What would you call a "small" or "medium" language in regards to the number of speakers? I suppose a "big" language would be Mandarin, English, Spanish, Arabic. Small would be Greenlandic or Faroese. Would there be any convention on what a medium-sized language is? For instance, would you refer to Norwegian as a "small" language?

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    Seems very opinion-based to me. Me, I grew up with Norwegian so it doesn't seems small to me. Ainu, with its 2 native speakers, would be a small language. Someone else will obviously have a completely different opinion. Feb 6, 2017 at 11:30
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    This is very opinion based (and also dependent on the question you look at—for Daniel Nettle (see this answer for a reference: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/20971/…) "small" is 300 speakers and 50000 speaker is already "large" Feb 6, 2017 at 14:23
  • There might not be a definite answer to this question, but I'd still like to leave it open because I think for laypersons there indeed can be a helpful approximation of what linguists would consider small or not small depending on context or which parameters influence such an evaluation, even though the exact range might not be universally agreed on. Feb 7, 2017 at 9:12

1 Answer 1


If you compare it with all the languages spoken worldwide, Norwegian is a fairly large language: enter image description here

Greenlandic (~57,000 speakers) and Faroese (~ 69,000 speakers) would be somewhere in the middle, but tending towards large:
enter image description here enter image description here

A small language would be something with <= 1000 speakers maybe, i.e. in the graph something below 10^3 on the y-axis, for example Pwapwâ, counting no more than 40 speakers according to Ethnologue:
enter image description here Compared to that, Norwegian, being a national language with 4,741,780 speakers according to Ethnologue, is huge.

A "medium-size" language might be something like Chiquián Quechua with ~10,000 speakers:
enter image description here

Totally depends on context, though. Of course, compared to English, Mandarin or Spanish, something like Norwegian might seem small. On the other hand, when talking about severely endangered languages which are only spoken by a handful of people, i.e. less than 100 or so, a language with several 1000 speakers would be not be considered very small.

I think you might draw the line at about the middle on the vertical scale in the graphs above; the languages in the rather dense area (around 10^4 speakers) would be considered medium-size compared world-wide, the ones above with several 10,000 speakers or more rather large, and the languages further below with less than ~1000 speakers would be considered small.

This also shows when looking at the distribution in a table:
enter image description here
As you can see, only 5% of langauges have a million speakers, only 1.3% have at least 10 million, and a mere 0.1% of languages worldwide has more than 100 million speakers. This is statistically nothing.
The slightly-below-median, with 44.4% cumulative, is at 10,000 <= n < 100,000. The other slightly-more-than-half counts less then 10,000 speakers.

Of course, Greenlandic or Faroese seems tiny compred to something like English or Mandarin with several hundred Million speakers, but these 0.1% (!) can not be taken as a reference of measurement. The vast majority of the world's ~7000 languages counts significantly less speakers, as the above table shows, and relative values like "small" and "large" should be normalized by the total distribution of speakers across languages rather than exceptionally extreme values like Spanish or Standard Arabic.
As a rule of thumb, if even a non-linguist knows about a language's existence (like Norwegian, Greenlandic or Faroese), it's probably relatively large ;)

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    And most of the Ethnologue numbers are years old and by now often read zero.
    – jlawler
    Feb 6, 2017 at 14:01
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    A similar answer is to rank languages by population and if you want "large, medium, small" you divide into terciles. Chinese and Areare are large languages, Dangaleat and Harsusi are medium, Agta and Serrano are small, the latter exemplifying Lawler's point.
    – user6726
    Feb 6, 2017 at 15:38

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