This Christmas, my dad gave me a very special gift: a hardcopy of Ethnolouge. It was a great gift for two reasons. The first is that Ethnolouge is probably the single best resource for looking up basic information about the languages of the world, and the second is that I had a door that just wouldn’t stay open. (Seriously, the hard copy is about the size of a layer cake and weighs three times as much).
But the point is that you would think that if a body of linguists is going around printing big annotated lists of all the world’s languages, they’d have a hard-and-fast number ready to throw at you when you ask them how many there are. Instead you get answers like, “Around 6,500” or “Somewhere between 6000 and 7000” or “It really depends what you mean by language” or “Fewer all the time” or “6500! Who told you that? Their figure is clearly wrong!” Why all the hedging?
Well, there’s a couple reasons, and they all seem to boil down to the same thing: language is complicated. Seriously, I spend most of my spare time thinking about language and have for the past several years… and I keep coming back to “language is complicated”.
But let’s say you’re not satisfied with our sort of fluffyish numbers of how many languages there are. So you put on your linguist outfit (which, honestly, is probably just jeans and a t-shirt) and pack your rucksack and head out to count all the world’s languages.
But right away you start to run into problems. Let’s say you’re in India. You’ve been counting the Dravidian languages and getting some pretty good data, and you decide to really quickly check off Hindi. TotalNumberOfLanguages = TotalNumberOfLanguages + 1. So next you look at Urdu. Well, huh. The people that you’re interviewing say that they’re clearly different languages… but they’re mutually intelligible, so if one person is speaking Hindi and one person is speaking Urdu they can carry on a normal conversation. And you notice that they sound alike. A lot alike. In fact, their rules for how sounds change seem to be the same. And they have overlapping speaker populations. The best way you can find to tell them apart is that one (Hindi) is written using Devanagari script, and the other (Urdu) is written using Arabic script. Soo…. are they one language or two? Two different linguists might give you two different answers and then, BAM, you’ve got a different count.
And you’ll encounter similar problems with other languages and language families all across the globe. Do it three or four hundred times and you’ve got a radically different number from the next linguist counting.
But, despite these problems, you finally manage to count all the languages. You stumble home, travel-worn and weary, and settle down to check a truly massive back log of e-mails. And it looks like one of them is very sad news. One of your friends you met along the way, the last living speaker of an Amazonian language, has died. And with her death, her language is gone. It’s a double tragedy, to be sure, and when you think back on, a lot of languages had only one or two very old speakers. Who knows how many of them have died in the years you’ve been travelling? So it looks like, due to language death, your count is even more off.
So you write up your findings and try to get them published, but people keep pointing out the hard and fast number number that you were searching for and collecting data for all along isn’t really reliable. Even if you end up giving a range of numbers, languages are dying so quickly that they won’t be accurate for long.
Man, I’m glad that this situation is a hypothetical one, and you didn’t actually spend years chasing after a mythic number that it turns out is unobtainable. Aren’t you?