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I've noticed this icon popping up in a few places, to mean "languages":

Icon with a Latin letter "A" and a Chinese "wén" character

I'm curious how many languages of the world this icon covers. Of course it would cover English, and indeed any language using the Latin alphabet, but I suppose it would cover Greek as well, and Russian, as capital alpha looks pretty much the same as a capital A, and the Cyrillic script also has this letter. The wén character (文) in Chinese is also used by Japanese, I understand, and Vietnamese, and perhaps many others.

So, what percentage of languages in the world are covered by this icon?

What about by population?

I am also curious, which single character could be added to achieve the highest percentage of the population of the world? My guess would be an Arabic character, but I am only a very amateur linguist!

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    There is no universal icon for switch language. That one is used by Wikipedia.
    – Lambie
    Apr 22, 2023 at 13:17
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    @Lambie - Not only Wiki, the Telegram Messenger also uses that icon, as well as dozens of other sites, sometimes the icon design is slightly different, but there are many different sites and apps where you can see the A-and-文 icon.
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 22, 2023 at 23:25
  • @YellowSky I never said only Wiki. I said there is no universal language icon that means switch to another language.
    – Lambie
    Apr 23, 2023 at 14:44
  • @Lambie Why does it matter that it's not universal? It seems to be in the early stages of coming into existence. What's wrong with my question? If I had made it up myself, would the content of my question be any different?
    – Nacht
    Apr 23, 2023 at 22:51
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    Chu Han (chinese characters) are not generally in current use for Vietnamese, so I'd be very surprised if 文 was in significant use in Vietnamese today
    – Tristan
    Apr 24, 2023 at 12:41

2 Answers 2

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An estimate based on the Ethnologue data.

The Ethnologue (sourced from Wikipedia) lists languages with more than 50 million speakers. Most of these can be easily classified as either using A or using 文. There are some edge cases. Russian uses the Cyrillic А, which is visually indistinguishable from the Latin A. Korean uses Hangul for most writing, but Hanja (Chinese-derived characters) are used in some contexts. Javanese has a local script, but is widely written in Latin script, Hausa also is written with the Latin (Boko) script. I've included Husua, Javanese, Russian and Korean as languages that use A or 文.

That data covers 4.276 billion people, or slightly more than half the world's population. Of those people 72% speak a language that uses A or 文.

Among the rest of the world, one might expect a similar ratio. Among the languages with fewer native speakers there are many that have adopted Latin script, at least partially. There are also several Chinese languages that are not accounted for here. On the other hand, there are many languages of South and South-East Asia that don't use either.

This account also doesn't consider rates of illiteracy (both child and adult) And one should really take more care with languages that use multiple alternate scripts.

However, it seems reasonable to say that 60-70% of the world's literate population would recognise one of the characters as a symbol used by speakers of their language.

The next most popular is tricky because many scripts are related but have small differences. An Arabic character has very wide recognition, not only in the various forms of Arabic, but as an script used in Africa and many parts of Asia, perhaps optionally.

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  • Arabic would surely be the way to go. Variations of the script is used nationally/officially for all variants of Arabic, as well as Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Uyghur, secondarily for Malaysian Malay, and a slew of other, smaller languages. An Arabic letter shared by all variants would probably be meaningful to something like another 1.5 billion people. Apr 23, 2023 at 11:38
  • Thank you, that's exactly what I was looking for!
    – Nacht
    Apr 23, 2023 at 23:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Which Arabic character should be chosen? Alif? Is that related to language in the same way that A is for English speakers (simply by being sequentially first, and thus learned by children first), or 文 is for Chinese speakers? Its shape seems somewhat non-descript to me, unfortunately.
    – Nacht
    Apr 24, 2023 at 3:05
  • I think that is a choice for graphic designers,
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2023 at 5:27
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    I don’t know much about Arabic, so I can’t answer that. But although ʾalif is the first in the alphabet and possibly does have some sort of mental ‘priority’, I would think it’s probably not the best choice: its isolated form is just a vertical stroke, which is not very recognisable, iconographically. ⟨A⟩ of course has the added advantage that it’s one of the few shapes common to Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. Perhaps ع ʿayn could work, being more distinct in shape and also the first letter of the word ‘Arab[ia/ic]’. Apr 24, 2023 at 11:51
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I understand your question to be "if you add up the speaker populations for all of the languages that have Wiki pages, what percentage of the world's population have their language (one of their languages) represented. The answer is "most of them", which is appropriate for the fact that we do not have accurate number-of-speaker statistics for the languages of the world. This gives a list of all wiki languages. The next struggle would be to get population statistics by language. SIL used to have available their theory of languages and speakers. Using that document, you find that 50% of the world's population are covered by 13 languages, Chinese, Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, German, Javanese, Korean, French, Vietnamese, and you hit the 90% mark with 174 languages ending with Luganda. There are Wikis for all of the top-50% languages, and also for most of the top-90%, though one of the "blocked" pages is for Luri, in the top-90%. The figures would need to be adjusted somehow to account for the fact that SIL reports on spoken languages but Wikipedia is written, so Wiki mostly just has generic Arabic, though it does actually have Egyptian and Moroccan pages.

The icon is just a suggestive symbol indicating "Look here for this page in other languages" (which makes sense only if you speak English). When that changed the icon, my first reaction was "Now how do I find the Norwegian page on this!", so it is like all icons just a hint. So another question you might be asking is, how many people are likely to see 文, or see A, and think "Aha, this is how I switch language". That's an empirical question, to be answered by psycholinguistic testing of the population of Earth, but I doubt that it is immediately obvious to most people.

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    Out of the languages in this top 13, the only ones not covered by A and 文 are Bengali, Hindi, possibly Javanese, and arguably Korean. (Urdu as well, I guess, which they probably count as part of Hindi.) Bengali and Hindi use very similar (closely related) scripts, so if we can find a character that fits into both, it would probably be the answer. Looking at the WP comparison table, Bengali ম / Hindi म (both "ma") could do, I guess. Probably a lot depends on the exact font. Apr 22, 2023 at 17:29
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    @JanuaryFirst-of-May - I'd suggest Bengali ল / Hindi ल which are practically identical.
    – Yellow Sky
    Apr 22, 2023 at 23:48
  • That’s a rather odd combination of languages. I’m guessing the SIL data is treating national variants as separate languages, rather than variants of a single language, and only counting L1 speakers; otherwise, it would make no sense to include languages like Korean and Vietnamese with about 75–80 million speakers, but exclude Arabic (at least 360 million speakers), Malay/Indonesian (somewhere between 200 and 300 million speakers), and Urdu (~230 million speakers) in the top 13. Apr 23, 2023 at 11:29
  • @YellowSky depends on the font, on my phone they're nearly identical, on my laptop less so. I also hadn't realized there were so many large-to-medium languages spelled in the Arabic script; perhaps it would win over Devanagari+Bengali after all. Apr 23, 2023 at 20:22
  • Thanks for your input, but that is not what I was asking about. I am asking about the characters in the symbol, nothing to do with Wikipedia. You state my question quite well in your second last sentence, and of course it would be ideal to put it to the scientific method but obviously the intent of the icon is to have one character that the person recognizes natively, and (at least) one character that the person recognizes as foreign.
    – Nacht
    Apr 23, 2023 at 23:09

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