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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.

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    Presumably, it would be at the time when there were the most armies and navies. Dec 16, 2019 at 20:27

5 Answers 5

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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.
    – graffe
    May 21, 2013 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. Feb 7, 2019 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, 2019 at 22:51
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    @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) Feb 9, 2019 at 18:54
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    @abarnert - We don't need to identify the mechanisms to state that the expansion of the Roman Empire actually reduced a lot linguistic diversity in the Western Mediterranean. Probably, the same can be said of a lot of other empriers and dominant cultures.
    – Pere
    Jul 21, 2021 at 20:01
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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. Feb 7, 2019 at 11:28
  • Population estimates range from 5 to 10 million. For this reason, 100,000 languages imply that the average language had between 50 and 100 speakers. Perhaps it is very low, since being many exogamous unions there should have been a linguistic convergence towards larger linguistic groups (perhaps of 1000 or more people, as we know it was in Amazonia during the 18th and 19th centuries).
    – Davius
    Jun 12 at 10:14
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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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It is a difficult question, because the population has increased a lot, but on the other hand the number of languages per 10 million people has decreased. So, although it seems clear that in the last 500 years the number of languages has certainly decreased, it is not clear whether the same can be said for the last 5000 years.

To fix ideas, let's consider what the world was like 1000 years ago (c. 1000 AD), then the population was about 300 million people, i.e. 4% of the world's population. While it is not easy to determine the number of languages at that time, we can make a probable list of the 10 most spoken languages at that time:

  1. Middle Chinese (40 to 45 million, about 15% of total world's population)
  2. Classic Arabic
  3. Śaurasenī-Apabhraṃśa (ancestor of modern Hindi)
  4. Abahattha (ancestor of modern Bengali and Bihari)
  5. Medieval Greek (about 7 or 10 million)
  6. Ancient Japanese (about 5 or 6 million)
  7. Middle Persian (Pahlavi, about 5 million)
  8. Mahārāṣṭri, (about 3 or 4 million, ancestor of modern Marathi, Sinhala and Dhivehi languages)
  9. Old French (about 3 to 4 million)
  10. Medieval Aramaic (about 3 million)

This conjectured list reflects the enormous demographic weight of China, India and the Middle East around 1000 AD. Europe had a much smaller population and before the conquest of America and the colonization of Africa the European languages were languages with little demographic weight. Even so, languages from China, Japan and India appear at the top of the list, just as they do today, in orders that do not differ much. Although the world population in the last 1000 years has multiplied by more than 25 times, the most populated languages and the regions where the most spoken languages were spoken have not changed that much.

For these reasons I would say that the number of languages 1000 years ago and 200 years ago did not differ significantly. Ten thousand years ago the population probably did not exceed 10 million people, so the number of languages could hardly have exceeded 10,000 (it seems reasonable to say that at the beginning of the Neolithic there must have been between 5,000 and 10,000 languages, hardly much more).

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