issue 191 - January 1989
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
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
3. Niger-Congo 260m speakers
4. Afro-Asiatic 230m speakers
5. Austronesian 200m speakers
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)
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
The reading languages
MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS
International reading tastes can be judged by seeing which authors are the most regularly translated.
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.
1 D Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, Cambridge University Press 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