Mapping Languages Worldwide

Some interesting stuff via WaPo:  The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Something that I’d be interested to see based on the third map:

    A scatter plot and regression line for language diversity vs. per capita GDP.

  2. Pinky says:

    Two observations –

    There are only 254 million native Russian speakers. That’s amazing to think about. For all their mass and influence over the past century, they’re really quite small.

    I loved this note: “The reason why English, French and Spanish are among the world’s most widespread languages has its roots in the imperial past of the nations where they originate.” Uh, guys, French is third and Spanish is fifth. What about Arabic at #2? Surely you can point to the expansionary policies of its native speakers over the last 14 centuries?

  3. Also chart 5 is was silly. That fact that the US, the UK, and Australia all fail to qualify as English speaking demonstrates how useless “official language” is as a metric.

  4. Pinky says:

    @Stormy Dragon: It’d show diversity as strongly negatively correlated to income. It’d be driven by the large number of African countries with high poverty and high language diversity. That stat would be misleading, though. What makes the “first world” so successful is its interrelation between cultures, across borders. The G7 countries feature five different primary languages, but lead the world in trade and high-tech communication.

  5. @Pinky:

    What makes the “first world” so successful is its interrelation between cultures, across borders.

    Yes, but a lot of that interrelation comes in the form of homogenization. Is part of the reason Western civilization dominated the planet for much of recent history due to the fact that the lower number of languages made it easier for Europe to organize and manage large numbers of people than in other cultures?

  6. Pinky says:

    @Stormy Dragon: That’s a valid point. I think we undervalue the rule of law as a requirement for economic development. It’s a lot easier to create a stable society when everyone can agree on the meaning of the rules. Naturally, this also extends to the point I was making, that a common understanding of law in the first world allows greater chance of successful communication. When I looked at that language diversity map, my first thought was that the one language that all of the lightest-colored countries speak is exchange rates. That’s a simplification, but the truth is that an expectation of stability it important for economic growth, and a dependable legal structure plays a part in that.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    This article simplifies the linguistics involved. In France less than 150 years ago there were over 100 spoken languages – most of those are dead now. In Germany although theoretically they all spoke German the difference in dialects made the spoken language in one area were incomprehensible to Germans in another area – for example the Bavarians still refer to their language as Bayerish. Television has largely eliminated much of this in Germany.
    My late mother used to rant about Hispanics who continued to speak Spanish. I had to remind her that my great grandmother who came to this country when she was 20 refused to learn English and still did not speak English when she died well into her 80s. French was the official language of England for several centuries and to this day there are several languages that are alive and well on the British Isles.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    I might add an interesting study is that of the west coast native Americans. The various tribes all spoke different languages but they had a common trading language, the Chinook jargon. The evolution of the jargon is fascinating. As the French traders moved in French words were added to the jargon. As the English speakers moved in English words were added. I am the proud owner of one of the last published dictionaries.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    The article also elides over an important issue: what distinguishes languages from each other and from dialects is often political. Take Hindi and Urdu, for example. Are they two different languages or dialects of the same language? The question is hotly debated.

    There’s an old joke about the Slavic languages to the effect that their speakers just pretend not to understand each other, i.e. some of the different “languages” are actually dialects of a single language.

    The opposite is the case with Chinese. Some of China’s “dialects” aren’t dialects at all; they’re actually distinct languages from the same language family. They are joined by a common written language.

    I’m told the same thing is true of Arabic, i.e. some of the dialects are not, in fact, mutually intelligible which means they’re not dialects at all but distinct languages and they’re spoken of as dialects rather than distinct languages because they share a written language and for political reasons.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    In Germany although theoretically they all spoke German the difference in dialects made the spoken language in one area were incomprehensible to Germans in another area – for example the Bavarians still refer to their language as Bayerish.

    That’s a good example of what I’m talking about in my comment above. In some parts of Switzerland a “dialect” called Schwyzerdütsch is spoken. Most but not all of those who speak it also speak, read, write, and understand standard Swiss German. However, those who do not speak Schwyzerdütsch or another, related dialect (one of what are called the “Alemannic dialects”) but speak standard German frequently find Schwyzerdütsch incomprehensible. By most standards that would mean it was a language rather than a dialect but, as mentioned above, the distinction between dialects and languages and, consequently, the number of languages is a political distinction rather than a linguistic one.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    This article simplifies the linguistics involved.

    Indeed. If nothing else, lumping together “Chinese (all dialects)” as a single spoken language is approximately as correct as lumping together “Latin (all dialects)” as a single language, including all of the native speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanche, and Rumanian. Street Arabic (as opposed to liturgical Arabic and its TV news derivative) is similarly diverse.

  12. JKB says:

    Here is a commenter from 1886. He’s a bit prophetic given the events of a century ago with the standing armies of Europe.

    The multiplicity of languages is due to the policy of international hate, inaugurated by the nations of Europe to promote the selfish purposes of rulers. Barbarism is diversity; civilization is unity. The human race is one, provided it is civilized, and it should have but one language. Language is a tool, and time consumed in acquiring skill in the use of more than one tool designed for the same end, is wasted. The standing armies of Europe obstruct the way to unity of language. The time will come when all civilized peoples will speak one tongue, probably the English. Then language will cease to be a mere vain accomplishment, and become what it ought always to have been, the simple means of familiarizing the mind with things, and of the communication of knowledge.

    English will probably prevail as the common language. Although, I do remember a speculation about 20 years ago that Chinese could become the language for speaking to computers. Chinese is a apparently difficult as written, but has fewer sounds than English as spoken.

  13. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    for example the Bavarians still refer to their language as Bayerish. Television has largely eliminated much of this in Germany.

    The Bavarians can still flip to Bayerisch when they feel like it and leave those of us who only get by in Hochdeutsch wondering what the hell they just said.

  14. Mikey says:

    @JKB: Chinese may have fewer sounds, but you can enunciate them in four different ways that change the meaning entirely.

    For example. https://youtu.be/vExjnn_3ep4

  15. Pinky says:

    The West had a primary language for a couple thousand years.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: Not just the rule of law, but the rule of law actually being implemented and having (preferably) equal teeth against both rich and poor.

    P.S. If I had to vote for any language as a lingua franca, why not Latin?

  17. Pinky says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Not just the rule of law, but the rule of law actually being implemented and having (preferably) equal teeth against both rich and poor.

    Yes. But since we’re talking about international and intercultural relations, it’s equally important that the law is equal for different ethnicities, and for foreigners. Not that there can’t be a tariff or other restriction here and there, but all parties have to have a reasonable expectation that what they agree to will actually happen.

    P.S. If I had to vote for any language as a lingua franca, why not Latin?

    When I was a kid, it was understood that if you were going into the sciences, you had to learn German. When I got older, we were all told that the language of international commerce was Japanese. Language is a human and organic thing, and it’s unpredictable. English has been successful in recent years because we wrote the internet, but it’s anyone’s guess what happens next.

    If I’d had kids, the one thing I was sure of was that I’d get them started on languages, early. Not only because it’s easier for kids to learn them. It just gives you a leg up in understanding another culture, and in understanding your own language.