Language and Linguistics







Languages of the World

  • There are about 7,000 languages currently spoken around the world

  • Most widely spoken languages (approximate numbers of first and second language speakers):
    • Mandarin Chinese, over 1 billion speakers
    • English, 750 million
    • Hindi, 500 million
    • Spanish 500 million
    • Russian 300 million
    • Arabic, 300 million
    • Bengali, 250 million
    • Portuguese 250 million
    • Malay-Indonesian, 250 million
    • French 150 million
    • German, 150 million
    • Japanese, 150 million

  • Over 1000 different languages spoken in Africa (estimates of the number of languages in Africa range from over 1000 to over 2000, depending on whether certain languages are considered independent languages or just dialects of a language)

  • Over 800 different languages spoken in Papua New Guinea

  • About 600 different Native-American languages

  • Some 200 different Australian Aborigine languages (about half of them have less than 10 speakers; some two dozen have only one speaker)

  • About 350 different languages spoken in the United States


  • Most likely all languages issued from the first human language, PROTO-WORLD, spoken about 100,000 - 70,000 years ago in Africa -- hence all languages belong to a common family which includes all the past and current languages of the world. The common origins hypothesis was first proposed by the Italian linguist Alfredo Trombetti. Other scholars who have supported aspects of this hypothesis include Merritt Ruhlen, Joseph Greenberg, and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza.

  • Homo sapiens migrations out of Africa led initially to dialectal variations and eventually to whole new languages, as a result of language use in new situations and environments and lack of communication/contact with other groups. All ancient and modern languages however grew out of Proto-World and are therefore related, no matter how different they may seem from one another.

  • Different waves of migrations and settlements of humans in different areas of the world led to the formation of new languages whose speakers in turn migrated in new directions carrying those languages and giving rise to yet new languages. The evolution of language along those lines has been explained by the so-called Stammbaum Theorie [stem-tree theory] or Language Tree Theory which envisions a continuous branching out of languages in new directions, just like the branches of a tree. In that theory, Proto-World would be the stem or trunk of the tree. Its initial branches led to a number of languages which became the nodes for the formation of new branches. Those nodes are called Macro-Families, Families, and Sub-Families. The end points of the branch radiation (the leaves of the tree so to speak) are specific languages of the present or languages of the past that died and had no descendants.

language tree

Language Tree

  • A language descended from Proto-World becoming the source of other languages which give rise to yet other languages constitutes the central node of a Macro-Family. Examples of Macro-Families:

    • NOSTRATIC: Nostratic was a language spoken about 15,000 years ago in the regions between and south of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Nostratic became the source of other languages which in turn became the sources of other language branches including sub-families composed of currently living and dead languages. We therefore call Nostratic a Macro-Family including language families like INDO-EUROPEAN, AFRO-ASIATIC, URALO-ALTAIC, KARTVELIAN, DRAVIDIAN, ESKIMO-ALEUT.The scholars who proposed the Nostratic Hypothesis include Holger Pedersen, Aharon Dolgopolsky, Vladislav Illich-Svitych, and Vitaly Shevoroshkin.

    • DENE-CAUCASIAN: a Macro-Family including the families known as BASQUE, CAUCASIAN, SINO-TIBETAN, and NA-DENE (scholars associated with this grouping include Edward Sapir, Sergei Starostin, Sergei Nikolaev and John Bengston).

    • AMERIND: a Macro-Family including all the Native-American families except Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene (Joseph Greenberg)

    • AUSTRIC: a Macro-Family that includes the families known as AUSTROASIATIC, AUSTRONESIAN, DAIC, and MIAO-YAO



  • Language Family: a group of languages related by a common origin; members of a family are said to be cognate languages (Latin co-gnatus 'born together'). There are about 300 - 400 language families in the world. Some of the main language families with examples of the languages belonging to them:

    • INDO-EUROPEAN: English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Latin, Greek, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Assamese, Urdu (Pakistan), Nepali, Singhalese, Sanskrit, Farsi, Kurdish, Persian, Pashto/Afghani, Avestan, Romanian, Romany (Gypsy), Rhaeto-Romansch (Switzerland-Italy), Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian, Bulgarian, Ukranian, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian, Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Old Church Slavonic (Old Bulgarian/Old Macedonian)

      • URALIC: Finnish, Estonian, Lapp, Hungarian
      • ALTAIC: Turkish, Manchu, Mongolian, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Uzbeq, Japanese, Korean

    • NORTHERN CAUCASIAN:Circassian, Abkhasian, Chechen/Chechnian, Avar


    • AFRO-ASIATIC (HAMITO-SEMITIC): Arabic, Hebrew, Berber, Tuareg, Somali, Hausa (a Chadic language), Amharic (Ethiopia), Coptic, Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Akkadian (Chaldean), Babylonian, Aramaic, Assyrian

      • BANTU: Swahili (in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, etc), Zulu (in parts of South Africa)
      • OTHER (Western Africa): Yoruba (in Nigeria), Ewe (in Ghana) Igbo (Nigeria), Akan, Ashanti, Fanti (Ghana), Mandingo/Maninka (Ivory Coast), Wolof (Senegal)

    • NILO-SAHARAN: Maasai (Kenya), Nubian, Dinka (Sudan)

    • KHOISAN (spoken in southwestern Africa): Kxoe (Black Bushman), !O!ung, Nama (Hottentot)

    • SINO-TIBETAN: Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Burmese

    • AUSTROASIATIC (MON-KHMER): Cambodian, Vietnamese

    • AUSTRONESIAN (MALAYO-POLYNESIAN): Indonesian, Javanese, Malay, Tagalog, Maori, Samoan, Hawaiian, Malagasy (Madagascar)

    • DAIC: Thai, Lao

    • MIAO-YAO: Hmong, Mien

    • DRAVIDIAN: Tamil, Telugu (southern India), Brahui (Pakistan)

    • AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINE: Mabuiag (3000-4000 speakers), Warlpiri (3000 speakers),Warumungu, Gooniyandi, Gungabula (2 speakers), Djiwarli (1 speaker)

    • INDO-PACIFIC (PAPUAN) (languages spoken in Papua New Guinea): Buin, Nasioi, Tok Pisin (a pidgin/creole language), Hiri Motu (creole influenced by Tok Pisin, English and Motu, an Austronesian language)

    • BASQUE (EUSKARA) , only one language, Basque (in northern Spain) (a language isolate)

    • ETRUSCAN, only one language in this family (language isolate), Etruscan (now extinct but once spoken in northern Italy)

      • ESKIMO-ALEUT: Inuit
      • NA-DENE (ATHABASCAN): Navajo, Apache, Tlingit, Haida
      • ALGONQUIAN: Mohican, Mic-Mac, Abenaki, Delaware, Cree, Ojibwa/Chippewa, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Shawnee, Potowatomi, Arapaho, Illinois
      • IROQUOIS: Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cherokee, Tuscarora, Onondaga
      • MUSKOGEAN: Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw
      • SIOUAN: Iowa, Omaha, Dakota, Winnebago, Crow, Lakota
      • SALISHAN: Salish, Spokane, Coeur d'Alene. The word SASQUATCH comes from Halkomelem, a Salishan language
      • ZUNI: Zuni
      • PENUTIAN: Chinook
      • UTO-AZTECAN: Hopi, Shoshone, Nahuatl, Comanche
      • MAYAN: Maya, Quiché, Yucatec, Huastec, Tzotzil, Chontal, Chol
      • QUECHUA: Quechua (in parts of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina)
      • ARAWAK: Arawak (in Surinam and Guyana), Taino (Caribbean, Venezuela)
      • CARIB: Carib (in Venezuela), Wayana (in Surinam)
      • TUPI-GUARANI: Guarani (in parts of Paraguay, Argentina)
      • ARAUCANIAN: Huilliche, Mapudungun/Mapuche (Chile, Argentina)


  • Pidgins and creoles are hybrid languages which develop as means of communication at points of contact between peoples who speak different languages (a pidgin is the initial stage of such developments, a creole is a pidgin that has become the native language of its speakers). The word "pidgin" is derived from the pronunciation of the English word "business" among some Chinese speakers, Examples:

    • Sabir: a pidgin which is mix of Italian, Spanish, French, Occitan, Portuguese, Greek, and Arabic -- used primarily in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance among traders in the Mediterranean.

    • Chinook: a pidgin spoken in the Pacific Northwest area of North America involving Native American, English and French elements. Words like "potlatch" and "skookum" are of Chinook origin

    • Lingua Geral: a pidgin spoken in Brazil in the 17th and 18th centuries -- a mix of Portuguese and Native American languages like Tupi

    • Gullah and Geechee : creole languages of the United States (Georgia, South Carolina) involving English and African languages like Yoruba, Igbo and Ewe. The word "Gullah" might be derived from "Angola"

    • Bislama ("Beach-la-Mar"): a creole language of the South Pacific (Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu) involving Austronesian languages, English, French

    • Kreyol: a creole language of Haiti -- a mix of French, Spanish, Taino (Arawak), and African languages like Wolof, Mandingo and Ewe

    • Krio: a creole of Sierra Leone composed of English and Yoruba

    • Papiamento: a creole of the Caribbean (Aruba, Curaçao) involving Arawak and African languages, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish

    • Afrikaans: a creole of South Africa including Dutch and African languages of the Bantu and Khoisan families

    • Tok Pisin ("Talk Pidgin") : a creole of Papua New Guinea with elements of English, Austronesian languages, Spanish, German, and Portuguese

    • Hiri Motu: a creole language of Papua New Guinea including elements from Austronesian languages like Motu, Tok Pisin and English.

  • References & Links:

    Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (1994).

    Joseph Greenberg. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, Vol 1 Grammar (2000), Vol 2 Lexicon (2002)

    Joseph Greenberg, Language in the Americas (1987)

    Joseph Greenberg, The Languages of Africa (1963)

    Aharon Dolgopolsky, Nostratic Dictionary

    Aboriginal Languages of Australia: http://www.dnathan.com/VL/austLang.htm

    Numbers from 1 to 10 in over 5000 languages



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Last updated: August 27, 2018 8:10


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