According to Ethnologue: Languages of the World – the annual reference publication that provides statistics and other information on the living languages in the world, the number of languages changes every year. As per the 2018 edition, there are 7,097 living languages, while the highest recorded number was 7,106, which was estimated in 2013. A living language is considered any language for which there is at least one person who speaks it and it is their first language.
It should be noted, though, that the distribution of these languages is uneven both geographically and by the number of people speaking a language. Asia is the leading region when it comes to number of languages – 2,294 languages are spoken by the population of the continent. Europe occupies the last place with only 287 different languages. It is interesting that the small nation of Papua New Guinea speaks a total of 838 languages, despite spreading over a territory of less than 500,000 square kilometers.
So, what makes a language important or attractive? We are going to look into that answer below.
Evolution of Languages
As per the Bible, at the time of the tower of Babel, all humans spoke a single language. At one point the language split into several groups and the people were no longer able to understand each other. While linguists and language researchers are not able to confirm that there was one single protolanguage, from which all other languages originated, they are able to unite the languages into several groups. These groups are called language families. The question is how we ended up with thousands of languages if they have the same roots. The answer is pretty simple. Back in time, tribes split in order to search for a better environment and other sources of food. As a result of the different surroundings and style of living, as well as thanks to the various neighbors they had, the once members of a tribe, developed different speaking patterns. With time these patterns turned into different languages.
Language families are formed based on the similarity of the languages spoken and the common roots they have. Depending on the factor used for determining a language family, there are many different ones. A language family can be defined by the number of spoken languages that belong to it and based on that the first five places are occupied by:
- Niger – Congo (1,538 languages)
- Austronesian (1,257 languages)
- Trans – New Guinea (480 languages)
- Sino – Tibetan (457 languages)
- Indo – European (444 languages)
When divided into smaller families by geographical region, Ethnologue identifies a total of 152 families, some of which contain only one language. According to this classification, the Indo-European family is the largest with 444 languages and English belongs to it.
Can a Language be Sexy?
We attach different definitions to languages: some are easy, others difficult, some are popular, others exotic. It is interesting that we also classify some languages as sexy as well. The overall winner is usually French, accompanied by Italian, Spanish and English (most often British English).
The question is what makes us classify a language as sexy? And why does French always come up first? It might be associated with the sound or the accent or even the grammar of the language. The more plausible answer, however, is that it has to do with our culture and upbringing as well as with the cultural peculiarities of the French as a nation. French is considered the sexiest language mainly because Europeans, grew up with the belief that France is a romantic country with delicate manners, fine wines and gourmet cuisine.
For Asians or Africans, French won’t be so sexy, since they have different traditions, they grew up with different cultural peculiarities. Plus, France is quite far away and perhaps even unknown as a country to some of the people living on those continents.
Therefore, we can conclude that a language sounds sexy to a certain group of people because of their common beliefs and cultural associations and not so much due to its accent or other purely linguistic characteristics.
The Most Influential Languages in the World
No matter what kind of rankings or classifications are made, English always comes on top of the list as either the most important, powerful or influential language in the world. In the article These are the most powerful languages in the world, published at the World Economic Forum, the author Kai Chan takes the Power Language Index (PLI) that uses 20 indicators to measure the influence on language, in order to rank the languages. As a result, the top ten languages are as follows:
It is interesting, that the predictions for 2050 include the same 10 languages with small changes in the ranking. Spanish moves to third place, while French becomes fourth and Japanese drops to the tenth position superseded by Portuguese and Hindi.
English is the dominant language and this to some extent explains the leading role of London and New York as well as that of Hong Kong and Singapore, which have English infrastructure., as economic pillars.
Each language is a treasure and those who speak more than one, have a solid ground to be proud of themselves. Globalization turned English into one of the most powerful languages and made it a global phenomenon. This, however, does not mean that there is no need to learn languages or that the job of the translator/interpreter will diminish in time. While mobile translating devices will evolve and help people, it is not expected that machine translation will replace human translation completely. The need for professional translators will remain strong, the trick will be to master those languages that will continue ruling the world in the following years.
- How languages evolve – Alex Gendler
- These are the most powerful languages in the world – Kai Chan, World Economic Forum
- Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 2018 edition