Have you ever wondered how many languages are spoken throughout the world? Or how many words are in the English language? Or when writing was developed?
Well, so have we. Below are nine amazing facts about language. (And we could have listed many more, but your finger might fall off from all that scrolling.)
After you check out the infographic, read the explanations about each statistic.
Then, if you like what you’ve read, share it!
Living Languages Number in the Thousands
Have you ever tried naming as many languages as you can? No? (Okay, maybe that’s just something that language geeks do.)
Ethnologue, an online treasure trove of data about the world’s languages, puts the number of living languages at over 7,000—or 7,099 to be exact.
If this number surprises you, consider that almost 400 languages are spoken in the United States alone.
Of course, there’s one problem that researchers run into when they try counting the number of languages spoken in the world: it’s a moving target.
First, how you count languages affects the final number. For example, do you count all variants of Chinese as separate dialects or as just one language (Chinese)?
In addition, there still may be languages that we don’t know about yet.
Last, languages die out. Just like animals, languages can be endangered and can eventually go extinct.
Almost Half of All Languages Have No Written Form
Human language has been around for tens of thousands of years.
While there’s disagreement among linguists, anthropologists, and archeologists about the exact timeline, the consensus is that human speech arose at least 80,000 years ago. (Some estimates put the number at 150,000 years ago, while still other researchers think that human language may be 1.75 million years old.)
Whatever the real number, suffice it to say that speech has been around far longer than writing.
Many African languages don’t have a written form. It was only in 1967, for example, that a writing system was developed for Bambara.
In fact, according to Ethnologue, almost 3,900 languages in the world are written as well as spoken. The remaining 3,2oo or so (45% of all living languages) likely do not have a written form.
Writing Was a Late Bloomer
This statistic is mind-blowing.
If we were to condense all of human history into a 24-hour period, then the development of writing would occur at about 11:07 pm. Whoa!
Put another way, writing has existed for less than 4% of human existence.
You can watch linguist John McWhorter talk about this in his TED talk. (The main thrust of his talk is that, contrary to popular belief, texting is a miraculous invention, not some threat to “proper” English.)
Which Languages Are the Most Common?
The speakers of just 23 living languages—0.32% of the global total—represent more than half of the world’s population. Each one has more than 50 million speakers. (Some, like Chinese, have many more than that.)
So what are they? Below, in order of number of native speakers, are the 23 most common languages according to Ethnologue:
- Lahnda (includes Punjabi)
- Persian (includes Dari and Farsi)
Our infographic of the most commonly spoken languages imagines a party of 100 people representing all the world’s languages. Only 45 out of 100 would have another party-goer to talk to.
Yes, Languages Can Go Extinct
According to National Geographic, one language dies every two weeks, a depressing statistic for both linguists and speakers of endangered languages. (“Dying languages” have long captured people’s imaginations, even if not all of them are truly dying.)
Fortunately, there are efforts under way to preserve these disappearing tongues.
For example, Wampanoag, a Native American language that was headed for extinction, enjoyed a revival thanks to the work of Native American linguist Jesse Little Doe Baird.
And the Endangered Languages Project, a joint effort by Google and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, seeks to record samples of languages without a robust community of speakers.
How Many Words Does English Have?
It’s hard to count living languages, and it’s hard to count words, too.
So how do linguists figure out how many words a given language has? Well, one way is to see how many entries are in an unabridged dictionary for that language.
But even that is a just an estimate—and one that’s surely on the low end.
To put things into economic terms, dictionaries are lagging indicators. That is, due to the research, editing, and publishing cycle, dictionaries are always a few years behind when it comes to actual usage.
But here’s the weird part: English is actually shrinking.
Fluent Speakers Don’t Memorize the Dictionary
Of course, native English speakers use only a fraction of all the words in the dictionary.
In 2013, the Economist looked at some data from TestYourVocab.com. The results are interesting.
Most adult native English speakers know between 20,000 and 35,000 words—that’s less than 20% of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary.
To see how many English words you know, take the test!
The Vast Majority of Languages Aren’t Online
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you live in Malawi, a country of 16 million people in southeast Africa.
You speak Chichewa. (You may never have heard of this language, but with 12 million speakers, it’s extremely robust.)
Finally, you’ve gone to school, so you know how to read and write in Chichewa.
But there’s almost no Chichewa content online.
This is the problem that confronts speakers of 95% of the world’s languages. Even if they are literate and have Internet access, there may be little to no content available for them on the Web.
As you can imagine, the languages used in first-world nations dominate digital content. (English and Chinese are the top two.)
Internet Use Among Chinese Speakers Skyrockets
Within the last few decades, China has moved steadily from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. It was only a matter of time, then, before Chinese consumers began to adopt the same practices as their counterparts in industrialized nations.
Between 2000 and 2016, the number of Chinese users of the Internet grew by over 2,000%. This rate far outpaces that of English speakers—about 575%.
In both cases, of course, it means that more and more people have been getting online.
This is probably a function of both where information now resides—when’s the last time you picked up the Yellow Pages?—and falling technology costs. The case of China proves that rising wealth plays an important role, too.
Do you think that this is all the content we have? Of course not!
If you’re into grammar and usage, see our posts on how to form the possessive with names that end in s and how to use the word literally.
Last, if you maintain your own blog, download our free website editing checklist.