thousand years, which have resulted in language families. Language families are groups of languages that have shared ancestral languages; of the 7,151 current languages, each one can be placed into 142 language families that have a predecessor proto-language. The following language families are four of the current largest in terms of the number of speakers. 

Indo-European Languages

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A 19th-century illustrated Sanskrit manuscript from the Bhagavad Gita,
A 19th-century illustrated Sanskrit manuscript from the Bhagavad Gita, composed c. 400 BCE – 200 BCE.

One of the largest language families, Indo-European accounts for the first language of over 3 billion people on Earth. The list is substantial, but it includes the Romance languages (Spanish, French, and Italian), the Germanic languages (English, Yiddish, German, Norwegian), Latin, languages from Anatolia, and languages from India (Sanskrit, and therefore Hindi and Bengali). Fascinatingly, clues in current Indo-European languages help researchers reconstruct the original parent language, which used vowels and consonants that are seen in the sound production of its daughter languages.

Afro-Asiatic Languages

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Stack of open ancient books in Arabic.
Stack of open ancient books in Arabic in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Editorial credit: Alba_alioth / Shutterstock.com

A force to be reckoned with, the Afro-Asiatic family has influenced the native tongue of roughly half a billion people. Arabic and its associated neighboring languages make up 2/3 of that group, and the locations are typically found in the Middle East and North Africa. However, historical linguists struggle to identify the exact location where the original parent language originated. Some of the current Afro-Asiatic languages that are still spoken, besides Arabic, are Amharic, Somali, and Oromo. Interestingly, Egyptian, Berber, ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and several other languages are now considered extinct, although they did influence modern alphabets. Moreover, although Afro-Asiatic is a distinct family from Indo-European and other families, the groups still influenced each other and shared symbols through interaction and trade. 

Sino-Tibetan Languages

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Pema Osel Ling Monastery. Rolling metal prayer wheels circling. A mantra is written in Tibetan language, on the outside of the wheel.
Rolling metal prayer wheels with mantra written in Tibetan language on the outside of the wheel at the Pema Osel Ling Monastery in Nepal.

Over 400 languages can be traced back to Sino-Tibetan, with Chinese languages accounting for the majority of the 1.4 billion current speakers. Once again, the origin of these languages is hotly debated, but it is widely believed that it began with a group of north Chinese farmers in 5250 BCE. Old Chinese is naturally the oldest written form of Sino-Tibetan, with the oldest examples found from 1250 BCE. The inscriptions were written on unique mediums, like bamboo strips. This is reminiscent of reeds and ivory that were used to record Egyptian elsewhere, although Egyptian writing is as old as 3320 BCE.

Niger-Congo Languages

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Igbo-language advertisement in Abia State.
Igbo-language advertisement in Nigeria. Igbo is an example of a Niger-Congo language family. Image credit: Ukabia via Wikimedia Commons

Over 600 million people currently speak a language that is descended from the Niger-Congo family. The regions involved are found between Senegal and Ghana, then central Africa towards Kenya and Angola and Mozambique, and all the way south to South Africa. Even Sudan has a small pocket of speakers. Although they do not account for the most current speakers, Niger-Congo possesses 1,400 distinct languages, making it the world's largest family group. In comparison, Indo-European has 445 distinct languages, Sino-Tibetan has 400, and Afro-Asiatic has 250. The confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers is the likely suspect for the original parent language, but once again, it is a hot debate that only new evidence or theorizing will be able to satisfy.

Most Spoken Languages

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People from various ethnicities taking English lessons.

English takes first place with one and a half billion speakers, which is understandable given its accessibility and use in business. Mandarin Chinese is second, with just over a billion speakers. Hindi and Spanish are used by 602 million and 548 million people, respectively, and French comes in fifth with over 275 million speakers. Other noteworthy mentions are Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, and Urdu; these languages have between 230 and 274 million speakers, respectively. On the flip side, there are languages spoken by less than 10,000 people; in the case of Tanema, only one person in the Solomon Islands speaks it. Languages like Sentinelese are isolated from the modern world, and so nearly nothing is known about it because it is spoken by a protected tribe of approximately 150 uncontacted people on a small island south of India. 

A professor at the University of Houston suggested that linguists believe almost 31 thousand distinct languages have existed throughout human history. Because oral history could have started 50 thousand or 2 million years ago (sound is not easily recorded), it is a difficult number to pin down. Regardless, the strongest evidence we have today of what our ancestors sounded like comes from our current spoken languages and the abundant history behind each of them. In the future, there may be many more than 7,151 languages spoken globally, and it is also possible that there could be significantly fewer. Even if a time comes when only one language is spoken, thanks to the dynamic nature of humankind, a new dialect will always be around the corner.


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