World of Languages

Ever wondered how many languages are there in the world? Or how they evolved over time? Of course many of us (including if you are reading this post) know English. But how many people in the word actually know it?

What is a language?

It’s just a way humans use to communicate abstract concepts through the use of signs and symbols.

One interesting aspect of research in this field is how human communication evolved from from a set of animal vocalization (like barks, howls…) to a set of structured symbols, along with phoenetics(the sounds), syntax(the grammar) and semantics(the meaning).  Even though animals use signs to communicate different meanings, such as scent to mark it’s territory, humans do this mainly through symbols which are usually expressed through words.

The time when language first appeared is still a matter of debate and perhaps the answer will never be known. Maybe it was around genus Homo, 4-5 million years ago, or with the advent of modern man, Cro-magnon, around 125 thousands years ago.  We know that neanderthal man had a brain that was larger than ours but his voice box seemed more of that of an ape. Today we can say that 10,000 years before the trail goes cold, so perhaps we will never know.

Another aspect is how language came into being. Of course there are a bunch of theories around, like the mama theory in which language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects, or the ta-ta theory where unconscious vocal imitations where associated with movement gestures or even the sing-song theory where the first words were actually long and musical for laughter, courtship, play. It’s invention could have been monogenesis by our earliest ancestor, that had the genetic and physiological properties to make complex sounds, or even polygenesis, that it was invented many time by different people

One of the biggest debate among linguists around the origin of language is whether we can account for it only through the basic mechanisms of learning, or if we need to postulate some special built-in language-readiness. The learning-only people (for example, B. F. Skinner) say that childhood conditioning, or maybe modeling, can account for the complexity of language. The language-acquisition-device (LAD) people (such as Chomsky and Pinker) say that the ease and speed with which children learn language requires something more, some sort of special neural mechanism. In most mammals, both hemispheres looked very much alike. Somewhere in humanity’s early years, a few people possibly inherited a mutation that left one hemisphere with a limited capacity. Instead of neural connections going in every direction, they tended to be organized more linearly. The left hemisphere couldn’t related to things in the usual full-blown multidimensional way, so this diminished capacity proved to be very good are ordering things linearly. And that’s exactly what language needs: the ability to convert fully dimensional events into linear sequences of sounds, and vice versa.

Family of Languages

A very good reference for any given language can be found at Ethnologue site. According to a 2005 edition there were 6,912 living languages, of these only 2,719 have 10,000 or more active speakers and only 1,114 languages have more than 100,000 speakers. Thus it is considered that the total number of languages will half or will be no more than 1000 in a century from now. This also due to our era of digitized information where the trend for large social groups, especially in the young,  is to use a mainstream language such as English or Chinese.

These languages are classified into 136 different language families (top-level genetic groups). But among these, only six are accounted for nearly two-thirds of all languages and 85% of the world’s population.

The following maps were developed by Dr. C. George Boeree and were are based on Merritt Ruhlen’s book “A Guide to the World’s Language”s (Stanford University Press, 1987), which in turn is strongly influenced by the work of the great linguist Joseph Greenberg (died May 7, 2001). Due to the separation of regions, unlike today’s age of Internet, some of these language families are separated by geographic constrains, such as continents or mountains. As such we can find in:


The Khoisan Family

bushman With 24 living languages, 501,709 speakers or 0,01% of the word’s population.
The people are called the Bushman or the Hottentots.
Can be found in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania

The Niger-Kordofanian Family

The largest sub-Saharan African family of languages.
It has 1524 active languages with 430,784,205 speakers (6,91% of world population).
Best known are Mandinka, Swahili, Yoruba, and Zulu.Can be found in Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi,Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire,Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia,Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mayotte,Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia,South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

The Nilo-Saharan Family

saharan With 198 active languages, 41,787,061 speakers representing 0,67% of the word population.
The best known of these languages is Maasai, spoken by the tall warrior-herdsmen of east Africa.Spoken in Algeria, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo,Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda

The Afro-Asiatic Family

A major language group with 366 active languages, 362,281,758 speakers (5.81%).
It includes ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as the great Nigerian language Hausa.
The many dialects of Arabic alone are spoken by as many as 200 million people.Spoken in Algeria, Bahrain, Cameroon, Chad, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia,Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria,Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey,United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen


The Indo-European Family

indo_europ The single largest family with 436 languages, 2,916,732,355 speakers(46,77%).
Languages include Hindi and Urdu(400 million), Bengali (200 million), Spanish (300 million), Portuguese (200 million), French (100 million), German (100 million), Russian (300 million), and English (400 million) in Europe and the Americas.With English alone you can reach out to about 1 billion people.

The Uralic-Yukaghir Family

With 37 languages, 20,901,963 speakers (0.34%).
Best known are Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Saami, the language of the Lapplanders.Spoken in Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden.


The Caucasian Family

caucasian Includes just 33 languages, with 6,439,588 speakers(0.1%).
Best known languages are Abkhasian and Chechenian. Georgianis considered to be similar to a Indo-European language.Spoken in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russian Federation.

The Chuckchi-Kamchatkan Family

Small family with only 5 languages spoken in Siberia, Russian Federation.
Only 6,875 speakers are nowadays, close to extinction.

The Altaic Family

altaic Includes 62 languages, spoken by 144,263,862 people (2.31%).
It has a very similar grammatical construct as the Uralic languages.Best known are Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese (125 million speakers).Spoken in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Lithuania, Mongolia, Russian Federation, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan,Korea, Japan.

The Dravidian Family

Old languages of India, 84 of them, with 229,317,060 speakers(3.68%).
Best known are Tamil and Telugu.Spoken only in India, Nepal, Pakistan.

The Sino-Tibetan Family

tibetan Important family, includes 456 languages, 1,268,209,279 speakers(20.34%).
It includes Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) alone is spoken by one billion people.Spoken mostly in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Laos,Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Viet Nam

The Austronesian Family

Includes some more families such as Austro-Asiatic, Mio-Yao, Daic.
Austro-Asiatic family has 171 languages and 102,480,229 speakers(1.64%).
Best known for Munda in India and Mon-Khmer in southeast Asia, Vietnamese.Mio-Yao has 4 languages, seven million speakers, found in southern China and southeast Asia.Daic consists of 60 languages, especially Thai (Siamese).
In total there are 1,221 languages, spoken by 345,818,471 people(5,55%).
Here the best known are Malay and Indonesian, Madagascar in Africa, Tagalog in the Philippines, the aboriginal languages of Formosa, Hawaiian in the north Pacific, Maori in New Zealand.It can be found mainly in Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Cook Islands, East Timor, Fiji,French Polynesia, Guam, Indonesia, Kiribati, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mayotte, Micronesia,Myanmar, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea,Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Taiwan, Thailand, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States,Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Wallis and Futuna.


The Indo-Pacific and Australian Family

australian Indo-Pacific family consists of 475 languages, with 3,536,267 speakers.
Spoken especially in New Guinea. Tasmanian also part of this is now extinct.
It includes 203 languages of the Australian aborigines, with only 40,544 speakers.


The Eskimo-Aleut Family

Consists of 10 languages with 110,310 speakers.
Found in Canada, Greenland, Russian Federation, United States.

The Na-Dene Family

na-dene Family of about 20 languages with 200,000 speakers.
Best known are Tlingit, Haida, Navaho, and Apache.

The Amerind Family

Amerind family consists of Amerind includes nearly 600 languages,with 20 million speakers.
Best known in North America are Ojibwa and Cree, Dakota (or Sioux),Cherokee and Iroquois, Hopi and Nahuatl (or Aztec), and Mayan.
In South America we can find Quechua (Inca), Guarani, and Carib. america_south

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