Back to  Why are there different Languages?

Good question. There certainly are a lot of languages. Different languages developed because people were from different regions of the world. When someone in China decides to name something, it's very unlikely that it will be the same word that someone in Africa uses for the same thing. Your question was sent to someone who knows a lot about languages and the question "How many languages are there" was added.

The answer came from Les K. He's in Seattle and languages are a hobby of his. He knows a language called Esperanto which is popular with some scientists because it is a language that is not associated with one country but rather with the world. Here is Les's answer.

I'd love to take a crack at your interesting question about languages...

The question of how many different languages there are is more difficult

than it seems, because there is no clear definition of when two languages

are truly different or just dialects of the same language. For example,

Norwegians and Swedes can easily understand each other, but Norwegian and

Swedish are generally considered as separate languages simply because

Norway and Sweden are separate countries.

The best estimate of the number of living languages is somewhere around

4,500 (from Voegelin and Voegelin's Classification and Index of the World's

Languages). Most of these languages are very obscure, with only 138

languages having more than 1,000,000 speakers. The top twenty are as

follows (with the number of mother-tongue speakers given in 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. Panjabi (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)

No one knows where the first languages came from. However, scientists have

learned that many of today's languages (for example English, French,

German, Russian, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit) are all descended from an

ancient language known as Proto Indo-European. The original speakers of

Proto Indo-European migrated to different parts of Europe and Asia, and

over the centuries their speech changed (just as English has changed over

the past centuries) and evolved into the different languages we know today.

It's still possible to detect many similarities between these different,

related languages. For example, the number "three":

English "three"

French "trois"

German "drei"

Russian "tri"

Greek "tria"


[I'm going to resist the temptation to put in a plug for Esperanto, but the

word for "three" in Esperanto is "tri". It would also be considered a

member of the Indo-European family of languages.]

Although the number of different languages grew during the early history of

mankind, nowadays the number of living languages is steadily declining, as

the last remaining speakers of native languages die off and the languages

become extinct because they are no longer spoken.

Les Kerr

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