E.g. in total, how many people around the world spoke Spanish and French respectively in the 18th century?

Well, I know the data on most languages are scanty. So no, I'm focusing on major world languages like English, French or Spanish, whose data are supposed to be abundant.

And no, I don't need a precise number or a particular year. I'm only interested in the general trend. A rough estimate in units of century will do.

I've tried many times searching things like "English number of speakers in history", "Total population French over time" or "Portuguese users historical data" on Google. But I just can't find any statistics.

Some of the historical trends I'm interested in include:

1) how the total number of English speakers increased over the past 1500 years, from the tongue of a few Anglo-Saxon tribes to a global language.

2) how the total number of French speakers increased over the past 300 years, as more and more West Africans in the colonies adopts it.

It would be even greater if there are mini-trends, e.g. how the proportion of Spanish speakers in Mexico increased over the past 500 years.

From what I know, half a century after the conquest of the Aztec Empire, Central Mexico was still predominantly Nahuatl-speaking. Today, however, Spanish is the mother tongue of 97% of the population. How did this language shift take place over time?

  • 2
    I hope to be proven wrong, but I am afraid you will not find this data, not in one format over such territories and such timeframes. It would be a real project. Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 22:35
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    It's hard enough estimating the actual physical populations of various places before accurate records were available, and that's most of the European-language-speaking world before 1850 or so; it's always an educated guess before that, and often afterwards. And that's just population; imagine having to try to estimate accurately (how do we check the accuracy?) what languages each speaker habitually used, and how much, and how well, they spoke them, for every single one of these estimated people, each of which probably spoke several of them. Garbage in, garbage out, I'm afraid.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 22:54
  • @A.M.Bittlingmayer what if I'm focusing only on a single language? or even, only one language in a single country? or even, only a region like Catalonia?
    – user20373
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 3:38
  • @jlawler I see your point, but actually I just want to see a general trend. A very rough estimate by educated guess on population data and sociolinguistics will be good enough for my purpose.
    – user20373
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 3:40
  • @user20373 Maybe you can find it. But single language is problematic (no census covers them, and it does not tell you the proportion, you need the total population numbers and ideally other languages too), single country is a bit cleaner but the countries were changing too. Furthermore, you want lingua franca ie second-language data, but at least in Southeastern Europe the census was more about ethnic identification. And governments were very ideological. And speakers do not just increase and decrease due to language shift, there is also migration and, you know, genocide. Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 7:00

1 Answer 1


By 1700, Spain had borders similar to today's and had 8.8 million inhabitants, the number of speakers of Spanish as a first language could range from 65 to 80% (this is based on the percentage of populations of regions, where the main language was a regional language other than Spanish). This gives a minimum of 5.7 million speakers and a maximum of 7 million (including the Canary Islands). The figures for the Americas are more dubious, and the percentage of Spanish speakers lower (since by 1800 many indigenous languages were still widely used, especially in rural areas). Mexico had 4.5 million inhabitants and the rest of Spanish America did not exceed 6 million, so possibly all these countries would contribute about another 5 o 7 million speakers. This gives between 11 and 14 million Spanish speakers around 1700.

France had a population of 21.5 million, if we assume that the number of French speakers ranged between 60 and 75% we have that the number of French speakers in Europe was between 13 and 16 million.

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