New Internationalist

The Facts

Issue 191

new internationalist
issue 191 - January 1989

LANGUAGE - THE FACTS

 

Global talk

More people speak Chinese than any other language - though it is really a collection of eight different languages. The most widely spoken of these is Mandarin with about 700m speakers. English, however, is a more international tongue. It has official status in many countries where other languages are also spoken.1


MOTHER-TONGUE SPEAKERS

Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Below are the world’s major languages ranked according to the number of people who have each as their first language - their mother tongue.

 

(millions)

1. Chinese

1,000

2. English

350

3. Spanish

250

4. Hindi

200

5. Arabic

150

6. Bengali

150

7. Russian

150

8. Portuguese

135

9. Japanese

120

10. German

100

11. French

70

12. Punjabi

70

13. Javanese

65

14. Bihari

65

15. Italian

60

16. Korean

60

17. Telugu

55

18. Tamil

55

19. Marathi

50

20. Vietnamese

50

OFFICIAL LANGUAGES

Listed here are the total populations of those countries where each language has official status - this will overestimate the number of speakers because only a relatively small number of Indians, for example, will actually speak English.

  (millions)

1.

English

1,400

2.

Chinese

1,000

3.

Hindi

700

4.

Spanish

280

5.

Russian

270

6.

French

220

7.

Arabic

170

8.

Portuguese

160

9.

Malay

160

10.

Bengali

150

11.

Japanese

120

12.

German

100

13.

Urdu

85

14.

Italian

60

15.

Korean

60

16.

Vietnamese

60

17.

Persian

50

18.

Tagalog

50

19.

Thai

50

20.

Turkish

50


FAMILY TIES

There are around 4,000 languages in the world today - 6,000 less than were spoken a couple of centuries ago. There were over 1,000 in the ‘New world’ before the colonists arrived - a number that has now dropped to around 400.2

Many languages clearly have a common source so it is possible to group languages into families of which the following’ are the largest:

1. Indo-European 2,000m speakers.
Unlikely as it may seem, there are striking similarities between the major European languages and Sanskrit. These point to a common ancestor that probably originated in Eastern Europe 25 thousand years ago. The original ‘proto’ Indo-European language spread west and mutated into the present-day Romance languages like French and Spanish and the Germanic, like English and German. As it moved south it took a wide variety of other forms from Kurdish to Hindi.

2. Sino-Tibetan 1,040m speakers
The vast majority of the speakers of this group are in China but there are significant numbers of Chinese speakers throughout South-East Asia and even in the US.

3. Niger-Congo 260m speakers
There are 1,000 or so languages in this group which are spoken in most of the southern half of Africa - below a line running roughly from Senegal to Kenya but excluding Namibia and South Africa. This includes Swahili which although the mother-tongue of only 4m people is probably used as a lingua franca by about 30m. Some of the other major languages include Rwanda (15m) and in West Africa Yoruba (17m) and Igbo (13m).

4. Afro-Asiatic 230m speakers
Also known as the Hamito-Semitic group this is found across the northern half of Africa and in South-West Asia. The Semitic languages are the oldest, of which Arabic (150m) is the most significant and is the sacred language of Islam. Hebrew (4m) is the language of Israel - though the language spoken by Jesus Christ would have been Old Aramaic.

5. Austronesian 200m speakers
Also known as Malayo-Polynesian, this is spoken over a vast area from Madagascar to Aotearoa (NZ) and includes at least 500 languages. They fall into two groups dividing on a line east and west of New Guinea


PUTTING A NAME TO A PLACE

The names of most countries looked very different to a speaker of the local language or the original language. Here are just a few:2

Guatemala - Place of wooden pillars (Carib)
Cuba - Place where gold is found (Carib)
Chile - End of the land (Araucanian)
Uruguay - River of the painted bird (Araucanian)
Argentina - The silver republic (Spanish)
Ethiopia - Burning face (Greek)
Hong Kong - Fragrant streams (Chinese)
Israel - Wrestler with God (Hebrew)
Honduras - The depths (Spanish)
Haiti - Mountain (Carib)
Jamaica - Well-watered (Carib)


TERMS OF ABUSE

Many racist words are derived from the strange sounds made by foreigners. This is an ancient tradition. The Greek word for ‘barbarians’ means people who seem to be saying ‘baa-baa’ - like sheep. Other labels derive from words taken from the foreigners’ own language.

Spik - Applied by English-speaking to Spanish-speaking persons. It is difficult for Spanish-speakers to pronounce the English sound ‘ea’. So ‘I don’t speak English’ can come out as ‘No ess-pik English’.

Chink - Comes from a mis-pronunciation of Chung-kuo, the Chinese word for China.

Gook - Used (frequently by the military) of East Asians in general. It is a Korean word which simply means ‘country’. Thus Korea is han-gook and America is mei-gook.

Wop - Refers to Italians. It is a corruption of guappo meaning ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ in the Neapolitan dialect and was applied to youths who migrated to America.

Honky - Used by blacks of whites. Probably derives from rivalry between blacks and central European immigrants in US cities. Hun yak is Hungarian for Hungarian.

Coon - Comes from the last syllable of barracoes, the Portuguese word for buildings constructed for holding slaves before they were sold.

Gringo - Used by Latin Americans of North Americans and Europeans. The most picturesque explanation is that US soldiers were frequently heard in Mexico during the US-Mexican war of 1848 to sing the song ‘Green Grow the Lilacs’. Local people ran the opening two words together.

Nip - For the Japanese. A transliteration of the Japanese word for Japan, Nippon.


TONGUE TO TONGUE

Translation from one language to another takes up a lot of intellectual energy. The figures below refer to the number of books translated in 1982, the latest year for which figures are available.

The writing languages
Below are the languages most translated from, together with the subjects.

 
Philosophy
Religion
Social Science
Pure Science
Applied Science
Arts
Literature
History / Geography
General
Total

1. English

1,185

1,051

1,555

1,058

2,254

997

12,841

1,099

168

22.208

2. Russian#

162

53

1,865

809

433

186

2,098

597

35

6,238

3. French

425

432

566

142

570

443

3,031

546

50

6,205

4. German

338

319

462

189

642

403

1,688

418

42

4,501

5. Italian

37

163

93

47

149

277

544

107

17

1,433

5. Swedish

25

30

58

25

110

44

664

34

6

996

7. Spanish

7

67

64

11

31

31

428

72

4

715

8. Hungarian

14

4

115

46

64

175

220

43

22

703

9. Danish

3

15

22

22

56

21

389

28

2

589

10. Polish

21

17

91

22

47

45

296

50

19

589

TOTAL*

2,521

3,027

5,768

2,607

4,730

2,893

26,628

3,619

405

52,198

The reading languages
Detailed below are the languages into which most translations went.

Original
English
French
Spanish
Russian
German
Italian
Japanese
Danish
Norwegian
Swedish

English

-

1,632

3,557

525

5,795

945

1,862

723

620

1,385

Russian#

672

291

339

-

664

92

70

42

27

48

French

628

-

1,525

144

1,294

484

208

80

26

135

German

873

368

816

167

-

321

190

109

54

152

Italian

150

126

475

16

72

-

29

16

8

17

Swedish

116

11

40

12

227

5

17

188

143

-

Spanish

108

60

-

31

60

41

16

12

13

24

Hungarian

194

49

15

65

182

11

1

0

0

1

Danish

7

49

50

14

89

3

1

-

61

112


MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS

International reading tastes can be judged by seeing which authors are the most regularly translated.

Author

Country

Translations

Translating
countries

1.

V I Lenin#

USSR

335

9

2.

A Christie

UK

291

21

3.

J Verne

France

224

23

4.

W Disney Prodns

USA

193

14

5.

E Blyton

UK

183

11

6.

B Cartland

UK

150

11

7.

L I Breznev

USSR

148

13

8.

E Wallace

USA

127

6

9.

W Shakespeare

UK

125

20

10.

R Goscinny^

France

124

37

11.

H C Anderson

Denmark

117

24

12.

J Grimm

Germany

107

16

13.

F Engels

Germany

106

13

14.

J London

USA

106

19

15.

K Marx

Germany

103

14

16.

L N Tolstoy

USSR

91

20

17.

M Twain

USA

83

19

18.

C Dickens

UK

80

19

19.

F M Dostoevski

USSR

80

19

20.

E Hemingway

USA

75

15

Photo: Camera Press

In addition, in 1982 the Bible was translated 211 times in 19 countries. The most translated authors from developing countries were Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia and S Hussain from Iraq both of whom were translated 22 times.


References

1 D Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, Cambridge University Press 1987.
2 Charles Berlitz, Native tongues, Panther 1983.
3 UNESCO, Statistical Yearbook 1987.

# Most translations from Russian take place into other languages used within the Soviet Union itself.

* This includes all languages from which translations were made. The next most popular source languages with the total number of translations were: Czech(572); Serbo-Croatian(470); Dutch(409); Latin(426); Classical Greek(4 13); Romanian(392); Norwegian(320); Arabic (298); Bulgarian(292); Japanese(208).

^ the Gaul

 

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