A war on words

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I have dedicated much of my recent life to making people more aware of the perilous predicament of the world’s languages. Just as animals or flora and fauna run the risk of daily extinction, so it is with languages. They change endlessly, some to the point where they go out of use altogether. It is open to interpretation but estimates suggest on average one language is lost every fortnight. Out of the roughly speaking 6800 languages that comprise the global range, some recent victims have included Catawba (Massachusetts), Eyak (Alaska) and Livonian (Latvia). Many are in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, which still has more languages than any other country.

Even though some languages are vanishing, in a world less hospitable to aboriginal peoples and more swamped by English, this does not mean it’s impossible to keep endangered languages alive. Mohawk, for instance, spoken by indigenous groups in Quebec, was in retreat until the 1970s, when it was first codified and then taught to children in schools. Welsh and Maori have both made a comeback with concerted official help; and Navajo (USA), Hawaiian and several languages spoken in remote parts of Botswana have been artificially revived.

Iceland has managed to keep alive its native tongue, even though it is spoken by no more than 275,000 people; and the ancient Nordic language of Faroese, thought to have once been spoken by the Vikings, was preserved from extinction when the powers that be went as far as putting translations, grammar hints and verb declensions on the sides of milk cartons.

A powerful political purpose is another force for reviving an old language. Resurgent nationalism helped bring Irish back from the Celtic twilight. Elsewhere the establishment of the nation of Israel has translated Hebrew from a written language into a proudly spoken national tongue.

It is open to interpretation but the eleven largest languages in the world account for roughly half the world’s population (Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Bengali, Japanese, German and French).

In terms of numbers of speakers, the top ten world languages are as follows:

1. Mandarin 885 million (China, Malaysia, Taiwan)

2. Spanish 332 million (South America, Central America, Spain)

3. English 322 million (USA, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand)

4. Arabic 235 million (Middle East, Arabia, North Africa)

5. Bengali 189 million (Bangladesh, Eastern India)

6. Hindi 182 million (North and Central India)

7. Portuguese 170 million (Brazil, Portugal, Southern Africa)

8. Russian 170 million (Russia, Central Asia)

9. Japanese 125 million (Japan)

10. German 98 million (Germany, Austria, Central Europe)

With French, the eleventh largest language, these account for approximately half the world’s population. Most of the world’s languages are spoken by relatively few with an average probably of around 5-6,000 people. 95% of the world’s languages have fewer than one million speakers; half the languages have fewer than 10,000. Interestingly 4% of languages are spoken by 96% of the world’s population.

More than 80% of the world’s languages exist in one country only. One fascinating fact is that a mere two countries, Papua New Guinea with over 850 and Indonesia with around 670, are home to an entire quarter of the world’s languages. If I add the seven countries that each possess more than 200 (Nigeria 410, India 380, Cameroon 270, Australia 250, Mexico 240, Zaire 210, Brazil 210), the total comes to almost 3,500; that is to say that more than half of the world’s spoken languages come from just nine countries.

If I look at it in terms of continents, North, Central and South America have around a thousand spoken languages (about 15%); Africa around 30%; Asia a bit over 30%; and the Pacific somewhat under 20%. Europe is by far the least diverse, having only 3% of the world’s languages. And yet so influential!

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