Language Classification by Numbers (Oxford Linguistics)

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About 7, languages are spoken around the world today. The actual number depends on where the line is drawn between language and dialect—an arbitrary decision, because languages are always in flux. But specialists applying a reasonably uniform criterion across the globe count well over 2, languages in Asia and Africa, while Europe has just shy of In between are the Pacific region, with over 1, languages, and the Americas, with just over 1, Languages spoken natively by over a million speakers number around , but the vast majority have very few speakers. Something like half are thought likely to disappear over the next few decades, as speakers of endangered languages turn to more widely spoken ones.

The languages of the world are grouped into perhaps language families, based on their origin, as determined by comparing similarities among languages and deducing how they evolved from earlier ones. The figure comes from Glottolog. While it is normal for languages to borrow from other languages, occasionally a totally new language is created by mixing elements of two distinct languages to such a degree that we would not want to identify one of the source languages as the mother tongue. This is what led to the development of Media Lengua, a language of Ecuador formed through contact among speakers of Spanish and speakers of Quechua.

In this language, practically all the word stems are from Spanish, while all of the endings are from Quechua. Just a handful of languages have come into being in this way, but less extreme forms of language mixture have resulted in over a hundred pidgins and creoles currently spoken in many parts of the world. Also among the languages of the world are about sign languages used mainly in communicating among and with the deaf.

The structure of sign languages typically has little historical connection to the structure of nearby spoken languages. Some languages have been constructed expressly, often by a single individual, to meet communication demands among speakers with no common language. Esperanto, designed to serve as a universal language and used as a second language by some two million, according to some estimates, is the prime example, but it is only one among several hundred would-be international auxiliary languages.

This essay surveys the languages of the world continent by continent, ending with descriptions of sign languages and of pidgins and creoles. A set of references grouped by section appears at the very end. The main source for data on language classification, numbers of languages, and speakers is the 19th edition of Ethnologue see Resources , except where a different source is cited.

Celtic, which extended across much of Europe as far east as present-day Turkey 2, years ago, has undergone gradual contraction since the ascendance of the Romans in Europe, and with the spread of English and French the Celtic languages have long been confined to parts of Britain, Ireland, and western France. The two main branches of modern Celtic are Brythonic and Goidelic. Gaulish, a third branch, went extinct but has recently undergone restoration attempts, as have Manx and Cornish, which also were extinct.

In fact, all present-day Celtic languages have seen revitalization efforts. This is happening even with Welsh—hardly an endangered language with , speakers in the census. Currently, Wales has school programs aimed at getting a greater proportion of ethnic Welsh, who number nearly 2,,, to learn to speak the language. As in Wales, school programs in Brittany since at least the s have aimed to get young people speaking a variety of their ethnic tongue. Two of these are paired with a sister language that is also spoken by significant numbers: Dutch with Afrikaans, and German with Yiddish.

This is the ancestral branch of the modern Romance languages, all descended from a colloquial form of Latin. About 2, years ago, the Italic branch included not just Latin but also Oscan, Umbrian, and Faliscan, but these languages have no modern descendants. Modern Greek is the only descendant of this branch, also called Hellenic. Albanian, similarly, is the only descendant of the Albanian branch. This group has Baltic and Slavic subbranches.

The official languages of Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia make up the Baltic subbranch. Slavic has three divisions: The languages of this branch are spoken in Asia. Armenia is here considered a language of Europe, though a good case could be made for including it in Asia. Like Greek and Albanian, the Armenian branch has just one language, with a major division between Eastern and Western dialects.

The standard language of Armenia is in the Eastern Armenian group, which also includes the dialects of Armenian communities in Iran, Russia, Georgia, and their environs. Texts from Armenian Cilicia from the 11th to the 14th centuries ce are the first to show a differentiated Western dialect. Armenian is of special interest to linguists because of retentions from Indo-European, notably all seven of its noun cases and the irregular retention of initial laryngeals.

The languages of this branch were spoken in Asia. Three important languages in this family are Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. These three are traditionally grouped into a branch called Finno-Ugric. See Salminen for arguments. The remaining languages of Uralic are smaller ones found in northern parts of Europe and Asia. The area of the Caucasus Mountains and its environs between the Caspian and Black Seas includes Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and parts of neighboring countries.

This relatively small region may have up to around 40 highly diverse languages, falling into three families, Nakho-Dagestanian, Abkhazo-Adyghean, and Kartvelian. The most important Nakho-Dagestanian language is Chechen. Abkhaz-Adyghean is made up of Abkhaz and Adyghe and is best known among linguists for systems with 60 or more contrasting consonants but very few vowels. The major Kartvelian language is Georgian, with four million speakers. Basque is an isolate spoken in the Western Pyrenees by about half a million, some in France but most in Spain.

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Its history in this location is widely thought to go back several millennia, antedating the more recent Indo-European migrations to the region. There have attempts to identify Basque with a wide variety of groups, including Kartvelian, Afro-Asiatic, and Iberian, but without attracting much support. Turkish, a language of Europe and Asia, belongs to the Turkic group, described in the section on Asia. The current count exceeds 2, languages, grouped into just a few families.

Many other questions still remain open. For example, Greenberg recognized Khoisan as a family, but later scholars have tended to set a higher bar for establishing genetic relationships, leading most to reject it as a family and to defer judgment on particular groupings into branches. The unity of Nilo-Saharan is also called into question, and despite detailed comparative work by Bender — and Ehret , some reject Nilo-Saharan as a valid genetic unit.

For Niger-Congo, the status of some member branches—Kordofanian, Mande, Dogon, and Ijoid—has been challenged, though Niger-Congo itself is widely recognized as a valid family. The Afro-Asiatic family is well established, though there are debates about subgrouping. For example, do Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic together form a separate branch, as Bender — contends? Within Niger-Congo, there are a number of unanswered questions, many revolving around the constituency of its most complex branch, Benue-Congo, which uncontroversially includes all the Bantu languages and many more.

For details and references, see Bendor-Samuel and Hartell and the references in Nordhoff et al. This is the northernmost family, with a few hundred languages spanning all of North Africa and the Middle East, as well as two smaller areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The Semitic branch has 78 languages, including Arabic, the first language of up to million throughout North Africa and widely spoken in the Middle East. Other important Semitic languages are Hebrew, which shares official status in Israel with Arabic, and several Ethiopic languages.

Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia and the first language of 21 million, is a South Ethiopic language.

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In the North Ethiopic branch is Tigrigna, an official language of Eritrea spoken by 7 million. The term Afro-Asiatic was used by Joseph Greenberg to replace the designation Hamito-Semitic, which posited a division between the Semitic branch named for Biblical figure Shem and a putative branch named for Biblical figure Ham. Greenberg argued that extraneous factors like these had no place in language classification, which should be based solely on linguistic data. Comparing languages from the different groups classed as Hamitic, Greenberg concluded that the evidence did not support their grouping into a single branch.

The Berber branch of Afro-Asiatic is spoken in the foothills of the Atlas Mountain in Morocco and Algeria and, spottily, in neighboring countries. Cushitic gets its name from Cush, the son of Ham. The several dozen languages of this group are spoken mainly in Ethiopia and Somalia, with a few in Kenya and Tanzania. Chadic languages are mainly spoken in the countries surrounding Lake Chad and are dominant in northern Nigeria, numbering close to in all. By far the most widely spoken is Hausa, with 25 million native speakers.

The languages of the Omotic branch, numbering over two dozen, are all spoken in southwestern Ethiopia. The Egyptian branch, thanks to hieroglyphs, can be traced back before 3, bce. Ancient Egyptian was the ancestor of Coptic, spoken in Egypt, but over time was replaced by Arabic until Coptic died out, roughly years ago. Since then Coptic has survived as a liturgical language. The approximately languages occupy a band extending from the Nile region to the Sahara desert. For a relatively small family, they are quite diverse typologically, leaving some doubt as to whether the Nilotic and Saharan branches really deserve to be grouped into a family.

Reflecting this, Glottolog divides them into two separate families, Nilotic and Saharan. The great majority of languages in sub-Saharan Africa are members of the Niger-Congo family. Ideas about the respective genetic affiliations of well-known groups within Niger-Congo have changed substantially over the last half-century. This discovery—which took ten years before gaining the wide acceptance it has today—not only challenged earlier assumptions about linguistic classification but also opened the door to hypotheses about Bantu origins. The currently accepted view is that Bantu originated in southeastern Nigeria and expanded east and south from there.

Among the languages of the world, some are poorly studied and go back so far in time that it is hard to trace their genetic origins. This is the case with Khoisan, which is generally not recognized as an established family but as a set of 27 languages—some with just a handful of speakers—that are likely not to belong to the other three established families of African languages.

Ermisch presents what is known, along with the residual problems. For more on Malayo-Polynesian, see the subsection on Austronesian in the section on Oceania. The downside is that the contact situation has made it difficult to classify genetic relationships with certainty in some important cases. The Indo-European languages of Europe were discussed in section 2. This section describes the Indo-European languages of Asia. Both of these branches are long extinct. The Tocharian branch became extinct with the expansion of Turkic Uyghur tribes in the 9th century ce.

Tocharian manuscripts from a few centuries prior to extinction, uncovered in the early 20th century, provided information that led scholars to reassess key assumptions about Proto-Indo-European and its descendants. Anatolian inscriptions from a much earlier era, about two millennia prior, similarly reshaped what had been known. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov offer a highly readable synthesis and summary of research presented in Gamkrelidze and Ivanov Indo-Iranian has two large branches, Indo-Aryan and Iranian.

Among the over two hundred Indo-Aryan languages, Hindi and Urdu are official languages of India and Pakistan, respectively, and many consider them dialects of a single language. Hindustani is the language once promoted by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress as a tool of national unity. For the Hindustani controversy, see Kachru The largest language of the Iranian component of Indo-Iranian is Persian, with estimates exceeding 50 million native speakers in Iran.

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Written records of Old Persian go back to the 6th century bce. Other important languages in the Iranian branch are Pashto, mainly spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Kurdish, mainly spoken in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The approximately 40 languages of this family extend from Macedonia to Siberia, Central Asia, and western China. Despite the vastness of this area, the languages themselves are typologically quite similar: The Mongolic languages are a group of about a dozen spoken in Mongolia and in adjacent areas of the Russian Federation and China.

Mongolian, with over six million speakers, is by far the largest language in the family and the official language both of Mongolia and of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China. The 11 languages of this family are scattered through Siberia, the Far East of Russia, and northwestern China, but most are endangered and some are nearly extinct. That includes Manchu, the language of the founders of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China for nearly three centuries up to The edition of Ethnologue lists only 20 speakers for Manchu, though over ten million are ethnically Manchu.


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Altaic has been regarded by some as a family comprising Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic, and for a few even including as distant members Japonic and Korean. Versions of the Altaic hypothesis still have adherents, even though this notion has been cast into doubt as criteria have been challenged and evidence has been rejected as based largely on shared typological similarities, a position summarized in Unger Despite this, adherents continue to make a case, among them Miller , Georg et al. The more conservative consensus is that many resemblances among languages in this linguistic area could have come from language contact rather than a shared ancestor.

This view is reflected in Ethnologue and Glottolog, among others. Dravidian languages are spoken primarily in southern India, though some are also found further north in the Indian subcontinent. The major literary languages are Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu, each one the first language of tens of millions. More is known about the history of Dravidian than about many other language families, thanks to the long literary periods of the four major languages. Questions have been raised about Dravidian similarities to Uralic and Altaic, among several others. Austerlitz dismissed these, and Krishnamurti , briefly surveying archeological and DNA literature along with linguistic evidence in his foundational work on Dravidian, seconds the conclusion that the linguistic arguments behind the proposed genetic relationships are tenuous and speculative.

Dravidian morphology is mainly agglutinative but lacks the long strings of affixes found in other agglutinative languages. The typical word order is SOV. Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language, owes its retroflex consonants to Dravidian, from which they are thought to have spread by diffusion.

The languages of this family are spoken in China, the Himalayas, and Burma. The division into Chinese and Tibeto-Burman branches is customary, as espoused by Matisoff , though a few experts, including van Driem , still question the grouping of Sinitic as a separate sister branch to Tibeto-Burman, along with many particulars. Tibeto-Burman, with well over languages, is especially problematic because of the inaccessibility of many languages in the Himalayas, not to mention that van Driem , p.

Still, Ethnologue offers a full family tree. Sino-Tibetan was at one time thought to include languages farther south, such as the Tai-Kadai languages and the Hmong-Mien Miao-Yao languages, but the similarities among these languages are probably better attributed to areal diffusion, including massive lexical borrowing from Chinese. Each of the Chinese languages of course has dialects. Ethnologue lists five major dialects for Mandarin which also goes by the name Guanhua: Other sources divide the dialects differently, due not only to differences of linguistic and geographical criteria but also to centuries of diffusion of linguistic features.

For discussion, see Kurpaska and Yan Linguistic diffusion is the general pattern in the historical development of Chinese, due to over a dozen massive population movements going back to the 7th century bce and continuing to the present, each migration involving hundreds of thousands and often millions of people. Complicating these scenarios is the fact that in most cases, the migrations were to areas already settled by speakers of Chinese or other languages, often resulting in language mixture.

The history of these migrations and their linguistic effects is traced by LaPolla As already noted, most of the languages of this branch are endangered. As a group, they have many linguistic traits in common, including SOV order and agglutinative verb structure. Karen and Bai both stand out enough from the rest of Tibeto-Burman to inspire attempts to classify them outside of Tibeto-Burman proper.

See Wang for a brief survey with references. The Munda branch is found in northeastern India, surrounded by Indo-European and Dravidian languages that have influenced its languages greatly over the ages. Typologically they are agglutinative, with SOV word order, making them typologically very different from the rest of the family. Austro-Asiatic includes two important national languages, Vietnamese and Khmer Cambodian. These two languages were grouped, along with many others, into a branch called Mon-Khmer, a grouping still accepted by Ethnologue but challenged by Sidwell Vietnamese has borrowed massively from Chinese and was originally written with Chinese characters.

Vietnamese and a few others in this family have developed phonological tones, and still others are thought to be in the process of developing them. These two families were once regarded as branches of Sino-Tibetan, and the languages of both families show many influences from Chinese. Both families share a number of typological traits: The name Paleosiberian applies to a set of four languages or language groups of Siberia with no established genetic relationship but sharing some typological features—agglutinative word structure and, with exceptions, SOV word order.

One of these is Ket, unrelated to any extant language and reduced to about speakers, but once a member of the Yeniseian family and unlike the rest of Paleosiberian in several respects. It is tonal and has a highly agglutinative verbal system with complex agreement patterns—features that make it look like Na-Dene in North America. The case for a genetic relationship between the two has been made by Vajda , For arguments pro and con, see Kari and Potter , Campbell , and Kiparsky , pp. Implications of this finding for Beringian migrations are pursued by Sicoli and Holton Also in the Paleosiberian area are the Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Yukaghir families and Nivkh, a language with perhaps speakers.

Two of the major languages of East Asia, Korean and Japanese, are widely considered isolates, or nearly so in the case of Japanese, by far the dominant language in Japonic, a family of twelve languages. The remaining 11 languages of Japonic are the Ryukyuan group of the Ryukyu Islands. Another isolate of Asia is Burushaski northeastern Pakistan. Oceania, which includes Australia and most of the island territories of the central and southern Pacific and Indian oceans, is home to the Austronesian family and to two very large language groups, the Australian and the Papuan groups.

All but 25 of these languages are Malayo-Polynesian; the rest are aboriginal languages of Taiwan. The dominant category, Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, has well over half of the languages classified as Malayo-Polynesian but only a few million speakers total, and it is not generally accepted as a valid linguistic grouping. The remaining Malayo-Polynesian languages are found in 17 smaller groups, some of whose languages are widely spoken and highly important politically.

The variety associated with native speakers, who number over 20 million, is called Tagalog. Blust offers a recent and comprehensive account of the linguistic and anthropological aspects of this family, including internal linguistic groupings, the linguistic structure of its languages, sociolinguistic considerations, and archeological evidence backing up the linguistic groupings.

Adelaar and Himmelmann cover a similar range of topics. Estimates run to as many as a thousand languages in an area about a quarter of the size of India, making New Guinea the most linguistically diverse region in the world Foley, , p. Major groupings have been proposed by Greenberg , Wurm , and Ross Greenberg put all the languages into a single family and included some others from outside New Guinea, but the evidence for this has not generally been deemed credible.

Wurm posited 10 Papuan phyla plus isolates, based entirely on lexicostatistic and typological evidence that others found unconvincing Foley, A more recent grouping by Ross , based essentially on evidence from pronouns, has also failed to find wide acceptance. Correlated with this is extreme typological variation across the families, with morphological types ranging from isolating to polysynthetic. The uncertainty is reflected in Glottalog, which lists only Nuclear Trans New Guinea, with languages. This continent has been inhabited for 50, years, but the time frame for language classification is limited to the last 5, or so.

Worse, the number of vigorous Aboriginal languages today is a fraction of what it was before Europeans settled there in the 18th century. Of the odd languages of Australia in , more than half are extinct, and of the remainder, fewer than two dozen are used and learned by the youngest generation.

Dixon, author of many standard reference works on Australian languages, among them Dixon , diverges markedly from the others by simply dividing the languages into 50 groups representing different areas, though among them some genetic clusters may be found. Nor is it a useful typological grouping. For alternative studies from a vantage point that differs markedly, see Bowern and Koch Phonologically, Australian languages tend to be simple in some ways—usually with three-vowel systems—and complex in others, with as many as four contrasting articulations among the coronal consonants.

Morphologically, Pama-Nyungan languages have noun class systems and verbal concord prefixes, and some have extensive noun incorporation constructions. Outside Pama-Nyungan, morphology, especially in nouns, is of a more simple agglutinative type, with suffixes but no prefixes. Most Australian languages have split ergativity, a common pattern being ergative-absolutive alignment for nouns but nominative-accusative alignment for pronouns. Word order tends to be very free, but there is evidence that clauses are best analyzed as verb-final; see Mushin and Baker The past and present states of indigenous languages in the Americas are entirely different as a result of colonization by Europeans.

North America is estimated to have been host at one time to nearly distinct languages Mithun, , p. Since then, over a hundred have gone extinct, and practically all of the rest are endangered. Census Bureau report found Native North American languages to be spoken in the home, with a total speaking population of less than half a million. By far the largest is Navajo, with nearly , Central and South America are home to a few much larger languages, spoken by several million.

Still, language endangerment is also the rule there. Of perhaps 1, pre-Columbian languages, fewer than remain Campbell, and of these, most are spoken by populations of several thousand or fewer. The languages of the Americas are often divided into three geographical areas: North America, Mesomerica, and South America. Of these, the most controversial is Amerind, a grouping widely contested for reasons summarized by Campbell , p.

The approximately surviving languages of native North America are grouped by Golla et al. These and the remaining groupings in Golla et al. Eskimo has two branches, Inuit and Yupik. Because the term Eskimo is deemed offensive by many, especially in Canada and Greenland, Yupik-Inuit is sometimes used instead.

Along with two small languages of Alaska, the family includes Athabaskan, a group of 42 languages widely distributed across the western United States and western Canada. At one time Na-Dene was thought to include Haida Sapir, , but this view has been abandoned by most Schoonmaker et al.

The largest Athabaskan language is Navajo, a member of the Apachean group. Its morphology is widely studied for its complex prefix system, which might lead it to be classified as agglutinative, were it not for complex, overlapping dependencies that are more characteristic of fusional languages. Like many Athabaskan languages, Navajo is tonal, yet proto-Athabaskan lacked tone, and tone seems to have developed independently in many Athabaskan languages from constricted vowels Campbell, , p.

This family has some three dozen forty languages, all but two in the Algonquian branch, distributed across a wide expanse of eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. The two outliers are in California, Yurok and the now-extinct Wiyot. Algonquian languages extend from eastern Canada and the eastern United States to the Rocky Mountains.

The largest languages of this group are Cree, spoken by well over , and spanning a vast area of Canada from Labrador to Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and Ojibwa, with more than 50, speakers, extending across southern Canada and from Ontario to the Rocky Mountains and south into the United States, especially Minnesota. Wakashan, a family of seven languages in British Columbia, was assigned by Edward Sapir in a Encyclopedia Britannica entry to a putative stock called Mosan that also included the Salishan family section 5.

The 26 languages of this family are spoken in the coastal regions and in the region immediately to the east in British Columbia and in nearby areas in the United States. One of typological distinctions of Salishan languages is an extremely rich set of consonant contrasts—up to six pharyngeal consonants, contrasting velars and uvulars, and a full set of ejectives.

Approximately a dozen languages in the Utian family of central and northern California are divided into two branches, Miwok and Costanoan. Also called Yuman, this group of eight small languages, which also includes the extinct Cochimi, is spoken in Arizona and neighboring parts of California and Mexico. About 60 languages make up this family. The 13 languages of the Northern branch are spoken in the western United States.

Among them is Hopi, spoken by 6, in and around northeastern Arizona. The Southern branch has 48 languages, almost all of them in Mexico. This family, also called Siouan, includes Catawba, a language of South Carolina, which lost its last native speaker in the 20th century but is being revived as a second language by ethnic Catawbas. Total speakers for the Siouan family number under 35,, but among its 14 languages is Dakota, the third largest indigenous language of North America and nearly tied for second place with Yupik, with close to 19, speakers.

Dakota is spoken in North and South Dakota and neighboring areas. This group of five languages, each with just a handful of speakers, may possibly form a super-family with Iroquoian and Siouan, based on comparative work Chafe, , but the relationship is not considered established Mithun, , p. Traces of this family of six languages, roughly estimated at around , speakers, are still found in the southeastern United States, but forced relocations by the U. Included were the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, now situated in Oklahoma.

Seven members of this family are severely endangered. Of the remaining two, Mohawk is estimated to have speakers in the Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec, and Cherokee has over 11, speakers in the U. The Southern branch of this family includes 28 varieties of Nahuatl in Mexico and one in El Salvador that altogether number 1. Nahuatl traces its origins to the Aztecs who dominated the area for many centuries. The approximately 30 languages comprising Mayan are spoken mainly in Guatemala and Mexico, as well as in Belize and Honduras. Estimates of the number of speakers of Mayan languages run to six million, with well over half that number in Guatemala.

In Mexico, Yucatec Maya is spoken by more than ,, and a few others are spoken by well over a hundred thousand. The languages are still centered around the original Maya homeland in Guatemala and on the Yucatan Peninsula. Among the noteworthy achievements of early Maya civilization were temples, pyramids, and the only writing system developed in the Americas before the coming of the European explorers.

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Decipherment of the writing system has offered a direct glimpse into the Mayan protolanguage and makes a fascinating story, recounted by Coe This is a large family of languages spoken in central and southern Mexico. All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in applying to Oxford. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

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