Did you Know?  Fun Facts about Spoken Languages

As per the Ethnologue website, there are 7,151 languages spoken today. Languages are the basis of communication, and consequently of translation. Without them, the art of translation wouldn’t exist.

But do you know what is a language exactly? Where do they come from? What is an endangered language? We dug the Internet to find some fun and cool facts to learn more about THE system that we all use every day to communicate, wherever we are in the world.

Keep reading to test your knowledge about languages.

What is a language?

Let’s start with the beginning, the definition of language.

For us, the best and the most global definition we found was the one on Britannica.com: “a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.”

So, a language is a structured system of signals (sounds, gestures, or symbols) that is used as a principal method or way of communication within a group.

When did the first signs of languages appear?

The origin of languages is still a question under debate because evidence of languages is hard to find before the first proof of written languages. However, it seems that there is a consensus to date back the first languages roughly 150,000 years ago when writing began around 6,000 years ago.

It was about the time that Homo Sapiens evolved, even if it wasn’t languages as we know them now. But it was one of the first means of human communication.

How have languages evolved?

The origin of languages may have been a protolanguage, a hypothetical predecessor of all the languages in the world, that slowly evolved and spread through the world via migrations of people. But it’s only one theory. The roots cannot be attested due to a lack of evidence.

It does however come to support the scientific theory that the first group of humans appeared in Africa. And may have been speaking the original protolanguage. It would explain why most languages in the world are correlated one way or the other to another language.

We already know that most of the existing languages belong to a family that comes from a protolanguage. For example, the roman languages come from popular Latin (their prolanguage), which is considered from the Indo-European branch.

According to Ethnologue, there are 142 different language families in the world. These languages are proven to be genetically related to one another. So, linguists often use a genealogy tree as a metaphor.

Minna Sundberg, the comic author of Stand Still. Stay Silent., played with it and created a beautiful tree (she only represented the languages mentioned in her webcomic, but it’s still a really great graphic to illustrate our words).

Language family tree from Stand Still. Stay Silent. Minna Sundberg

Fun fact: Basque, the language spoken in the mountains between Spain and France, is the only language that has no correlation to any other language in the world.

What is considered a “dead language”?

All languages didn’t pass the test of time. That’s why we talk about dead languages. But what does it mean exactly?

A dead language is one considered to not be any longer the native language (mother tongue) of any community. Yet, it may still be in use, like Latin. Whereas, an extinct language counts no longer any speakers and any descendants.

For example, Sumerian is the oldest attested written language. It’s considered the 1st spoken language we have proof of. Then, it gradually died and survived as a dead written language for another 2,000 years before disappearing entirely.

There are currently 573 extinct languages that we know of.  But there are probably a lot more. It’s part of the language evolution. One of the oldest extinctions, that we can date back, seems to be the Eblaite language from Syria in the 3rd millennium BCE. One of the most recent is Yahgan from Chili, when the last native speaker died on February 16, 2022.

6 of the most famous dead languages are closely tight to the history we learned at school: Latin, Sanskrit (still used for religious rituals in the Indian subcontinent), Coptic (Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet for its writing), Biblical Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Akkadian (Mesopotamia).

What is an endangered language?

An endangered language is a language starting to no longer be used. It’s in the process of being replaced by the most widely spoken languages in their region. The new generations of children or adults are not learning it anymore. So, when the last speakers of this language die, it will become extinct.

Language extinction can be sudden or gradual. Some Iroquoian languages have been declining over the last two centuries but are still spoken today. The trend can still be reversed, like Mohawk which is spoken by some younger people. But some decline much faster, like Yupik, which was still spoken by all the children 20 years ago. Now the children speak mainly only English.

According to Ethnologue.com, 3,045 languages are endangered today. But this number varies every day because they are spoken by small communities. And their native speakers are unfortunately the last generation to speak it. Like the Aboriginal people of Australia.

What are the oldest spoken languages in the world?

If you’re well versed in history, this list will probably make sense, even though…

The most famous

  • Hebrew (3rd century BCE): Interestingly, Hebrew lost common usage around 400 CE but was preserved as a liturgical language. Around the 19th and 20th centuries, it was revived and is now the official language of Israel.
  • Greek (2nd century BCE): Coming from Ancient Greek, this language has an uninterrupted (and documented) history that is generally divided into 3 phases: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Today, Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus.
  • Chinese (5th century BCE): Origins of the Chinese languages (group of languages) seem to date back from 4,500 years ago. But, at the same time, some hieroglyphs (before the characters) can be traced back to the 11th century BCE. Nowadays, Mandarin Chinese is the language counting the most native speakers (about 920,000,000).
  • Farsi (3rd century BCE): Direct descendant of Old Persian, Farsi has a long history too. Modern Persian dates back to 800 CE. Apparently, people speaking Persian today can understand it easily, as the language didn’t evolve too much. It’s now spoken mainly in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
  • Arabic (2nd century BCE): While the early manifestation of Arabic dates back from the 8th century BCE on the Silk Road, Arabic has been refined over time. It is the origin of many languages. Standard Arabic is now spoken by 274 million people in the world.

The maybe less known

  • Tamil (5th century BCE): Considered the oldest spoken language in the world, it’s the official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore.
  • Lithuanian (5th century BCE): Despite its late attestation (15th century CE), Lithuanian is considered the oldest Indo-European language, with roots in Sanskrit and Ancient Greek. It is today the official language of the Republic of Lithuania and one of the official languages of the European Union.
  • Basque (2nd century BCE?): The biggest mystery of the language scientists. Unrelated to any other languages in the world, it seems that it existed before the roman languages. No one has yet been able to define the origin of the Euskara language, spoken for centuries (still today!) by a small community located around the border between France and Spain.

The truth is, we can’t really date back languages before finding written evidence. So, these languages may be even older. Astonishing, no?

What are the youngest languages in the world?

Considering the evolution of languages, it’s not surprising that some languages were created more recently in the history of time:

  • Light Warlpiri: Discovered in an aboriginal community in northern Australia by the American linguist Carmel O’Shannessy, it has been invented by aboriginal young people who are used to code-switching between English, Kriol, and Warlpiri (their original Aboriginal language). Born in the 70s, the language follows an independent system with distinct grammatical rules. Unfortunately, it’s already considered an endangered language and is only spoken by about 350 people.
  • Lingala: Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Lingala is now spoken by 15 to 20 million native speakers, mainly in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the north of the Republic of the Congo. It means “the language of the Bangala (riverine) people”. It comes from Bobangi, which was used by traders around the Congo River.
  • Esperanto: It was constructed as an international auxiliary language by L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist, in 1887. Its goal was to become a universal second language for international communication. Mainly based on the Indo-European family of languages, it’s now spoken by about 2 million people (not as a native language) from about 120 countries.
  • Afrikaans: It’s considered the world’s youngest official language. It was declared one of the official languages of South Africa in 1925. It all started when the Dutch came to South Africa in the 16th century. To trade effectively, they established a lingo, that is also influenced by Malay, Yiddish, French and other languages. The term “Afrikaans” first appeared in 1866 when the Dutch and British were fighting to establish a Dominion. Linked to the apartheid, it is a controversial language today.
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Ludwig Wittgenstein

What will be the most spoken languages in the future?

It’s hard to predict the future. We saw in recent years that anything can happen. But based on the current population and economic situation, we can make some predictions.

The following languages are considered to become the most spoken in the world by 2050:

Top 4

  • Mandarin: It counts already the largest number of native speakers. Plus, China’s economy is on the path of becoming (or already is) one of the leading of the world.
  • Spanish: 4th most spoken language in the world, it’s the official language of many countries. And most of them are emerging economies. It’s also the 2nd most spoken language in the US today.
  • English: No doubt that English will keep its domination in the years to come. It’s even the dominant language in the air. To become a pilot, learn English!
  • Hindi: 3rd most spoken language in the world and it will continue to grow in the future. Plus, India’s economy is growing exponentially. The country is becoming a major player in the global market.

4 others that will matter (and already do!)

  • Arabic: Currently spoken by about 274 million people across the world, Arabic is already an important language for business. It’s supported by the Arabic league, the union of Arabic-speaking countries, which counts 22 members and 4 observer nations.
  • Russian: Number 8 in the most spoken languages in the world, it’s the official language in Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. It’s also spoken in 19 other countries as the mother tongue for part of the population and as a second language by 60 million people.
  • Portuguese: It counts 257.7 million speakers. Outside of Brazil and Portugal, it’s the official language of 8 other countries. It is also spoken as the mother tongue by a part of the population in another 8 countries. And most of them are emerging economies.
  • French: One of the most widely spoken languages in the world and one of the official languages of many international organizations, French is not limited to Europe and Canada. In fact, it’s spoken in one of the fastest-growing areas of the world, sub-Saharan Africa.

But don’t forget countries like Germany or Japan. They may count fewer native speakers. But they have a very powerful economical influence that helps their language to spread! How many of you use the word “emojis”?

Did you know that?

To conclude this “Did you know”, we wanted to share these other random fun facts about languages. They may help you to win an extra point next time you play a trivia game.

  • Papua New Guinea is the country with the most spoken languages (more than 800 languages spoken and only 4 with statutory recognition)
  • Bolivia is the country with the most official languages. Their Constitution recognizes 37 languages, Spanish and 36 indigenous languages. The 2009 Constitution says that all indigenous languages are official. Unfortunately, some of them are now extinct.
  • The US has no official languages. Even if English and Spanish are clearly recognized as the most spoken languages, nothing in the Constitution or in federal law declares one language to be official.
  • French is known in the world to be the language of love. Maybe due to its romantic places or its melodic rhythm. Even though Italian could fight for this honour too.

We hope that you enjoyed reading this blog post and learned some great info. Did you know everything? What was a surprise?

Note that AOT can help you with any of your translation needs into most of all languages spoken today and in the future. Contact us to learn more!



















Posted in

Natacha Bordier