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Out of all of the people that have ever lived, did/do more of them speak modern English than any other language? There are 2 billion English speakers alive today, but in my brief search I wasn't able to find data on the number of speakers throughout history.

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    Do you mean 'most' as an absolute number or as a percentage of world population?. World population rose above 2 billion only in the 20th century, so in absolute terms the answer might be very different than if you count proportionally. – quarague Nov 24 '20 at 10:27
  • Do you mean people who speak a particular language as their first language that they learn at home, or do you mean people who are able to speak a particular language at some level of proficiency, for commerce, education, government, or to communicate with people outside their ethnic group? This could have a huge effect on the numbers for languages like French, English, and Mandarin. – Ben Crowell Nov 24 '20 at 18:05
  • @BenCrowell By "did speak English", I really meant "able to speak proficient English", but I ran into some confusion with my prior phrasing, so I'm leaving it as is – GoopMaster14000 Nov 24 '20 at 19:22
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    It's not even the most spoken language now; why would it be the most spoken language of all time?? – Asteroids With Wings Nov 24 '20 at 23:28
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This is an interesting question, though it really is a question of history or statistics, rather than linguistics.

The "most spoken language in history" is certainly a modern language, just because the world population increased exponentially in the past few centuries.

Most human languages last for a few hundred to a thousand or so years before it evolves into something unrecognizable. But any historical language, even if it was around for an unusually long time, probably didn't have as many speakers as the largest languages today simply due to population math (remember that the population of the Roman Empire was well under 100 million at its peak!).

Basically the problem amounts to an "area under the curve" problem for the population of speakers of a language plotted over time.

I think the answer is probably Chinese. Even today, Chinese may have more speakers than English, depending on which estimate you're looking at (and it certainly has more native speakers).

However, the population of China has been at least several hundred million for the past 300 years or so. The population of English speakers was low until recently: probably just over 20 million in 1800, and around 100-200 million in 1900. (using rough estimates of the population of the US, UK, and its colonies)

(Note this still applies if we restrict "Chinese" to Mandarin and everything intelligible with it)

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    Just to stress the point that it basically HAS to be a modern language: It is estimated that about 100 billion people have ever lived, so a significant percentage of all humans, ever, are alive today. – kutschkem Nov 24 '20 at 11:01
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    The estimate of 10 million English-speakers in 1800 seems extraordinarily low to me. The UK had about 10.5 million people in 1801, Ireland about 5 million, the US about 5 million (not counting Native Americans), and there were probably about a million more in various other territories (Australia, India, etc.). Clearly not everyone out of those ~22 million people were English-speakers, but it seems very low to assume less than half were. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 24 '20 at 13:28
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    But the population of China in 1811 was 359 million (link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4899-1231-2_3), so the exact figure for English speakers shouldn't matter if we are only talking 22 million or less. It does depend on the way the populations have changed since then and the proportion of the historical Chinese population that could speak modern Mandarin, but on reasonable assumptions it's Chinese by a mile. – rchivers Nov 24 '20 at 13:59
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    Actually, if you include L2 speakers, many current estimates do place English just ahead of Mandarin for current speakers (English has more L2 speakers than any other language in the world by an insane margin, most estimates I’ve seen put it somewhere around the 900m mark, while most other languages don’t even make it to 300m). I do agree that the answer here is probably Mandarin though due to the historical population density of China. – Austin Hemmelgarn Nov 24 '20 at 14:58
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    Standardization of Chinese largely happened in the 20th C. with a substantial portion of China not understanding anything like Mandarin beforehand, which is a challenge for that answer. – Casey Nov 24 '20 at 20:24
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Do you mean 'most' as an absolute number or as a percentage of world population? The other answers seem to interpret it as an absolute number so I will look at the percentage.

The proportion of the world population that lives in China has varied from around 20% to around 40% from 400 BC until now (source wikipedia). English on the other hand only existed from around 500 AD and only become a prominent language in the 20th century.

So throughout most of the last 2500 years Chinese was the most spoken language in the world. Even today Chinese has significantly more native speakers than English (or any other language). Only very recently historically has the number of people who speak English surpassed the number of Chinese speakers.

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    One subtlety here is that “population of China” is not the same as “speakers of Chinese” — the nation known as “China” is fairly but not entirely linguistically homogeneous today, and has been more and less so at different times in its history. I’m sure this doesn’t change the overall fact that China takes the top spot, but it needs considering. – PLL Nov 24 '20 at 13:37
  • @PLL Certainly true. I also considered putting 'China' in quotes. It is a well defined nation with borders today but that is a historically recent thing as well. – quarague Nov 24 '20 at 14:34
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    Nor is "Chinese" as spoken in the 5th century BC the same language as "Chinese" spoken in the 21st AD. If you can count them as the same, you can do the same for PIE and English. That may change some numbers. Anyway, the question is silly; no answer can ever be reasonable, because the ratio of people to languages spoken is not 1-to-1. Most people speak several languages. Indeed, the vast majority of English speakers don't speak it natively. – jlawler Nov 24 '20 at 15:14
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    "Chinese" famously hasn't been a single coherent spoken language for most of its history. The big advantage of Chinese logograms over an alphabet is that they permit users of the many different languages spoken in China to communicate with each other through writing. – Mark Nov 25 '20 at 3:37
  • @Mark That's only true if they agree on one "standard" variant of the grammar and vocabulary used (which in practice is what is done), so in the end it's the same as other diglossic situations like Arabic, except that you're free to pronounce the characters your own way. – Casey Nov 30 '20 at 19:26

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