20 Fascinating Language Facts

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Whether it’s spoken, written, or signed, all people communicate.

Here are twenty fascinating facts about human language culled from the inaugural edition of the new academic journal, the Journal of Language Evolution.

  1. Only spoken and signed languages have native speakers although whistled and drummed languages exist–communicating messages by whistling and drumming, respectively. All known whistled and drummed languages are based on spoken language.
  2. There are approximately 6,500 attested spoken languages that are mutually unintelligible–meaning that if you speak language A and I speak language B, we will not understand each other.
  3. As of 2015, the whole world has been surveyed for spoken languages. Today’s least surveyed areas of the world include the foothills of Indonesian Papua, the Nigeria-Cameroon border [languages we work with!], the Brazil-Peru border, parts of the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, parts of the border between India and China, and finally the spot where Chad–Sudan–Central African Republic meet.
  4. Even so, “languages completely new to the scientific community continue to be discovered every year.” These are typically languages spoken by the elderly whose multilingualism helped them slip below the radar of linguistic survey.
  5. If you surveyed the world’s population about which language they speak, you would come up with a figure close to 15,000 based on how speakers perceive themselves. Linguists have identified around 6,500 languages based on structure.
  6. Two databases of the world’s languages are continually maintained and available online: 1) Ethnologue and 2) Glottolog.
  7. If left alone, a language would take around 1,000 years to morph into a language no longer understood by earlier speakers. Thus, the total number of languages that have ever existed is much higher than 6,500.
  8. In keeping with biological diversity, the closer you get to the equator, the more languages per square kilometer you find. Similarly, terrain that is difficult to cross, such as mountains, forests and swamps, increases language density.
  9. Worldwide the median number of speakers per language is 1,000. English and Chinese, for example, have up to a billion speakers, while the smallest attested stable language (with all ages speaking it and thus not endangered) is Masep of Indonesian Papua with around 40 speakers.
  10. There are entire communities in sub-Saharan Africa where everyone speaks five or more languages as is necessary for daily interaction. There seems to be no limit on the number of languages a person can learn.
  11. The smallest community that speaks mostly just one language is the Zuruwaha of the Amazon forest, which has some 140 speakers.
  12. Based mainly on comparison of basic vocabulary, languages are grouped into 424 different families, with the smallest families having only one member (called language isolates), examples include Basque (France and Spain) and Hadza (Tanzania).
  13. The family tree model of language can only reliably take us back 10,000 years.
  14. All languages can express the same meaning, but “differ endlessly” in how they do so.
  15. The grammar of over half of the world’s languages has not yet been described. The flip side of that is that half have been described!
  16. Some languages distinguish between five past tenses while others optionally specify the past tense with a word like “yesterday.”
  17. In addition to pronouns corresponding to “I/we” (1st person singular and plural), “you/y’all” (second person singular and plural), and “they” (third person singular and plural), many languages (like the ones we work with) have two words for “we” depending on whether the person being spoken to is included or not (i.e., inclusive vs. exclusive).
  18. The normal order of participants in an English sentence, like about half of the world’s languages, is usually agent, verb, and patient: The dog (agent) kills (verb) the cat (patient). Some 40% of the world’s languages, however, normally put the verb last: The dog the cat kills. Additionally, nineteen languages are known to use the order “The cat the dog kills” to mean that the dog kills the cat!
  19. Still true today: “The lowliest South African Bushman speaks in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchman” (quoting American anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir).
  20. Also still true: “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam” (quoting American anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir).

Source: Hammarström, Harald. “Linguistic Diversity and Language Evolution.” Journal of Language Evolution 1, no. 1 (2016): 19–29. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jole/lzw002.

Special thanks to the editors of JOLE and Oxford University Press for making access to this journal freely available online throughout 2016 and 2017. Be sure to check out other stimulating articles from volume 1, issue 1 of the Journal of Language Evolution.

One response to “20 Fascinating Language Facts”

  1. Georgina Hayes Avatar
    Georgina Hayes

    Amazing that there are just so many languages.