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How many languages are there in the world?

April 24, 2018 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

How many languages are there?

An interesting question.

But like many (most) in linguistics, there isn’t a good answer.

The 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica published in 1911 guessed at about 1000 languages. The International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics published in 1992 lists 6604. That’s quite a difference. Most references say around 6000, but that’s not the most accurate we have…

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We’re always finding new languages.

A couple of years ago a group of linguists found a new language in India called ‘Koro’. Then earlier this month linguists working in the Malay Peninsula found another called Jedek.

There’s also another problem: How do you decide if two languages are different languages? Or if they’re dialects?

I mean, if you take, for example, English and Japanese, they’re pretty obviously separate languages. But what about Swedish, Norwegian and Danish? Technically speaking they’re all Continental Scandinavian. Speakers of these languages can speak in their native languages and understand each other. We consider them separate languages for historical (and mostly political) reasons. And yes, saying “Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are the same” is likely to piss a few people off. But then there are languages like Chinese that has dialects that are so different people don’t understand each other. But they’re NOT considered separate languages. They’re dialects. Then again, there are languages like the Goidelic Celtic languages that some people say are dialects, some people say are separate languages.

Simple put… language scientists can’t actually decide what a language is.

Ultimately, the number of languages comes down to who’s counting and their personal opinion.


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