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tongues, twisted

the more i've started learning languages, the more i've become fascinated by what i call the "logistics of language". by that, i mean, the ways in which languages develop, the ways in which they spread, the ways in which they are related and the ways in which they are eliminated. i am fascinated by this chiefly because all of these things are happening at the same time, all the time and, for the most part, none of us know anything about it. consider that: language is not merely the method by which we communicate, but the method by which we think, and we have no idea what's going on with it.

a lot of us know a few basic things about language: mandarin is the most widely spoken, english is spoken in the most countries, greek and latin have had a huge influence on almost all european languages, indo-european is the largest language family. but there's a lot more going on than that. so this post is a compendium of fun facts and graphics about language.

there are over 7,000 living languages in the world.

source

a "living" language is one that still has speakers for whom it is a first language and/ or one that is in currently everyday use. about 60% of those are native to asia or africa. papua new guinea has the greatest linguistic diversity. if two people in the country meet, there is a 99% chance that their first language will be different [although it's extremely likely that they'll speak at least one common tongue]. more than 800 languages are unique to png, most of them spoken by fewer than a thousand people and almost all of them unrelated to any other languages on earth. because papua new guinea is still impenetrable, it's not clear how many of those languages still exist. unesco lists nearly one hundred of them as endangered, but some of the data on individual languages is from as early as 1950, or shows that there were fewer than 10 native speakers in the late 1970s.

the country with the largest number of official languages is zimbabwe, with sixteen. [you thought it was india, didn't you?] however, zimbabwe has significantly less linguistic diversity than most of the countries that surround it.

it's estimated that, by the end of this century, about half those languages will be extinct, many of them before they can be committed to writing.

but most of us speak twelve of them.

source

more than two thirds of the world's population communicates in one of the "big twelve": chinese, hindi-urdu, english, arabic, spanish, russian, bengali, portuguese, german, japanese, french, or italian. i remember hearing when i was in school that, within my lifetime, the dominant language of the world would be chinese and not english. that hasn't happened, and isn't close to happening. although more and more people are learning chinese, english remains the world's most studied second language by a country mile. english is an official language in thirty-five countries, not including [i cannot make this up] the united kingdom, the united states and australia, where there is no de jure official language.

you're gonna wanna click to enlarge

and if english gets knocked off by anything, it's more likely to be either arabic [spoken in a large number of countries with rapidly growing populations] or french [spoken in the second highest number of countries behind english, spoken on every inhabited continent]. but the fact is that with 1.5 billion people learning english, it's likely to continue as a global lingua franca for some time.

although the parameters of "language" are a little fuzzy. it's easy to say that "chinese" or "mandarin" is the most widely spoken language in the world, but there's a very plausible argument that chinese is not a language, but a family of languages, many of which aren't even mutually intelligible. this tends to get ignored, because written chinese is standardized so that everyone can understand it, but that kind of seems like cheating.

to this day it's unclear if hindi and urdu are different dialects of the same language, or separate languages. in this case, they are linguistically similar, but written in different scripts: hindi is written with the indian devanagari, while urdu, the official language of pakistan, is written with a perso-arabic script. so people speaking to each other in the two languages might understand the conversation, but, if they were raised with only one of the them, they wouldn't know how to read the other. [oh, and just for confusion's sake, there are five times as many native urdu speakers in india as there are in pakistan, so it's not just a national thing.]

most "colonial" languages [i.e., those brought to the colonies by invaders that became established as a mother tongue] are different between the old and the new world, but they all use the same script [latin] and they remain mutually intelligible. however, that's not necessarily the case within europe itself. witness the case of german:



even more complicated, italian is a language that's kind of theoretical. it was created with the specific purpose of unifying the various states and principalities that now form the country we call italy, and yes, everyone will know what you're talking about if you speak standard italian, but in daily life, the regional languages are many and varied. some of them are closer to other languages than they are to italian.



france started imposing its linguistic rules early, which helped establish the standard, but there's still a surprising level of regional variation, considering the size of the country [far more so than, say, in the united states, which is much larger both geographically and in population].



sadly, standard french has stamped out a lot of regional languages. these go well beyond the dialects in the video above. i played this clip for my francophone husband, and he had to admit that he couldn't even understand more than a handful of them, and even that took careful concentration.



in spain, most people do speak spanish, except that "spanish" is really castilian, which is the dialect of the province of castile and leon. catalan, spoken in the northeast of the country [which is also the southeast of the country, because geography is sometimes weird], is no closer to spanish than portuguese is. in the northwest, a lot of the population also speaks galician, which is not spanish, but which might be portuguese, depending on whom you ask.







even when we establish language families, we're a little loose with the definition. for years, linguists believed in the existence of the altaic language family, a eurasian group that covered groups from turkey to japan and korea. then japanese and korean got peeled away from the group, because no one could establish a clear relation. [and eventually, the two got peeled apart from each other, so neither one has a proven, accepted link to any other language.] even more recently, others have proposed that there aren't any bonds between different branches of the rest of the family either. rather, they appear to be isolated clusters.

the caucasian language group is an even worse example of linguistic laziness. this is a linguistic family comprised of northern and southern halves. the northern half is basically georgian, and has no relationship whatsoever to any of the other caucasian languages. someone just looked at one area of the map, decided that they couldn't understand any of what was being said, and figured that meant everything was related.

so there are thousands of languages, most of which are going extinct. the larger the geographical space available, the less variance there seems to be [russian has dialects, but they're not as markedly different]. and a lot of the basics we know about language is starting to look wrong.

but wait, there's more!

languages make good zombies. well, some of them do. at the same time that we are watching languages go extinct, we're bringing others back from the dead.

the most successful example of this is undoubtedly hebrew. it's sometimes called the oldest living language, and that's not "pants on fire" wrong, but it's pretty specious. hebrew ceased to be a living language a with in the first few centuries ce. however, it was resurrected as the official language of the state of israel and abracadabra, now it's very much a living language.

another example of this is the revival of celtic languages. of the group, only irish had a healthy status, but more recent efforts have seen welsh, breton and scottish gaelic knowledge improved, and the new life has been breathed into the dead tongues of cornish and manx. [also, a lot of people in northern spain and portugal claim that they are in some way celtic, which hasn't been proven, but linguists did  go around for a long time saying that turkish and korean were related, so what do they know? after all, spain has a bagpipe museum.]







i think that's all the fun i can handle for one night. but there's more than enough for another post like this. perhaps i'll even be able to write it in different languages, so that it's extra special confusing. 

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