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Currently, the number of languages is estimated to be between 6500 and 7000. 500 years ago, this number was higher because European colonization wiped out many languages in America, Oceania and possibly also in Africa or Asia (there have also been other factors that have reduced the number of languages).

It is possible to speculate on whether the number of languages could have exceeded 10,000 at the beginning of the Neolithic period, although by 10000 B.C. the world population has been estimated at only 2 to 5 million. This would give between 200 and 500 speakers per language, which does not seem far-fetched. However, taking into account known historical facts and current demographic estimates:

  1. At what point in history should there have been more languages in the world?
  2. What would be a reasonable estimate for the largest number of languages that existed simultaneously?

Taking into account that about 110 billion people have lived on earth (although the current population is only about 8 billion), and conjecturing that a language only lasts about 1200 to 1500 years (before becoming a distinctly different language),

  1. How many human languages could we say have existed in total?

Note: I understand that this question is somewhat speculative, and slightly off-topic, but I consider that estimates even on very partial data can be enlightening to understand the history of human languages.

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    worth noting that definitions of what is a language and what is a dialect vary wildly and can result in hugely varying figures (e.g. Arabic functions sociolinguistically as a single language, with all vernaculars using a shared literary register and tradition, but comparing the phonology, grammar, lexicon etc we'd conclude it was a family of many related languages, together with Maltese; likewise see the Chinese government's insistence that all Sinitic varieties are just dialects of "Chinese" when many have almost no mutual intelligibility)
    – Tristan
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 15:42
  • @Tristan you are completely right in your assertions, If it turned out that these phenomena only affected the most modern languages, with millions of speakers, and that most languages, for most of the time, did not present such a pressing problem, there would still be hope that the estimate would be reasonable, I believe. But certainly, these are problems that make any estimation difficult.
    – Davius
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 15:47
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    And it's always been that way. Dialects and languages and prakrits blend into each other and interpenetrate seamlessly and constantly. The notion of "X number of languages" is like "X number of ideas" -- not something countable, or even definable.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 15:52

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We cannot say with any degree of confidence how many languages there were at any period of time in the past, nor can we estimate when there were "the most" languages. Languages are constantly being born and constantly dying, and while we know the general factors that contribute to each, we can't translate that into a computation of number of languages, because we lack relevant cultural information from the past.

For political reasons, we say that there is "a" language English, but it has diverged in those areas where it is spoken to the point that it is arguably two or more closely related languages. There are over a dozen languages in Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda subsumed under the group "Luhya", where it has only been recently discovered that two things are different languages, not dialects of one language (which is how people usually view English). It also seems very likely (when coupled with known history of the Luhya) that they migrated westwards about 500 years ago, and diverged into separate languages subsequently. On the other hand, myriad languages are gone: Etruscan, Beothuk, Cornish, Klallam, Livonian...

Isolation encourages language-birth (you talk like people in your village, if you have villages, you have negligible contact with others so negligible influence from other languages). Population-integration and social interaction encourages linguistic "averaging" whereby more people end up speaking the same language in a given area (perhaps extending the concept "area" to less-geographical variables like social class).

It is reasonable to assume that 10,000 years ago there were not a lot of highly complex civilizations with 10,000 people in one town – we would expect more linguistic diversity. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to believe that more parts of the world were unpopulated (e.g. Oceania, not to mention the Ice Age), so perhaps there were fewer geographical population clusters, so less linguistic diversification. One would want more studies that tell us how many people there were and where, beyond this study (which doesn't touch language).

I think it is, however, valid to conclude that barring a major catastrophe, or the development and subsequent loss of warp core technology, that the number of distinct languages will decrease in the future. It order to staunch the trend to a small handful of global languages, technological and social changes will be required to encourage massive multilingualism. Basically, use it or lose it. Vast numbers of people abandon the language of "the old country" when they move to a big population center and have children with a person from a totally different "old country".

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