Magazine article Geographical

Speaking Out

Magazine article Geographical

Speaking Out

Article excerpt

There are approximately 7,000 languages believed to be spoken around the world. Despite this diversity, the majority of the world's population speaks only a fraction of them. The three largest language groups (Mandarin, Spanish, and English) have more than 1.5 billion native speakers. Other estimates state that two thirds of the world's population share only 12 languages.

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But it is the diversity of the languages spoken by the few that makes language a remarkable cultural phenomenon. It is estimated that 96 per cent of all languages are spoken by only three to four per cent of all people. Two thousand of the world's languages have less than 1,000 native speakers.

There are many attempts to understand and map this diversity of languages around the world. The Ethnologue database lists exactly 7.099 individual languages in a comprehensive geographic database. An even more detailed account when looking at the real diversity of language is provided by Glottolog of Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History Glottolog aims to provide complete references on the world's languages'. It also looks at the distribution of dialects and consists of almost 8.500 entries. Besides detailed linguistic information, this database includes basic geographic information about the origins of languages, their families and their dialects.

The Glottolog database was used in this month's cartogram to highlight the geographic distribution of language diversity around the world. The main locations of each entry from the database were used to calculate the density (and diversity) of languages in their spatial distribution. The cartogram therefore shows larger areas where there is a relatively higher diversity of languages. This is also reflected in the differently shaded colours overlaid.

The highest language diversity in the world can be found in Africa and Asia, both with more than 2,000 living tongues. At the other end of the geographic spectrum lies Europe with only around 250 living languages and dialects spoken.

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How vulnerable languages are can be seen even in Europe, with its relatively low language diversity. …

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