We are losing languages at a rate of one every fortnight

Two countries are home to a quarter of the world’s languages: Papua New Guinea with more than 850, and Indonesia with around 670

The 11 largest languages in the world are Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Bengali, Japanese, German and French.

Together they account for approximately half the world’s population. However, most of the planet’s languages are spoken by relatively few people, while four per cent of languages are spoken by 96 per cent of the world’s population.

Two countries are home to a quarter of the world’s languages: Papua New Guinea with more than 850, and Indonesia with around 670. In terms of continents, North, Central, and South America jointly have around 15 per cent of the world’s languages (about 1,000); Africa around 30 per cent; Asia a bit over 30 per cent; and the Pacific somewhat under 20 per cent. Europe is the least diverse, having only three per cent.

Many of our languages are inter-related. However, some became isolated when their known relatives became extinct; for example the Basque language, Euskara, bears no resemblance at all to the languages of its surrounding countries.

Not just words, but languages themselves change endlessly, some to the point where they go out of use altogether. On average one language a fortnight, out of the roughly 6,800 that currently exist, leaves forever the global range. But even though some languages are vanishing, in a world less hospitable to aboriginal peoples and more swamped by English, this does not mean it is impossible to keep endangered languages alive. A powerful political purpose is a strong force for reviving an old language; resurgent nationalism helped bring Irish back from the Celtic twilight, while the establishment of the nation of Israel turned Hebrew from a written language into a proudly spoken national tongue.

Elsewhere, Welsh and Maori have both made a comeback with concerted official help; and Navajo, Hawaiian, and several languages spoken in remote parts of Botswana have been artificially revived.

Iceland has managed to keep alive its native tongue, even though it is spoken by just 275,000 people; and the ancient Nordic language of Faroese, thought to have been once spoken by the Vikings, has been preserved from extinction; grammar hints and verb declensions have even appeared on the sides of milk cartons.

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, published by Penguin Books, and is creator of the iPhone App Tingo, a quiz about unusual words.

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