Monday, October 18, 2010

In which the author indulges his penchant for facts that others may find either extremely fascinating or boring beyond words.

This post is about speaking in tongues. Wait, it’s not what you think.

I found a list recently of the languages of the world ranked by number of native speakers. Other lists exist with other numbers, plus there is a lot of disputing about what a language is and what a dialect is, the numbers are all just estimates anyway, and I’m not at all sure that the figures are current, but let’s just keep it simple and go with this list. Here’s what I learned:

Nine languages have more than 100,000,000 native speakers each. The largest by far is Mandarin (845,000,000), followed by Spanish (329,000,000), English (328,000,000), Hindi/Urdu (242,000,000), Arabic (221,000,000), Bengali (181,000,000), Portuguese (178,000,000), Russian (144,000,000), and Japanese (122,000,000). If you’re keeping count, that accounts for 2,590,000,000 persons, or about one-third of Earth’s population.

If your favorite hasn’t shown up yet, keep reading.

Thirteen languages have between 50,000,000 and 100,000,000 native speakers each. They are German (90,300,000), Javanese (84,600,000), Punjabi (78,300,000), Wu (77,200,000), Telugu (69,800,000), Marathi (68,100,000), Vietnamese (68,600,000), French (67,800,000), Korean (66,300,000), Tamil (65,700,000), Italian (61,700,000), Turkish (61,000,000), and Cantonese/Yue (55,500,000).

The world doesn’t seem quite so Eurocentric now, does it? Still looking for your favorite? Let us forge ahead.

Languages with between 25,000,000 and 50,000,000 native speakers each include Tagalog (including Filipino) (48,900,000), Gujarati (46,500,000), Min (46,200,000), Maithili (45,000,000), Polish (40,000,000), Ukrainian (39,400,000), Malay (39,100,000), Bhojpuri (38,500,000), Xiang (36,000,000), Malayalam (35,700,000), Kannada (35,400,000), Sunda (34,000,000), Burmese (32,300,000), Oriya (31,700,000), Persian (31,300,000), Berber (30,000,000), and Hakka (30,000,000).

I have never heard of some of these languages.

Languages with between 10,000,000 and 25,000,000 native speakers each are Hausa (24,200,000), Romanian (23,400,000), Bahasa Indonesian (23,200,000), Dutch (21,700,000), Azerbaijani (21,600,000), Gan (21,000,000), Thai (20,300,000), and on down the line through Yoruba, Sindhi, Uzbek, Igbo, Saraiki, Amharic, Nepali, Serbo-Croatian, Kurdish, Cebuano, Assamese, Malagasy, Hungarian, Zhuang, Madurese, Sinhalese, Greek, Fula/Fulfulde, Czech, Shona, and Oromo.

I’m exhausted, and we’ve named only 67 of the world’s languages.

Here’s a startling fact: Sixty-seven is approximately 1% of the number of languages spoken in the world (I found three figures, 6700, 6900, and a range of “from 6000 to 7000” languages). Two hundred to 250 languages have over a million speakers each. Ninety per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers each.

“So what?” you ask. (I can hear you asking it.)

The United Nations was organized in 1945. Fifty-one countries were represented at the first general session in 1946. Today, 192 countries are members of the United Nations. Six “official” languages are used in the U.N.'s intergovernmental meetings and documents: Arabic, Chinese, English French, Russian, and Spanish. (Originally there were five. Arabic was added in 1973.)

One of the rules is that the Secretary-General of the U.N. cannot originate from one of the five “permanent” Security Council member states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America). Since 1945, there have been eight Secretaries-General of the U.N.: Trygve Lie of Norway, Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, U Thant of Burma (now Myanmar), Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, Kofi Annan of Ghana, and the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea.

Not a Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, or Japanese speaker in the bunch.

So here’s what: A lot of people must feel under-represented at best and ignored at worst. In other words, a lot of people are far worse off than you, in ways I have not enumerated and that many of us cannot begin to understand.

Now for the speaking in tongues part:



Masia Mum said...

I'm exhausted just reading through the list! Frankly it is lucky for the majority of British that English is at No.3. as so many of my compatriots have zero ability in other languages and believe just shouting louder will get them understood - sooooooooo humiliating when so many foreigners speak English so fluently. I learnt French and German at school which accordingly to your list will not get me as far as I hoped. Having the property in Spain has meant that I am now struggling to learn Spanish, it gets harder when you are older - maybe I have lost too many brain cells.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Fascinating post Robert. Like you I hadn't even heard of some of those top languages. It seems to me that historically the suppression of minority languages has usually been to do with the assertion of economic power. In these British Isles we once had at least six distinct languages - Cornish, Manx, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and of course English. Nowadays those "other" languages have declined enormously or disappeared entirely. When I was at school, I learnt French and Latin but not a single word of Welsh or Scots Gaelic. I think it is tragic because each different language has a vocabulary and attitude that puts a different slant on earthly existence. The suppression of minority languages makes the world more bland and samey.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Extremely fascinating.

I speak a smattering of quite rusty Spanish, and then only in the present tense (which is all I can remember from my studies of more than 50 years ago.) I envy Europeans who fluently speak multiple languages.

It makes one wonder how all those thousands of languages and dialects developed.

Putz said...

i speak a smattering of utarn>>>.just sayin

Rosezilla said...

I had every intention of gradually learning every language there is. So far, I haven't. My son is in missions and is far more familiar with all the variations than I am. So far all I can do besides English is some Spanish, some sign language and some shorthand! :)

richies said...

Apparently a language is only important if the speakers of the language were conquerors. Very interesting post.

An Arkies Musings

Mountain Thyme said...

In my opinion, one of the most interesting studies in anthropology was a linguistic one. Years and years ago, scientists chose 13 words (such as moon, white, mother, weapon, etc.) and went around the world to try to translate these words into as many languages as possible. When they finished, they found that the similarity of these words in different languages and dialects was just amazing! Proving what? That all peoples are closer to each other that one might think...either by acculturation or by diffusion.