Languages of the World

Book of Knowledge

Chapters: 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10

List of all languages referred to in the Book of Knowledge and other sections of the website.


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Let’s Revise! – Chapter 1

Go to the Let’s Revise section to see what you can learn from this chapter or test how much you have already learnt!

How many languages?

It is estimated that there are around 7,000 languages worldwide. Contemporary linguistic studies provide different numbers. The Ethnologue – an encyclopedic study of languages of the world – contains descriptions of 7,106 languages as of 2014. In 2009, the number was 6,909, while in 1996 – 6,703.

In his book Języki świata i ich klasyfikowanie, the Polish linguist Alfred F. Majewicz (1989) mentions the existence of approximately 20,000 so-called linguonyms, that is the names of language varieties. Some languages ​​have more than one name: for example, the Finno-Ugric Udmurt language, which is used in the Udmurt Republic (Udmurtia) in Russia, is also called Votiac. The first name is used by the community speaking the language (the Udmurts), while the second is preferred by non-Udmurts living in the same area and having daily contact with that people. It could seem that having access to modern technologies and scientific studies, we should be able to give a precise number of languages spoken in the world nowadays. Why are we unable to do this? There are several answers to this question.

First of all, some regions of the world are still inaccessible and unexplored. In Papua – the island with the greatest number of languages in the world – there are tribes which deliberately avoid contact with the outside world (find out more about them here). We can only speculate about their languages. It is highly probable that there are still some undiscovered languages in the world. We know very little or simply nothing about 80% of the world’s languages.

Activity proposal

Take a recording device, e.g. use the recording option in your mobile phone. With the recording mode on, name as many languages as you can in 30 seconds. Save your recording when you’re done – we’ll get back to it soon!

The inability to clearly determine what a dialect of a language is and what constitutes a separate language is another reason why estimations about the number of the world’s languages are best preceded by the word “approximately”. The main criterion for distinguishing between varieties of language is whether users of two ethnolects understand each other. If they do, we are dealing with dialects of one language. If not, then these are separate languages. The question remains: what does it mean that users understand each other? To what extent do they have common vocabulary? Are grammatical structures overlapping in whole or in part, but the differences do not hinder communication? What if users of different varieties have difficulty in understanding each other, but they feel representatives of the same community?

Nowadays, a large role in determining the boundaries between a language and a dialect is assigned to the so-called political criterion . Two varieties can be linguistically or dialectally regarded as dialects of the same language, but for some reasons their users need to recognize them as separate languages. This happens, for example, when new countries are formed. In India, the official language is Hindi. The users of this language have no trouble understanding people who speak the Urdu language of the neighbouring Pakistan. However, due to political and religious differences, we officially talk about two different languages. In addition, these languages use two different systems of writing, which is also connected with religion: for Urdu, the Arabic script is used while Hindi is written in a Devanagari script, reflecting Muslim and Hindu influences respectively. The Saami people – one of the indigenous peoples of northern Europe – perceive themselves as members of a single nation. Only recently did people start to talk about the Saami languages in the plural, and not about dialects of the Saami language as before. Slightly oversimplifying, when we take the criterion of mutual understanding into account, it appears that the Saami people speak nine different languages.


The violet fields on the map show areas where the Saami languages are spoken (Creative Commons ShareAlike license 4.0)

Nowadays, the political criterion is increasingly important in recognizing a language variety as an actual language. People supportive of the recognition of the Silesian ethnolect as an independent language say that because some Silesians are convinced their national identity and their dialect is an important part of the Silesian culture, it is necessary to speak of a Silesian language. On the other hand, opponents emphasize the fact that the Silesian dialect resembles the Polish language, and therefore it still has to be regarded as a variety of Polish. It is hard not to admit that they both have a point. Distinguishing languages from dialects is a continuous compromise between linguistic and political criteria. More discussion on these issues can be found in chapter 9.

Providing a precise number of languages spoken on our planet and distinguishing between separate languages and dialects of one language are thorny issues for linguists – for several reasons. Peter Mühlhäusler, a linguist working on the endangered languages of the Pacific region, wrote the following in his book of 1996:
“The very view that languages can be counted and named may be part of the disease that has affected the linguistic ecology of the Pacific and (…) an obstacle to attempts to reconstruct the linguistic past.”

Study questions

(1) What do you think is the ‘disease’ mentioned by Peter Mühlhäusler?
(2) Do we need languages to be named and counted? Think of at least two arguments for and against.

You’ll find proposed answers to these questions at the end of this chapter.

Where is the largest number of languages found?

The world’s ten biggest languages are used by 43% of the population of our planet. Of the approximately 7,000 languages, more than two thousand are used in Africa, and about one thousand in Papua alone. The country with the world’s largest concentration of languages is a small state of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean – it has 106 languages, while in Europe 285 are used.

continent languages
number percentage
Africa 2,146 30,2
North and South America 1,060 14,9
Pacific 1,312 18,5
Asia 2,303 32,4
Europe 285 4,0
together 7,106 100

Table 1. Language distribution among continents (source: Lewis, M. Paul et al. (eds.) 2014)

One reason for the different geographical distribution of languages is the varying conditions shaped by landforms. Countries on plains are often monolingual: this means that a single language is used in them. Mountainous areas are in turn very diverse in terms of language. Witold Maciejewski (1999) speaks of the mountains as of areas of refuge – specific places where various ethnic groups find a kind of asylum, each living in a relatively small area. In countries where there are mountainous areas, the language of the central government has much less influence in the mountains than on the plains, where it has its centre.

On the small island of Ambrym, which is part of Vanuatu, six languages are used: Daakaka, Dalkalaen, Daakie, North Ambrym, Lonwolwol, and Port-Vato language. The picture below shows the island.


The Island of Ambrym (Vanuatu). © Kilu von Prince

As you can see, the island has roughly the shape of a triangle. Each of the three “corners” forms a distinct socio-cultural area. The languages of their inhabitants are more similar to the languages spoken on the islands located near each of the corners of Ambrym than to each other. The reason is that in the middle of the island there is a volcanic desert that is hard to cross – there is no road. Residents of Ambrym corners are in an easier position to contact the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands than the communities on their own island. In this case, the language differences reflect the intensity of contacts between users of different language varieties.


Volcanic desert on Ambrym. © Kilu von Prince

Nevertheless, the type of geographical conditions does not necessarily automatically translate into a particular language being used on a wide or limited area. Some communities just require a much larger area to live on than others. For example, a necessary condition of existence for the Nenets, a people of the Siberian tundra, is to have large areas of grassland because they engage in reindeer grazing and are forced to wander along with these animals in search of food. While the Nenets language is spoken today by 31,000 people, the range of the Nenets language is far larger than the territory of Poland. On the other hand, in South-East Asia we very often encounter the situation in which just a small piece of land ensures food for the household and is enough for a family to live. The population density in these areas is very high, but residents do not feel “crowded” in any way because of that. In areas of the world such as South-East Asia one can find many languages in a relatively small area.

High linguistic density is also characteristic of northern parts of Australia, home to many native Aboriginal languages. For the indigenous people of Northern Australia, it is common to speak several local languages, and each of these languages belongs to a certain place. Nicholas Evans, a linguist working on these languages, reports that in the northwestern part of Arnhem Land (Northern Territory, Australia) every person has their father language, i.e. a language they have special rights and duties in due to the fact that they belong to a certain clan. Visitors to areas which have not been traveled to for a certain time are best accompanied by somebody for whom the language of the area is the father language – this is because the person is able to communicate with the local spirits and thus can ensure spiritual security to the visitors. But on a territory of another clan it is necessary to speak the language which belongs to the place – one cannot simply step foot on a territory without knowing its language nor can one speak one’s own father language there, even if the locals understand it. In his book ‘Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us’, Evans cites one of his Kayardild informants who tells a story showing how serious a breach of that rule is to Kayardild people:

“A more extreme illustration of this principle comes from a story Pluto Bentinck, another old Kayardild man (…). When asked if traditional law included sanctions to be taken against tresspassers, he cited an incident during World War II, when a hapless white airman swam ashore on Bentinck Island after his plane crashed in the sea. Pluto told me the man had said danda ngijinda dulk, ngada warngiida kangka kamburij (“this is my country, I just speak this one language”), as he struggled ashore without his Berlitz Kayardild phrasebook. When I asked him how he knew what the man had said, when he himself knew no English, Pluto replied: Marralwarri dangkaa, ngumbanji kangki kamburij! (“He was an ear-less (crazy) man, he spoke your language!”). Speaking English on Bentinck Island, in Pluto’s view, was tantamount to claiming it for English speakers. Nyingka kabatha birdiya kangki! Ngada yulkaanda mirraya kangki kabath! he had replied to the man (“You found the wrong words! I’ve found the right words, since forever”). Ngada bunjiya balath, karwanguni , Pluto continued: “And I clubbed him in the back of the neck”. (Evans 2011:8–9).

Study question

(3) Is your language linked to the place where you were born in the same way that Kayardild is to Bentinck Island? What are the differences and what is similar?

Compared to native Aboriginal cultures of Australia, some other cultures display much greater expansiveness than others, which under certain conditions results in the range of their languages expanding. During the Age of Discovery, Europeans conquered territories unknown until that point. The Portuguese arrived in South America and on the islands comprising present-day Indonesia, and the British conquered India and much of Africa. Territorial expansion often entails economic and social dominance. The fact that the largest language family in terms of the number of users is now the family of Indo-European languages is a direct result of years of European domination in trade in the above-mentioned areas.

What is language?

So far, we have been talking about the different languages of the world and the border between language and dialect (if you are interested in dialects, go to chapter 6 – is there really so much difference between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’?). There is no doubt that the concept of language appears in everyday life quite often: we are talking about the language of the media or the language of the writer, and in school we learn foreign languages. But what exactly is language? And how does human language differ from other languages, such as computer programming language? Intuitively, we feel that such phenomena we also call languages, such as body language, differ significantly from, say, English or Sirionó. Let us look at the factors that make the difference.

Human language is, first of all, universal – it is used for many different purposes: naming concrete and abstract objects, expressing emotions, creating poetry. In a programming language, we will not buy ice cream at the market or chat with a shop assistant about the weather. Moreover, in languages such as the mathematical language of logic we express one thing in exactly one way. Human language is more flexible in this respect. We can communicate that we want someone to go away in many different ways: Go away already! or Could you leave, please?, or, for example, leaving a space for the recipient’s to guess: I’m sorry, but I’m very tired. Finally, the criterion for distinguishing human language from other above-mentioned languages is its so-called productivity, i.e. the ability of language to create an unlimited number of expressions, construct new sentences on the basis of elements that the language users have seen or heard somewhere.

There are as many definitions of language as there are different approaches to it. Some focus on the functions that language serves: for example, it determines whether one belongs to an ethnic group, it is a means of expressing emotions and a communication tool. Those for whom language is primarily its grammar will emphasize the formal aspects of language as a multi-level system of meanings. The most general definition of language says that it is a system of signs used for communication. The science which is concerned wih the study of human language is called  linguistics.

The main function of language is communication, and therefore the language above all enables its users to transmit and receive information. Language is the code by which the sender sends the recipient a message via a communication channel. An element inherent to the communication situation is the context – the sender and the recipient of the message must have, at least to some extent, a common knowledge of what is communicated. If a plumber called by a university professor to replace the sanitary installation his home starts to explain her actions by using a large number of jargon terms specific to professional plumbers, the message will not be received, even if the professor is an outstanding linguist.

A classic of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, was one of the first to draw a distinction between language as a set of rules which is located in the minds of the community of its users (langue) and a specific, one-time use of language – an act of speech (parole). Every time we talk on the phone, tell a joke orcatch someone’s attention by shouting Hey!, we use the words, grammar, intonation rules that are stored in the brains of our language community. On the other hand, language is not only in the community, between people, but also in the individual’s mind – after all, everyone uses some form of language. Each of us, consciously or not, uses his or her “favourite” words or sayings: for greeting one person might always say sup! and another hi!. This is the kind of individual language characteristic of a particular person and is called an idiolect.

For most people in the world, multilingualism – the use of more than one language – is everyday reality (You’ll learn more about this important phenomenon from chapter 7 – the whole of it is dedicated to multilingualism). In school or on a language course a person learns a foreign language, and at least to some extent gets to grips with it. Language is, therefore, both a social as well as an individual fact. It also has a psychological dimension: it is stored in the brain. We can look upon language from different angles, depending on which aspect is of interest to us. The study of the psychological dimension of language, the complex mental processes of combining signs with their meanings is psycholinguistics. A psycholinguist will be interested in, for instance, how the person learns a language or what types of associations he uses to learn the vocabulary of a foreign language. The place of language in society and the social significance of its varieties – dialects, sociolects, etc. – is of interest to sociolinguists. Sociolinguistic research focuses on, for example, on variation in language and which variety enjoys linguistic prestige within a particular speech community.

In all the languages of the world we find sounds. Every time we use speech, we use a set of sounds of a language. Speech is inextricably linked with language: we cannot speak without using language, but language can be used without using speech. Another way of projecting the language stored in the brain is by writing – although the vast majority of languages do not exist in written form, but are only spoken varieties, it cannot be denied that they exist. And just like English or Spanish, they are complex systems of interpersonal communication. Each particular language – whether it is Dyirbal [1]  or Portuguese – is an example of a human language.

Signing is another way of using language. Contrary to popular belief, sign language (of the deaf) is by no means a set of gestures that refer to objects in external reality. Signs are not iconic in this way and but are the result of a convention. Signs differ from, say, gestures in that they are used consciously to convey meaning that could be otherwise expressed by e.g. speech. Everybody can gesture but not everybody can sign. It is worth mentioning that due to the differences between the systems of signs we should rather speak of sign languages than of a sign language. The sign which in British Sign Language means ‘mystery’ stands for ‘father’ in Chinese Sign Language. Sign language can be learned via the Internet: for example you can check here for a material on American Sign Language or here for British Sign Language.

Sign languages, as well as other human languages are systems of signs. Sign is a symbol that refers us to a situation, a particular object or concept. Language signs are, for example, words and sentences. For instance, the word cat is a sign, it has its meaning: namely, it refers to domesticated animals moving on four paws, having whiskers and issuing specific meowing. Language signs are conventional, there meaning is based on agreement. A group of speakers agree that the word has a specific meaning. For example, the aforementioned language sign – the word written as cat – refers to the above-described animal. Any other language also applies a convention: for the determination of a meowing animal with a whiskers, users of Friulian language use a sign written as gjat and Bengali – বিড়াল. Whereas the word for a cat in Russian sound like this. Even onomatopoeias – words which mimic sounds – are conventional. It might seem that such words are somewhat determined in advance, after all, they are like the sounds for example made by animals. However, even onomatopoeias are different in different languages: for example, for the referring to the sound produced by insects Polish uses the word brzęczenie and Finnish uses pörinä, ininä, and many others, depending on what insect is mentioned.

We encounter various other systems of signs in our everyday lives. Take road signs for example: they are a set of symbols used to communicate a variety of information to road users. Similarly to signs of a language, road signs are conventional: ‘Give Way’ is expressed with an equilateral triangle with the apex pointing down, having a yellow field and red border. It refers to any situation in which while on an intersection, we have to give way to a vehicle traveling on the main road. There is no doubt, however, that the languages spoken by people use different systems other than road signs. A characteristic feature of human language is called double articulation. Road signs cannot be combined with each other in such a way that they would form an entirely new sign. It is different in the case of human language: we create words from morphemes (see chapter 3 what is meant by this) and phrases and sentences from words, and so on. Each word is a separate sign, it has a meaning that more than just the sum of the meanings of individual morphemes. The system consists of both language characters belonging to different subsystems, as well as the rules governing the way to connect these characters.

Is human language different from animal communication?

Human languages, as opposed to, for example, artificial logic or programming languages are natural languages. This raises the question – what about the languages of animals? Birds as well as humans communicate by using sounds. Are ultrasonic signals through which dolphins communicate, or the so-called waggle dance of the bees, a set of movements used by bees to communicate where the food can be found, to be considered equivalent to the communication systems of human languages?

Both human language and the systems of communication characteristic of animals occur naturally and are the result of the evolution of species. Gatherer bees use a system of movements to inform their fellow bees where the food is, but they are unable to communicate that the food was in the same place a week earlier. In addition, people, unlike bees, have the opportunity to talk about general phenomena, abstract concepts such as love or life. Human language, as opposed to dancing bees, is characterized by abstraction and consequently, by the independence from the stimulus: people do not need to have direct access to the fact about which they talk with other users of the language.

On the other hand, we know that, for example, some chimpanzees are able to arrange meaningful messages made up of more than a hundred simple characters. It has already been scientifically proven that among acoustic signals used by dolphins are those that allow the identification of individual animals in the herd – the dolphin names. However, there is no evidence that dolphins have evolved metalinguistic abilities, that is, abilities which would allow them to communicate anything about the language itself. In addition, the diversity of human languages – around 7,000 – is unique: unlike humans, for example, all dogs in the world are probably able to communicate and do not need to learn another variety of dog language.

In sum, in several respects the line between animal communication systems and human language is not always completely clear and a radical view that human language is so fundamentally different should be adopted with caution. There are, however, some very important differences between human language and the means of communication used by other species which make human language unlike other natural languages.

Where does language come from?

With the appearance of the theory of the evolution of species in the nineteenth century, people boldly began to move away from religiously-based theories explaining the origin of man and his creations, and turned to scientific explanations. The same trend dominated the search for answers to the question about the origins of human language. Finding it turned out to be extremely difficult, and a precise placement of the beginnings of human language in time is virtually impossible.

The world’s oldest cave paintings depicting some form of pictographic writings are about 20,000 years of age. The oldest Sumerian tablets with cuneiform inscriptions date back to the eighth century BC. Human languages had certainly existed in the minds of users much earlier, but unfortunately we know very little about their development. The problem of determining the period of emergence of human language lies in the fact that to this day nothing that would directly indicate the emergence of human language endured. Muscles, such as the tongue, the oral cavity and soft tissues of the mouth very quickly undergo biodegradation upon death. Only by the shape of the skull and the shape of other bone structures of our Homo Sapiens ancestors can we point out when, more or less, the development of language might have started.


An example of an ancient cuneiform letter from around 2400 BC (licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. User: Jastrow).

There are theories that our ancestors could use language even 3.5 million years ago. According to researchers, the decisive factor for communication with the sound systems is our oral cavity system. The pharyngeal cavity characteristic only to humans in the shape of the letter L appeared with the adoption of the bipedal position by Australopithecus – the ancestors of Homo Sapiens. Unfortunately, there is no evidence preserved that would prove the phases of development of the language, but it is assumed that it developed gradually.

With the evidence provided by genetics, we know that about 40,000 years ago Homo Sapiens had already learned a complex communication system based on sounds. Some researchers claim that it was language which was the reason why the Homo Sapiens, and not another human species dominated the world. All human languages are likely derived from a common ancestor. This means that language evolved only once, and at some point in history it began to branch out, which gave rise to language families. Languages developed separately with man’s leaving the cradle of humanity – Africa – no later than 60,000 years ago, and the spread of species on other continents.

How are languages classified?

Languages can be classified in many ways depending on the criteria employed. The basic assumption of the genetic classification of languages is that they derive from a common ancestor. For example, most of the languages spoken in Europe are Indo-European languages and originated from a Proto-Indo-European language. The Indo-European language family can be divided into several different groups as, for example, the Slavic language group which includes such languages as Lower Sorbian, Polish and Macedonian. Each was born out of Proto-Slavic.

Within language families, language subfamilies can be distinguished, further divided into groups, then subgroups, then even smaller units. Often scholars are not in complete agreement about how exactly a language family should be divided. There are many instances when a language family or group has several different proposed divisions which function at the same time, such as the case of Bantu languages. You can read about language families for example in the Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Follow this link for information about the Dravidian languages.

The typological classification is another way to classify the languages of the world. This method can be applied through comparing similarities of structures which exist within these languages. For example, the feature shared by tonal languages (see the Chapter 4: The sounds of language ) is the existence of tones. Tones are variations in the pitch of one’s voice which carry meaning. In tonal languages words can be identical regarding the sequence of sounds they comprise of, so it is the pitch of one’s voice that helps differentiate word meaning. Yoruba, Wãnsöhöt (Puinave), Chinese and Burmese are examples of such languages. If word order is taken into consideration, then languages such as Estonian, Totoli and English can be ascribed to the same group in which the basic word order is SVO (subject – verb – object). This means that declarative sentences takes the form of, for example, Anne is eating an apple. Another group encompasses languages such as Welsh, Agta, Mixtec and Malagasy, the basic word order of which is VSO (verb – subject – object). Declarative sentences, in this case, take the form similar to the expression Likes Anne apples. From a typological perspective, then, languages can be included into the same group although they differ from each other genetically. Linguistic typology is dealt with more elaborately in chapter 3.

Is it good to have so many languages?

In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, God confused human languages as a punishment. For their pride and desire to be on a par with God people were sentenced to mutual incomprehension. Interestingly, a similar legend of divine anger caused by the construction of the great pyramid of Cholula was also known in the tradition of the Toltecs from central Mexico. It is widely accepted that the multiplicity of languages in the world causes a problem for humanity. But maybe the fact that we speak so many different languages is a blessing, not a curse?


No one is sure how many languages were spoken in Teotihuacán – the holy city of the ancestors of the Toltec and Aztec people. (© Katarzyna Miszczyszyn)

It could seem that it would be more practical and easier if we all spoke one language. We would not have problems with communication with people living in the farthest corners of our planet nor would we have to spend time learning foreign languages or employing interpreters to translate books and documents. Such a view, however, reflects a certain way of understanding language: as an external tool that speakers use consciously to conduct activities. But language is not only something we employ for purposes connected with leisure, work or education – it is also part of the identity of its speakers and of the local environment. People who wish only one language was spoken all over the world are probably not aware of an important fact: namely, that languages tend to naturally develop in different directions as they are used by different communities living in different places. Let us take English for example – it is the lingua franca of today and the mother tongue for millions of people from all around the globe. Since the colonial era, the language that the British people brought to the places they conquered has evolved into what we now know as American English, Indian English, South African English, etc. These varieties differ from one another with respect to vocabulary, grammar, prosody and other phonetic features. Also the English of the British Isles presents a great deal of variety (as it did back during the Age of Discovery and in 1788, when captain James Cook landed in Australia): for example, Scottish English is famous for its rolled [r]-sound; it has certain grammatical characteristics that make it different from British English (e.g. varying usage of the present continuous tense) and features Scotticisms such as bairn ‘child’ or muckle ‘big’ which do not exist in the language people speak in London or Cornwall. These differences often present difficulty for those who learn English as a foreign language: even those who achieve high proficiency in British English find it hard to understand native English speakers from New Zealand or India. Therefore, it is sometimes more accurate to speak of different Englishes, i.e. geographical varieties of English. You’ll learn more about different language varieties, as well as language being part of one’s identity, from chapter 6 .

The world’s linguistic richness is one of the aspects of the cultural diversity of humanity, which is widely recognized as a value in itself. We feel that cultural diversity enriches us, lets us feel the way of how a different community functions, learn its system of values and customs. International organizations devote enormous resources to support local cultures. This also applies to languages, particularly endangered languages. We often hear about the effort to save endangered species. We assume that biodiversity is important for the proper functioning of ecosystems. The disappearance of a species has often disastrous consequences for the environment, for example, if in a given ecosystem there were no species that would deal with vermin. According to some researchers, the rapid decrease of the number of languages in the world entails a danger comparable to the extinction of species. Although in the case of a dying language we are dealing with a slightly different situation than when a species dies in nature, these two phenomena have much in common. The first important similarity is that the two different types of diversity overlap: hotbeds of linguistic diversity are places enormously rich in flora and fauna (compare them here). Furthermore, in places where languages die out, also the local wilderness is at risk. As British linguists Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine show in their famous book about linguistic endangerment, the passing of languages is symptomatic of dangers to local ecosystems. For example, fishermen from the Pacific region are famous for their detailed knowledge about favourable fishing conditions in the oceanic waters, the behaviour and habitats of fish species and about the management of marine resources. The knowledge is reflected in their native languages: e.g. in the Tobian language of Palau, there exists a classification of fish species which tells how different types of fish behave. The Tobian term hari merong ‘always bites, takes any bait’ refers to a type of groupers which are easily caught. Moghu is a name for a fish species and for a disease which is cured by grounding up the fish and eating it. In other words, rather than on formal characteristics of species known from e.g. Latin descriptions, the Tobian taxonomy relies on functional criteria. This knowledge is very practical as it makes the life on Palau easier. With slightly more than a dozen of speakers, Tobian is now critically endangered, as are many other languages which preserve invaluable knowledge of nature and ways to protect it. The once balanced and renewable ecology of the Pacific water now experiences overfishing due to the impact of Western technology, education, and economy. Nowadays, anyone can purchase a handheld spear gun and go fishing without asking permissions from elders who have traditionally regulated and guarded fishing rights, relying on the knowledge of the environment they had acquired from their ancestors via the local languages.

Importantly, speakers of endangered languages work out this precious knowledge before Western science does. In Nettle’s & Romaine’s book, we find numerous examples: legends telling the precise time when Tasmania separated from the Australian mainland have been passed orally through the native Aboriginal languages for thousands of years, but it was not until the 20th century that Western scientists found their evidence convincing enough to finally agree when exactly the separation happened. The Europeans discovered that quinine treats malarial fevers in the 17th century, but the healing properties of the chinchona tree bark which contains quinine had been known to the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes much earlier, and so on. We will probably never learn how much knowledge which is still to be discovered was locked in the languages that have already vanished.

When a language dies, the way in which its users had understood the world dies with it. In this way we lose to some extent what makes us, as humans, so unique: a tool for understanding other people and the ability to gain a different way of looking at reality. But there are also more mundane dangers which come with the extinction of languages: lost languages are lost wisdom – wisdom which might be already gone by the time we need it. In Chapter 8 you are going learn how many of the 7,106 languages currently spoken on our planet are not going to make it to the next century. But before you move on to the chapters which are concerned with language endangerment, do see what the upcoming ones offer – there are so many fascinating aspects of linguistic diversity to discover!

Food for thought

Listen to your recording. For each of the languages you have named, check if it appears in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger – to do so, just type the name of the language into the ‘Language name’ box. Languages that are not there are most probably ‘safe’. How many of the languages you have on your recording are endangered? What do the proportions between safe and endangered languages on your recording tell you?

Let’s Revise! – Chapter 1

Go to the Let’s Revise section to see what you can learn from this chapter or test how much you have already learnt!

[1] Dyirbal is a now extinct Australian language. It is famous for its mother-in-law variety – find out more about mother-in-law languages in chapter 6!

References and further reading

  • Bauer, Laurie. 2007. The Linguistics Student’s Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Crystal, David. 2010. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Lewis, M. Paul (ed.) 2009. Ethnologue. Languages of the World. 16th edition. Dallas: SIL International.
  • Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons & Charles D. Fenng. (eds.) 2014. Ethnologue. Languages of the World. 17th edition. Dallas: SIL International:
  • Lyons, John. 1981. Language and Linguistics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maciejewski, Witold. 1999. Wielka Encyklopedia Geografii Świata. Tom XIV: Świat Języków. Poznań: Wydawnictwo Kurpisz.
  • Majewicz, Alfred F. 1989. Języki świata i ich klasyfikowanie. Warszawa: PWN.
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Chapter translation from Polish : Radosław Klimczak. Translation update: Nicole Nau, Michael Hornsby, Radosław Wójtowicz.

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