Languages Without Navies

Whenever I meet someone new, and I am asked what I’m studying, I tell them linguistics. The first question is usually, “oh, so how many languages do you speak?”

Linguistics is a field that most people have a vague idea of, and the understanding is that it involves studying languages (plural). This is often true, but not necessarily so. There are many monolingual linguists. If I am chatting with someone who is interested in the field of linguistics I like to steer the conversation toward language documentation and endangerment. This is for two main reasons. The first is that I am very interested in the field, and perhaps even seem competent in the subject, but the other is that while people are aware that there are a lot of languages in the world, they are fascinated to hear about the number of languages that are at risk of disappearing. My conversational tactic backfires, however, when I am asked, “So just how many languages are there in the world?”

This post will attempt to answer that very question. I’m also going to try to narrow it into the number of languages in Canada, and how many we stand to lose both in Canada and globally.

Now an exact number will never be possible to provide. The definition of a language is not as black-and-white as it may at first appear. There are dialects, varieties, and regional accents within a language; and at some point, a dialect is distinct enough to be classified as a separate language. Basically, the issue is that the line that separates a dialect of a language, and a separate language varies across time and across linguists.

Every linguist will have heard the classic quip that, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” (it is so well-known it has a Wikipedia page in dozens of languages). Although it may appear at first as a remark about the arbitrariness of the line between dialect and language (which in many respects it is), it isn’t too far off the mark in many cases. For example, Chinese as a language appears on the Canadian census, but there isn’t a Chinese language as such. There are Mandarin and Cantonese, which are the most spoken languages; however there are many languages inside China’s borders that are more distinct from one another than French is from German. Our political and social ideas of nations each having their own language has shaped the idea that languages are tied to countries; however, this has rarely been the case.

In an attempt to provide a wobbly number, Ethnologue (a well-respected resource for linguists) lists 7,106 living languages. A Google search of “how many languages in the world” provided thousands of hits. In searching through some of the results I saw numbers ranging from 3,000 and 10,000. So, one must be careful in where to find the answer! We will go with the Ethnologue’s count.

If we narrow Ethnologue into focussing on just Canada, it lists the number of languages at 88. However, it is important to note that this is just counting the number of languages in Canada that are not immigrant languages. That is, the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Canada, and the languages they bring are not counted in the 88. The only 2 European languages are English and French because they are what Ethnologue calls “institutional”, meaning the official languages of the country.

That means that there are, by Ethnologue’s count, 86 indigenous languages in Canada. Which is great, and sounds like a lot, were it not for the text that follows:

“Of these, 4 are institutional, 10 are developing, 2 are vigorous, 42 are in trouble, and 30 are dying.”

Now that is not a heartening score for our languages!

A quick look at the USA’s scores may provide some further mixed feelings:

215 languages. 4 institutional, 7 developing, 2 vigorous, 61 in trouble, 141 are dying.

You can pick any country, and the list will look quite similar, with the vast majority either in trouble or dying. For an even more troubling reflection of the situation, Ethnologue provides a summary of languages by their status: 6 languages are spoken by 29% of the planet, and 101 by 60%. On the other end of the spectrum, 2% of the planet speak 4,780 languages, and the bottom 203 languages listed are spoken by an average of 171 speakers each. (Could you say something here like: “This powerful statistic brings to light how our global language diversity situation really is at risk.”

In Canada’s case the 42 languages in trouble, and the 30 that are dying fall into the bottom 2% of the world’s languages. Languages defined as “in trouble” have a loss of “intergenerational transmission”, which is just a way of saying the language is not being passed from parent to child. This loss signals the death knell of any language. Elders may be able to speak a language vigorously, but they will eventually be gone. If children don’t learn to speak the language, then the language will pass with the elders. Even worse, a language that is labelled “dying” has all its remaining speakers over child-bearing age, which makes it much more difficult to transmit the language to the youngest generation.

Keep in mind that of Canada’s 88 languages, 72 are either “in trouble” or “dying”. And of the planet’s 7,106 languages, more than half fall into these categories. There is a widespread shorthand among linguists to describe the situation of language endangerment, and that is that half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. However, unless something dramatic is done in Canada we will go from 88 to 16 in the next 85 years.

I’m sorry the future seems so bleak. However, there are many amazing people working on remarkable projects to try to reverse the tide, or at least slow its progression, and I encourage you to look into these (and of course I’m here to help you do this through the CLM blog!). The next time someone asks me, “So just how many languages are there in the world?” I should probably reply, “Fewer than there were a couple weeks ago, but more than there will be in a couple more weeks.”


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi