24 July 2005



If you have any interest in language at all, go take a look at the Ethnologue. It's a listing of all known human languages. And yes, there's always a problem with distinguishing between a language and a dialect. (Someone once said that a language was a dialect with an army.)

Try this — how many languages from the US can you name? I got to 22, including the one I mention below. The Ethnologue lists 162 living languages, 3 with no native-tongue speakers, and 73 extinct languages. They also list 23 languages for Turkey, but not, as far as I could see, the whistle language used by the Laz for long-distance communication.

Way back when I was a graduate student in linguistics, a class I took in field methods used a language called Monachi as an example. Despite having only about 40 speakers, it's listed in the Ethnologue.

I also found this map, which shows the geographic centers of the languages, pretty interesting. Almost all of the diversity of languages occurs in tropical areas, notably West Africa, the Himalayan foothills, and Papua-New Guinea (which all on its own has 830 languages, 820 of them still living). These last two probably mostly reflect geography, since they're both regions of isolated valleys.

Other little titbits: there are 200-2000 native speakers of Esperanto in France; no other artificial language has native speakers (Trekkers, I'm disappointed that none of you raised your kids as Klingon-speakers!); none of the Autro-Asiatic — a group which includes Khmer — or Austronesian languages, are spoken in Australia (most of Australia's 231 living languages are in the Australian family).