How many languages are there in the world?

An exciting topic, which first begs the question “what is language?”

According to linguists from the Leiden University in the Netherlands, language is a system of communication defined by three main characteristics:

  • discrete infinity
  • displacement
  • joint attention,

and as such is typical only of human beings.

Discrete infinity means that language is made up of individual and separate parts (words), which, combined, can generate an infinite amount of sentences. Displacement means we are able to think, conceive of and talk about objects, ideas and events that are not happening in front of our eyes as we speak, but rather exist as abstractions in the future, in the past, in imagination, or elsewhere. Joint attention means that the communication partners can focus their attention jointly, at the same time on said abstract realities through the intermediation of words.

Now, even equipped with this definition, it is still quite difficult to distinguish between separate languages, dialects, etc., and even more difficult to make a census of all of the world’s spoken, living, dying and extinct languages. This hasn’t stopped linguists from trying, though.

Well, enough suspense. An article by the Linguists Society of America, citing Ethnologue, an authoritative catalogue of the world’s languages, claims there are at least… (wait for it) 6,909 distinct languages! 

Is this more or less than you would have guessed?

Of these, only 230 are spoken in Europe, while 2,197 are spoken in Asia. To quote the LSA, “one area of particularly high linguistic diversity is Papua-New Guinea, where there are an estimated 832 languages spoken by a population of around 3.9 million.” (Source: LSA 2010 article by Stephen R. Anderson).

Apparently, all of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages can be grouped in approximately 250 language families. The one European language for which no “sibling” has as yet been ascertained is Basque.



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