New Internationalist

Factfile On… Language

Issue 328

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[image, unknown] Although no-one knows the exact number, there are at least 6,000 languages in the world today. More than half may have disappeared by the year 2025.

Languages usually have a relatively short lifespan. Only a few, including Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and Tamil, have lasted more than 2,000 years.
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Many languages have a common source and it is possible to group them into families:

1. Indo-European: There are striking similarities between the major European languages and Sanskrit. These point to a common ancestor that probably originated in Eastern Europe 25,000 years ago. The original 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: The vast majority of the speakers of this group are in China but there are significant numbers throughout Southeast Asia and even in the US.

3. Niger-Congo: There are 1,000 or so languages in this group which are spoken in most of the southern half of Africa.

4. Afro-Asiatic: Also known as the Hamito-Semitic group, this is found across the northern half of Africa and southwest Asia. Arabic is the oldest of the languages.

5. Austronesian: Also known as Malayo-Polynesian, this is spoken over a vast area from Madagascar to Aotearoa/New Zealand and includes at least 500 languages.

The world's TOP TEN languages.

[image, unknown] . Only 100 languages are written down.

. Around 80 per cent of what is on the Internet is in English.

. Specialists reckon that no language can survive unless 100,000 people speak it. Half of the 6,000 or so languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and a quarter by fewer than 1,000.

. The 'New World' had 1,000 languages before the colonists arrived but only 400 remain today and many of these are endangered.

. Forbidding people to speak or teach their own language has always been used as a way of trying to stamp out minority cultures: for example, Kurdish, Berber, Basque.

. In some places languages which have almost died out are experiencing a revival. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, for example, were until recently considered to be a single language, Serbo-Croat.

. Half the world's population uses a total of eight languages in daily life, while a sixth of the world's languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea alone.

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In 1994, these were the most-translated authors in print:

[image, unknown] Agatha Christie - Partners in Crime

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2. New Internationalist No 191.
All other information from UNESCO.

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This article was originally published in issue 328

New Internationalist Magazine issue 328
Issue 328

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