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The Earth is home to a huge and fascinating web of languages. How can we begin to make sense of this global cacophony of chitter-chatter?

How many languages?
Let’s begin with the question: how many languages are there? Precisely 7111, according to the latest count from Ethnologue, the authoritative catalogue of the world’s living languages. Arriving at this figure, as you can imagine, is no simple task. It’s a figure that constantly evolves. This is partly because new languages emerge, or come to be recognised, but also because others, sadly, die out.

The number also depends on how you choose to answer the controversial question ‘what counts as a language?’. It’s not always easy deciding what sets a dialect apart from a language.


To help illustrate, speakers of contrasting dialects of Chinese may not understand each other, yet consider themselves to be using a single language. Norwegians and Swedes, on the other hand, feel they are using separate languages – despite (more or less) understanding each other’s tongues.

Thus, as well as linguistic features, scholars often also look to political, historical and cultural factors to decide whether a way of speaking warrants the definition of a ‘language’.

There are different ways of defining languages and so the language count varies depending on who you ask. Ethnologue’s criteria are stated here, where they also acknowledge the sticky issues that arise in language identification.

Language families
Let’s next consider the language families of the world. These 7000+ languages can be grouped according to their histories. Those that share a common ancestor are considered a family. It’s not always clear who the ancestor was, but similarities between languages may indicate that they share bloodlines.

According to Ethnologue’s count, there are 142 language families in the world. These are very unevenly distributed. Just six families account for nearly two-thirds of all languages and over 80% of the world’s population.

The biggest family, in terms of the number of languages, is Niger-Congo. Over 1500 living languages across sub-Saharan Africa make up this family. These include Yoruba, Igobo and Fula. The Indo-European family has the most speakers, however – over 7 million. Thanks to colonialism, its languages are spoken in every part of the world. It’s responsible for 445 languages in total, with Spanish, English and Hindustani claiming the most speakers.