Does any one know!
Nobody knows for sure. For one thing, a comprehensive survey of languages has never even been attempted. For another, we have no hard and fast rules for where dialect ends and language begins; what one linguist would declare to be two separate languages, another might say is one language with two dialects. Furthermore, languages are dying all the time… and being born all the time, too, although that process is running more slowly.
A useful estimate is that there are approximately 5000 languages at the present time.
According to the people at Ethnologue, there are presently 6,809 languages in the world. Really. See the following website:
Ethnologue, which is a project run by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is generally acknowledged as the closest thing to an official recorder of the state of the languages of the world. They are about as thorough in recording the number of languages as it’s humanly possible to be. It’s no longer true, as it once was, to wonder, “Well, what if there’s some tribe in the middle of New Guinea whose language we missed?” Every such tribe has now been found and has been noted. In some cases little is known about the language except for its name and where it’s spoken, but there’s unlikely to be any missed languages.
Ethnologue’s number may be a little high, though, for two reasons. First, there are constantly languages dying for lack of speakers. I suspect that languages die at the rate of about one a month. Second, they tend to err on the side of calling something a language rather than a dialect.
Even for major dialects and languages. For instance, an almanac I have has a list of the most widely spoken languages, and in a footnote mentions that Yiddish is considered to be a dialect of German, even though it has a separate cultural and literary tradition. I’m willing to bet that some people would beg to differ, although everybody would concede that Yiddish is rooted in German and largely intelligible to a German speaker. The almanac quoted their source, which was a university linguistics department, I forget which.
Are we counting languages which are “dead”, but still known to scholars? Nobody is raised speaking Classical Latin anymore (is that a distinct language from Ecclesiastical Latin, which is still alive?), but a great many linguists and college students still speak it. What if it’s only the writing which is now known, and not the pronounciation?
I found this today. I don’t know yet where they got their numbers, so I can’t vouch for their reliability.
The basic rule is if two people can understand each other without much trouble it is the same language.
But politics come in a lot. For instance we have a Dutch intern. She lived in South Africa and had no trouble understanding Afrikaans.
We also have a Belgian intern and he insists Flemish is different from Dutch. Even though the Belgian government refers to it as Dutch now.
One of the memebers of my former staff was Macedonian and she has no trouble at all conversing with the Bulgarians we had working there. As a matter of fact she said she had no trouble with Serbs or Croats
Now that Yugoslavia is broken up. Many Croats and Serbs insist Serbian and Croatian are different. My mother was Croatian and my father was Serbian. They spoke to each other with perfect understanding.
Riksmaal (or something like that) is referred to as the Norwiegan form of Danish.
A friend of mine Nadia from Brazil said she had no problem speaking to the Spanish folk.
This list goes on.
> The basic rule is if two people can understand each other
> without much trouble it is the same language.
One problem with this rule is that there are chains of dialects such that, for instance, speakers of dialect A can understand dialect B, speakers of dialect B can understand dialect C, and so forth up to dialect J. But the speakers of dialects A and J don’t understand each other. (I don’t know what the smallest such chain would be.)
But your basic point is correct. It’s a messy situation and ultimately it relies on arbitrary decisions.
Incidentally, the people at Ethnologue don’t want to include dead languages in their count, although they admit they may have mistakenly included a few recently deceased ones
I recall reading, among other scientific predictions just before Y2K arrived, that some linguists predict there will be more than 1,000 fewer spoken languages by the year 2100. Something about smaller, regional languages going bye-bye as the “major” ones metastasize into the nooks and crannies of our globe.
I also recall learning in an anthropology class that Papua-New Guinea accounts for at least 1,000 languages.
Not the whole truth. Riksmål (or rather Bokmål, which is the most common word for it) is best described as one of the two written varieties of Norwegian, the other one being Nynorsk or Landsmål.
The reason for two written languages is that Bokmål, as Markxxx pointed out, is based on written Danish, a fact that nationalistically minded Norwegians didn’t like, so in the early 19th century a new written language was formed, based on dialects that were not so much influenced by Danish.
Spoken Norwegian, though, could be anything inbetween the two.
> I recall reading, among other scientific predictions just
> before Y2K arrived, that some linguists predict there
> will be more than 1,000 fewer spoken languages by the
> year 2100.
This is actually a conservative estimate. Some say that as many as 3000 will be lost by 2100.