I wish I could say I speak nine and a half languages. If someone were to have me list them out, I would say ‘American, Canadian, Lebanese, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian and some French, Egyptian, and British’. Instead I say that I speak two and a half; English, Arabic and some French. It really confuses me that Arabic-speaking countries, summing up to about 19 all together, have one Arabic language! The 2001 Indian Census states that India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. That is a whole lot of languages for a single country. Why the difference? What gives?
How many languages are there on this planet?
A linguistic publication called the Ethnologue lists 7,097 living languages (And I only know 2.5!!!). Interestingly, only 389 of those have more than one million speakers in each which account for 94% of the world’s population. The remaining 6,708 of the world’s languages are spoken by the remaining 6% of the global population. To wrap our heads around that, let’s put it another way. If we were to look at the world’s population as 100 people, 94 people speak 6% of the languages and six people speak 94% of the languages. Mind-boggling!
What is considered a language, anyway?
So what makes a language, then? Is a dialect considered another language? From my preliminary research, there are apparently no clear distinctions between a dialect and a language. Deciding whether two ways of speaking are simply dialects or different languages all-together could be as dependent on political considerations as it may be on cultural differences. Case in point, Serbo-Croatian was considered a single language with two dialects before the Yugoslav civil war. Now they are considered two different languages, Serbian and Croatian. Cantonese and Mandarin are considered dialects of Chinese. Norwegian and Swedish are listed as two separate languages though they are more similar to each other than the two Chinese dialects are to each other. Too bad the English language didn’t get divided between the US and England, or did it? What about Canadian? Australian? New Zealand? South African? Is the Portuguese of Brazil the same as that of Portugal? Is French Canadian the same as France’s French? I’m not even going to go there for Spanish! It seems to hinge on the written form.
Nineteen countries for one Arabic language
The Arabic language has many dialects but one written form. The written form is formal and rarely spoken in every day communication (except in new broadcasts or to portray Arabic civilizations hundreds of years ago). It is possible to speak a dialect of Arabic fluently but not understand when someone reads out the formal version; I know because I was there once. I think the written form of Arabic is the reason that all the dialects, regardless of national boundaries, are just dialects and not their own languages. If you want to learn more about the different dialects and how to write your name in Arabic, check out my class on Skillshare for free for a limited time: Decorative Designs and Scripts: Inspiring with Arabic Lettering.
For now, I am happy with my 2.5 languages, as long as they are from the top ten most spoken in the world; more opportunity to connect! I’m using Duolingo to learn Italian, Russian and Spanish.
How many languages and dialects do you know?