by

Counting the Languages of the World

I wrote recently from Bosnia and Herzegovina about the curious practice of taking a unitary language and trying to find ways of representing it as several different languages for political reasons, in order that each of several ethnic groups should be able to claim a tongue of its own. I wrote on the basis of my own experience in the country rather than delving into reference books about it. But after my return I checked the classic reference work on the languages of the world: the Ethnologue.

The Ethnologue is published as a book by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, in numerous editions. The latest edition is the 16th, published in 2009 (see the Amazon.com entry for Ethnologue: Languages of the World). It incorporates the ISO 639-3 standard inventory of three-letter language identifiers (you are currently reading ENG, of course).

But the Ethnologue now also exists as a Web site freely available to all. You can look up languages by country. And the entry for Bosnia and Herzegovina reveals that everyone, including the ISO, is capitulating to separatist politics.

My copy of the 13th print edition (1992) covered a country then called Yugoslavia, of which the national language was Serbo-Croatian (SRC), with Chakavian, Kajkavian, Stokavian, and Torlakian dialects (the standard literary language being based on Stokavian). But the current online page listing the languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina—just a small part of the erstwhile Yugoslavia—says that it has three Slavic languages, with their own language names and ISO 639-3 designators: Bosnian (BOS, from Bosna), Croatian (HRV, from Hrvatska), and Serbian (SRP, from Srpska).

Nothing radical has changed since 1992 in the language that bears these three names. There has been no grammatical upheaval comparable to the disastrous militarized political, ethnic, and religious upheavals that have smashed Yugoslavia to bits and broken up the bits. The separateness of the putative BOS, HRV, and SRP is a purely political decision, nothing to do with linguistic science. Adding HRV and SRP allows Croatia and Serbia to have national languages of their very own, and of course the Bosniaks could not be left out.

Consulting the Ethnologue on this point reminded me of the unscientific nature of attempts to answer the apparently simple question of how many languages are spoken on this planet, and where. Linguists usually cite a a figure of around 7,000. But there is huge flexibility for those who would like to gerrymander the figure upward or downward, and science has no way to settle things.

Take the country in which I currently live and work. The United Kingdom is listed by the online Ethnologue as having 13 languages. There are two Germanic languages: English (ENG) and Scots (SCO, the language of lowland Scotland). Four autochthonous Celtic languages are claimed to be extant: Scottish Gaelic (GLA) in north-west Scotland, Irish (GLE) in Northern Ireland, and Welsh (CYM) in Wales, but also Cornish (COR) in Cornwall. Four Romany or Traveler languages are listed: Angoromani (RME), Vlax Romani (RMY), Traveller Scottish (TRL), and Welsh Romani (RMW). There is an indigenous sign language, British Sign Language (BSL). French (FRN) is on the list because the UK’s territories include the islands of Jersey, Guernsey, and Sark in the English Channel, closer to France than to England, and home to some French dialects that linger on among older inhabitants. Finally there is alleged to be Polari (PLD), to which I return briefly below.

Maximizers who would like to increase the number could accept all 13 of the above, perhaps differentiating English more finely (Cockney and Geordie might well differ more than BOS and HRV), and they might add that there are now millions of speakers of Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Jamaican Creole, Polish, and other languages spoken by long-settled immigrant communities including offspring born in Britain. (Mass immigration poses big methodological problems for the Ethnologue’s linguistic geography.)

On the other hand, minimizers who would like to trim the number could challenge the distinctness of English and Scots (there aren’t many grammatical differences), and likewise they could speculate that the Romani languages (little known to outsiders) might be unifiable if we understood them better.

They would certainly curl a lip at the inclusion of Cornish, which has had no true native speakers for at least a hundred years but has been the subject of small-scale revival attempts.

And they would doubtless object that Polari shouldn’t be listed as a language in its own right at all (it’s just a repertoire of English-based slang formerly used as an in-group jargon among theatrical people, circus performers, prostitutes, and gay men).

Given the many plausible proposals for revising language counts upward or downward by splitting or invention, or by lumping or elimination, I think if I were asked how many languages there are in the world today I would want to be very vague: For the UK, 10 ± 4, and for the world, 7,000 ± 2,500.

[Thanks to Nicholas Sanders for pointing out a factual error that the post contained when it was published at midnight. I corrected it a few hours later. One of the many boons of my current position at Edinburgh, along with having a large and excellent cluster of linguists as colleagues, is that when I eat breakfast it is still only 2 a.m. in Washington DC.—GKP]

Return to Top