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A friend recently asked me this simple and fascinating question.

At what point in history were there the largest number of human languages?

Although a really precise answer needs a clear definition of a "language", I still find the question very interesting.

Notes. Using a definition of a language which would today rate the number on Earth as being roughly that quoted by Ethnologue (6809) seems a useful place to start. This paper claims the number is currently decreasing.

It is generally not a good idea to get too hung up on definitions (as Wittgenstein showed clearly when discussing the word "game"). However Ethnologue has a nice page discussing the problem of language identification and how it relates to their method for counting languages. The most relevant part is quoted here for completeness.

The ISO 639-3 standard applies the following basic criteria for defining a language in relation to varieties which may be considered dialects: Two related varieties are normally considered varieties of the same language if speakers of each variety have inherent understanding of the other variety at a functional level (that is, can understand based on knowledge of their own variety without needing to learn the other variety). Where spoken intelligibility between varieties is marginal, the existence of a common literature or of a common ethnolinguistic identity with a central variety that both understand can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered varieties of the same language. Where there is enough intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages. These criteria make it clear that the identification of “a language” is not based on linguistic criteria alone. The language entries in Ethnologue include a listing of dialect names. In most cases, those listings are not based on rigorous dialectology. Rather, these lists include all names reported to us which may, at one time or another, have been used in reference to a local variety of a language. Names listed may be alternate names for the same linguistic variety.

  • This indeed the better place to ask your question. Could you add the definition given by Ethnologue? Because it is really difficult to compare such classifications across time... – Cerberus May 14 '13 at 0:52
  • Presumably, it would be at the time when there were the most armies and navies. – Jon Kiparsky Dec 16 '19 at 20:27
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My estimation would be between 1000 and 500 years ago, after population drifts but before the European conquest. But that's just a guess and you won't get anything better than that. Counting languages today is extremely difficult, now imagine counting languages of 1000 years ago, it can't be done. We don't know how many languages were spoken in the Americas, nor how many of those disappeared before the arrival of the Conquistadores - that information is lost for ever. The same goes for all other regions.

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    I suppose it also certainly isn't more than 10000 years ago as the population was too small. A better estimate of the number of people typically required to support a separate language might help even more. – felix May 21 '13 at 9:46
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    I think it is definitely longer ago; linguistically rather uniform empires have formed much earlier than 1000 or 500 years ago. I agree with @felix on not more than 10k years ago, mainly because of the population of the Americas plus some time to create linguistic diversity there. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 7 '19 at 15:00
  • @jknappen Were most such empires really monolingual? The whole idea of language standardization (below the level of the court) really only starts in the Napoleonic era, and I think before that, the Romans and Han are more the exception than the rule. Did the HRE, Kievan Rus, Golden Horde, etc. 500-1000 years ago speak a single language any more than the Achaemenids or Neo-Assyrians did? – abarnert Feb 8 '19 at 22:51
  • @jknappen Also, look at the American languages we happen to know enough about to comment. The Five Nations confederacy had multiple official languages that were, although related, unintelligible. And there's millennia of divergence between those languages and other relatives like Cherokee, even though the civilization that had connected them only collapsed a couple centuries earlier. – abarnert Feb 8 '19 at 22:57
  • @abarnert It is not necessary that such an empire is really monolingual, just the creation of a dominant super-regional language has much impact. Ancient Egypt already has a common language, the same goes for the greater empires in Mesopotamia (Sumer, Elam, and Akkad; with Sumerian surviving as a dead language of prestige for a long time). The Greeks were able to spread their language via colonies and trade outposts without an empire (ignoring the short-lived empire of Alexander) – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 9 '19 at 18:54
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Linguist John McWhorter has in The Power of Babel suggested that there may have 100,000 languages at the time of the dawn of agriculture, ~10K y.a., based on estimates of world population and the observation of linguistic density among hunter gatherer groups, which is much higher than among agrarian groups. Admittedly that's a popular not a scholarly book.

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  • +1 for a sourced answer, although I think the number is too high. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 7 '19 at 11:28
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Language appeared more than 50 000 years ago (and that's a conservative estimate.) The oldest writing systems appeared 6000 years ago. And in many parts of the world, writing appeared only during the XXth century. Most languages still aren't written.

Yes, languages are dying nowadays, but are they really dying faster, or do we just get this impression because we started counting them, studying them, accounting for them ? We have little elements of comparison between now, and a thousand years ago. We have no element of comparison between now and a ten thousand years ago.

Add to that the fact that it is easy to notice when a language dies without posterity, but it takes more time to see if a new language was born, for obvious reasons.

Historical linguistics can only get us so far back in the past, and even then, it only gives us reliable information about languages which survived and evolved.

We will never know when there were the most languages.

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One problem is, as you've identified, how to define "language". But the much larger problem, which makes your question impossible to answer, is that in order to approach an answer, we need to know the complete number of languages at minimum two distinct times in human history (in order to compare and find the larger number). The only point in time where it's possible to find the number of total languages is today (and we don't even know what that number is). So we will never know the complete number of languages that existed at some point in time in the past. Hence the question cannot be answered.

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