It is estimated that there are between 6,000 and 10,000 living languages in the world. Not all of these languages have been identified and not all have names; not all of these languages will survive in the 21st century. The languages that prevail have done so because of evolutionary processes over vast periods of time. These processes have been characterized and documented by scholars, and all identified languages have been represented using the metaphor of language families in schematics known as language trees.
Among human languages, there are spoken languages that are indigenous to a geographic area, those that are spoken in places other than the area of origin, and those that are called official languages as designated by an official body within a geographic community. There are creole and pidgin languages that developed from contact between two particularly different language-speaking groups, typically a result of trade between Europeans and peoples on other continents, such as Africa. There are language dialects that are sometimes designated as languages, as occurs in China. There are also gestural languages, such as sign languages used by deaf persons. Each sign language has a distinct grammar, syntax, and phonology according to the country in which it is used. It is estimated that there are at least 112 sign languages in the world.
There are many reasons for knowing about the organization and life of human languages. One reason is to support understanding of the history, the current dynamic, and the future of specific cultures and nations. Another is to assist in understanding the role that diversity plays among peoples in the world.
In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) embarked on a project to find out which languages were viable, endangered, close to extinction, and extinct. As a result of this process, classification schemes for the world’s languages were modified, and maps were collected into an atlas that was in its second edition in 2001.
Besides the UNESCO project, the study of the origins of human languages has been especially fruitful from the last decade of the 20th century up to the present, and this research has helped to create schematics for the classification of languages into their particular families. Currently there are 94 different language families in the world whose member languages have been identified by a process called genetic classification, where linguists and philologists looked for similarities that showed descent from the same parent language.
Lyovin explains that languages are compared to one another especially for recurring sound correspondences between and among the words of languages that have roughly the same meaning and belong to the basic vocabulary. Each language can be further characterized in relation to other families, constituting distinct language trees. The schematic for these trees is usually reversed in a hierarchical format with the main, central family name at the top and the branches extending out systematically below it. For example, there are over 2.5 billion speakers of languages in the IndoEuropean family, the most studied of language families. This number constitutes 44.78% of the world’s people. The Indo-European family tree is divided into two major components, the Centum languages (Western European) and the Satum (Eastern European and Asian). Subsequently, there are branches, such as West Slavic, that then are subdivided into the actual spoken languages of each branch.
Although the Indo-European language family predominates for number of speakers in the world, there are only 430 living languages in this tree. The Niger-Congo tree, however, is constituted of 1,495 living languages that are spoken by 6.26% of all the world’s people. Six of the 94 language families account for about five-sixths of the world’s population. Among the other 88 language families, there are isolates: individual languages with no known connections to any other group of languages. Gilyak, for example, is an isolate language spoken by about 1,000 people on Sakhalin Island and along the Amur River in East Asian Russia. Not every language that is spoken by few individuals is an isolate. Yukhagir is a separate language family of East Asian Russia that is spoken by only 120 people, mostly the elderly, and it is expected to become extinct once these speakers die.
As stated above, each language tree is composed of several subcategories, or branches of languages that share certain common characteristics. Languages in the same branch may or may not share commonalities of grammar and syntax, vocabulary and phonology. Some may use the same scripts and alphabets, while others show no similarity in this regard. For example, French and English have comparable alphabets, although French has diacritical marks not used in English. Russian uses a Cyrillic alphabet that has little resemblance to the variation of the Roman alphabet used for Polish. There are, however, words that sound quite similar in Russian and Polish, such as the word for opportunity (in Polish, okazja [oh kahzh’yah]; in Russian, transliterated from Russian Cyrillic to English, okaziya [oh kah zy’yah]). Russian is an East Slavic language in the IndoEuropean family tree; Polish is a West Slavic language.
Some languages have an exact one-to-one correspondence between each letter of their alphabets and each sound in words; others have several sounds that are associated with the same letter or combination of letters. For example, in English /g/ can be “hard” or “soft” as in the words, gorilla and cage.
Languages vary in the number of consonants and vowels and how they are produced. There are tonal languages such as Chinese where words are pronounced with obligatory changes in pitch, or tones, to each stressed syllable. In Mandarin Chinese, the national language, a syllable might look like this example from Lyovin:
(C)(G)V (N or G) + Tone
where C represents a consonant, G a glide (non- syllabic vowel), V a full vowel, and N a nasal consonant. There are 235 living languages in the Republic of China. Chinese is in the Sino- Tibetan language family; the languages of Myanmar and Thailand are also members of this family.
One of the oldest language families in Africa is the Khoisan. There are estimates that languages in this family existed some 60,000 years ago, which might place them beyond the commonly proposed time for the appearance of speech at 40,000 years ago. Khoisan languages are recognized by the incorporation of clicks in speaking; the grammars of the 22 languages are rather distinct. Most speakers are found in southwestern Africa around the Kalahari Desert regions, particularly in Botswana and Namibia. Some language scientists, such as Abram de Swaan, are concerned that the neglected study of such small language families as Khoisan might mean the eventual loss of information about the origins of language and the development of cultures prior to colonization by the Western world.
Patricia N. Chrosniak
See also Anthropology; Evolution, Cultural; Language; Language, Evolution of
Asher, R. E., & Moseley, R. E. (2007). Atlas of the world’s languages (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
de Swaan, A. (2001). Words of the world. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Gordon, R. G. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world. (15th ed.). Dalílas, TX: SIL International.
Lyovin, A. V. (1997). An introduction to the languages of the world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wurm, S. A., & Heyward, I. (2001). Atlas of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing (2nd ed.). Paris: UNESCO.