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Tongues of the World: Conclusion

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In this, our 30th and final post in the Tongues of the World series, we’re going to have a look at how far we’ve come, and perhaps share a bit of the process with our readers. As it turns out, the subject of human language is a broader, richer, more complex field than any of us knew going into it. It’s unbelievable how much we’ve learned about the world just in exploring the tongues of other cultures, for as we now know, the study of a language is about so much more than sounds and grammar–it is about the history, movements, thoughts and feelings of all people. We carry in our languages profound mysteries, the etchings of our past, and though a few secrets have been unlocked, still so much remains unknown.

The first task that faces anyone attempting to discuss one of the world’s languages is this: just what is a language? The terms “language” and “dialect” already come loaded with preconceptions. What makes something a language instead of a dialect? How well must one know a language before one can be considered a “speaker”? Where does one language end and another begin? For example, we had a specific problem with Hindi and Urdu. These are often classified as the same language because of their characteristics, but for religious reasons are considered fundamentally separate by the people who actually speak them. Whose opinion can be taken as fact? These and other questions ultimately have no measurable answers, and so professional linguists, never mind humble bloggers, struggle considerably with them. In our dealings with the subject, all we could do was attempt to follow mainstream professional consensus on what constitutes a language.

At first, we intended to present these articles in order based on how widely spoken each language is around the world. To our surprise, we discovered that there is actually very little hard data to provide the answer. While in theory a simple ranking should be easy to achieve, the fact is that quantifiable numbers on how many people speak a given language are incredibly difficult to obtain even in the scientific community. Even setting aside political, social, and logistic issues that could prevent an accurate counting, the number can change drastically based on whether it counts non-native speakers, people who have only a basic working knowledge of the language, etc. The Ethnologue, for example, is considered to be one of the most comprehensive sources, although at nearly three years old it is probably already woefully out of date (even if one assumes that it is perfectly accurate, which would be just about impossible).

As a result of all this, we ordered our articles in a pattern based on the prominence of the language on the global stage, but we make no claim that it is a perfect ranking. We also included certain articles in the best interests of variety. Had we gone solely by the number of people who speak a given language, native African and American languages would have seen no place in our list at all, which would have been quite a shame. Looking at languages is looking at human history and culture, and there are already enough gaps as it is.

Another of the editorial calls that we have made is the decision, in most cases, to refer to the languages by their English names rather than by their native names. This is the reason why, for example, the article on the German language is not titled “Deutsch.” The reasoning behind this is that, as these articles are themselves written in English, it would not be inconsistent to use the English terms for foreign languages and concepts where applicable. It will also make the information easier to locate for those who might be surfing the site in English. In instances where this might have proved to be confusing, such as the article on the Bahasa languages of the Malaysian and Indonesian regions, we included more than one term in order to help clarify the situation.

So ends our brief sojourn into the fascinating world of human language, and even with 30 articles, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing topic. We’ve grown and learned a great deal, and we hope that you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride. Keep reading for another educational series by, sure to be coming soon!

Last Updated : April 21, 2015