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Today, we can say that English is the universal language. Wherever you go, you can talk English, and chances are that you will find someone who can understand you.

A century ago, I think that French was the universal language. But I'm not sure.

Do we have a historical list of most spoken languages (not by concentration, but by spread) and a historical list of universal languages?

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    historically it's been much more regionalised, and based on social status. A century ago, French was certainly well understood by the educated elite in much of the world, but the average Cornish tin miner likely wouldn't speak a word of it – Tristan Dec 23 '20 at 13:19
  • Given the explication in the question, Yiddish is a good candidate for a language "wherever you go, you can find someone speaking it" for the times before 1933. – jk - Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '20 at 22:49
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    Being able to find someone who can speak it is very different from it being likely that many people will share the language. – curiousdannii Dec 23 '20 at 23:30
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    @jk-ReinstateMonica in Europe sure, but if you're in rural Thailand the chances of finding a Yiddish speaker are essentially nil – Tristan Dec 24 '20 at 10:02
  • @Tristan Maybe a trader of gemstones? Thailand is one of the major exporters of ruby. – jk - Reinstate Monica Dec 24 '20 at 15:58
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Even now, there isn't a reliable source of statistics on language usability according to region. No government agency interviews people in the US to determine which languages individuals know, so it is unknown how widely Swahili is spoken in the world. Instead, such numbers as exist (mostly at the hands of SIL) derive from guesswork, traditional language geography knowledge (they speak Logoori in Vihiga county, Kenya), available census data, and some theory of how to extrapolate from such figures to figures on "number of speakers of English (etc.)" in the world. The proposition that French was more widely spoken in the world than English 100+ years ago seems anecdotally reasonable, but not a solidly-established fact (for the preceding reasons). The status of Latin, Arabic, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Egyptian etc. is scientifically unknown.

If the question size is about the land area in which one is likely to be able to find a speaker of that language, the best obtainable proxy measure would be the size of historical empires. The Mongol Empire was huge, even bigger than the Russian Empire, so it is likely that speakers of Mongolian were very widely distributed in the past. It is important to recognize that the Mongol empire was not mono-ethnic even if it was organized by Mongolian speakers, so it is not clear how Mongolian vs. Turkic would compare. But again, if the concern is just geographical area and not density of speakers, Mongolian would be in second position, Russian in third position, Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic. An alternate metric would be to try to quantify influence in trade, or resistance to assimilation. Hindi is spoken throughout the globe and is retained for generations, but not because of the expansion of a Hindi-speaking empire.

But as I say, getting good statistics on the question is really impossible.

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We have some data available, and I can perhaps speak to this since my intended major is Computational Linguistics.

Wikipedia is not a 100% guaranteed source of data, but it's a decent proxy; years ago, I found there was something around 6916 languages currently spoken on earth. They have a list of commonly spoken languages, but if I understand you correctly, you need to do some sort of time-based regression to see what language was spoken. You would also need to realize that most of the previous answers are correct, that there is a lot of data and analyzing it with high accuracy is a pretty squishy task.

You could look at this from an Anthropological aspect and dig into language data as the evolution of languages as far back as the Paleolithic period here

There are also resources for finding what language is spoken or what variety of languages are spoken in specific countries here

A big challenge we face from a language perspective is understanding what the origional vs implied meaning or possible causality of a phrase was and seperate our own bias from the warped view that history or our own perspective has mutated it into.

I hope this helps.

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