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Saturday, May 23, 2009

How many languages are in the World?

When people are asked how many languages they think there are in the world, the answers vary quite a bit. One random sampling of New Yorkers, for instance, resulted in answers like “probably several hundred.” However we choose to count them, though, this is not close. When we look at reference works, we find estimates that have escalated over time. The 1911 (11th) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, implies a figure somewhere around 1,000, a number that climbs steadily over the course of the twentieth century. That is not due to any increase in the number of languages, but rather to our increased understanding of how many languages are actually spoken in areas that had previously been underdescribed. Much pioneering work in documenting the languages of the world has been done by missionary organizations (such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) with an interest in translating the Christian Bible. As of 1997, at least a portion of the Bible had been translated into 2,197 different languages, still a long way short of full coverage. The most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of the Ethnologue organization
(http://www.ethnologue.com), whose detailed classified list currently includes 6,809 distinct languages.

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