Languages of the world

I came across the Endonym Map project this week which is a basically a world map with the names of countries shown in their national language. One of the difficulties here, and something which the creators address, is precisely how to define the national language of a given country. When there are multiple official languages, then you have to rely on sometime-fuzzy statistics about the numbers of speakers of each language. In places like Africa this can be particularly confusing, and if you’re interested in the ins and outs of it GeoCurrent published an article on African endonyms in response to the project.

african endonyms

A big part of the map is shown in alphabets I can’t understant (perhaps a phonetic or direct translation of the country name would have been more useful?), so what really cought my attention was the accompanying table where you can clearly see how much European languages (mainly English, French and Spanish) dominate. It’s striking to see the residual effects of colonialism present to such an extent around the world. As the authors point out: “The most common official or national language in the world is English, with 86 countries or territories. These jurisdictions represent roughly one-third the number of total countries and approximately 30% of the planet’s land area.”

Add Spanish, French and Arabic to the mix and you cover 2/3 of the world’s national languages. This, remember, in a world where, by latest accounts, there are a total of 7,106 languages spoken. Of these, only around 300 are Indo-European (the branch that French, Spanish and English fall into). As for how we identify what a language is, and where we get this final (contested) count from, the Linguistic Society of America has a nice little introduction to the topic if you’re interested.

Another map I found this week seemed more encouraging vis-a-vis linguistic diversity. It was published by a site called movehub.com and aimed to show the second most spoken native language in every country (rather than 2nd language learned). There are some noteworthy, migration-driven examples like Polish in the UK or Mandarin in Australia, but the non-European languages also get their chance to stand out in Africa – at least the sub-Saharan part:

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If maps and statistics are your thing, then you should go and feast your eyes on ethnologue.com which tracks the world’s living languages with charts and fun sections like their Language of the Day. Today, sticking with the African theme, it’s Ikwere from Nigeria.

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