Is there some data about how many languages exist with or without a writing system? Etnologue enumerates about 6800 living languages and for each language it registers writing systems the language uses, so it might contain the number. Are there any other estimations?

  • 1
    There's a difference between having a writing system (any language that has been described has a set of phonemes that can transcribe the language) and using a writing system (which requires a community of literate speakers who regularly and productively represent their language using a writing system). The second is far rarer than the first.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 22:50
  • 3
    @jlawler is right, you must define what you mean by "languages with a writing system" and "languages without a writing system", because that can be too broad.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 0:44
  • I don't want to and can not define it, I'm interested in any kind of approaches to writing systems that lead to an estimation beyond triviality.
    – Vik
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 10:37

1 Answer 1


Ethnologue actually provides an answer to this question, although it raises more questions.

The Ethnologue page How many languages in the world are unwritten says that as of the 19th edition (released 2016), there were 7,097 living languages and that of these there is data suggesting that 3,748 have a 'developed writing system'. This leaves 3,349 that are 'likely unwritten'.

No explanation is given as to what is meant by a 'developed writing system' however we can make an informed guess that it refers to a writing system that has been developed in order to be of practical use to the speakers. This would typically rule out writing systems used in technical descriptive works (eg by linguists). It is also commonplace that such writing systems have been developed with the involvement of speakers of the language, quite possibly without a linguist or any other outsiders being involved.

Ethnologue goes on to say that in most cases it is not known what level of usage these writing systems have.

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    That sounds about right, though the language numbers are high because Ethnologue is a splitting site and not a lumping site. In any event, roughly half.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 22:28
  • FYI the numbers are different now. Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 21:42

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