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© 1997 – 2002 Patrick Hassel Zein

This page was last updated 17.11.2002


Illustration © Microsoft Clipart

Languages of the World

"The limits of my language are the limits of my universe."
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

"He who knows no foreign language, knows nothing of his own."
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


List of Contents

IntroductionSome short questions and thoughts.
Learn Languages!About the importance of learning foreign languages. Also contains a list of the 20 most widely spoken languages of the world.
Problems and QuestionsProblems that can arise when you want to learn a foreign language. Some initial questions...
TerminologyExplanations of some important expressions.
Natural LanguagesGeneral discussion about natural languages, their characteristicsand what problems they may bring.
Constructed LanguagesA closer description and general thoughts about constructed languages.Somewhat closer descriptions of Esperanto, Interlingua, Lojban, Ygyde, and in short about other constructed languages.
Do we Need Constructed Languages?More about other advantages of constructed languages.

Introduction

Why learn foreign languages?
Why learn an artificial world-language?
Where could the whole world find common ground to communicate on equal conditions?

Have you ever thought about the fact that we all are foreigners almost everywhere?There are around 5 billion inhabitants in the world and they speak thousands of different languages. Would you be able to arrange everything you need for your daily life if yousuddenly found yourself in an unfamiliar country? Would you be able to earn more moneywhen your wallet is emptied? Would you feel welcome or alone? Or maybe you aren't planningever to set your foot outsides the borders of your homeland?

Both in the western world and in other parts of our planet it's possible to find peoplethat already speak more than one language – probably because different languages arespoken within the borders of some countries, but possibly also because people learn someinternationally useful languages in school. How many people can actually speak any languagethat "highly educated western people" as ourselves speak when we go abroad?

I may very well be putting things to the edge, but my intention with this text is to try andprovoke debate, or at least open up the eyes on the readers to see what a problem it may bewhen you only can speak your own language.

Learn Languages!

To make myself perfectly clear I want to point out already at this point that I almost can'tfind words to express how important I find it to be to learn foreign languages. When one reflects on how fast the world is getting smaller and smaller, that people during the last decades have startedto travel much more to foreign countries, how companies open branch offices on the other side of theearth, and realise that in 24 hours you can travel to almost any possible place on our globe, thenI think there's already motivation enough to at least two or three globally spread languages.

This conviction becomes more obvious when you can suspect that Europe, that since centuries hasbeen regarded as playing the role of the centre of civilisation, within only one decade may have tostep aside for the constantly strengthened Asian countries – what will happen if the Chineselanguage will replace the English with the more or less official role as the most accepted internationallanguage of the world? Will we then be forced to learn Chinese to be able to get certain jobs?

And besides: learning foreign languages also has the unquestionable benefit that you will learn more about your own language, your own culture and about the whole World. "He who knows no foreign language, knows nothing about his own" (see the beginning of this document).

So why wait? The question is only what language you should start with... The ones of you that have decided to learn a new and useful language, but have not decided witch one, may very well have a look at the following list of the 20 most widely spoken languages of the World (a longer list with a lot more details can be found on the page Top 100 languages by population). Next to each language you can see an estimated figure of how many persons that had the language in question as mother tongue during 1999, and in which countries the languages are mainly (or originally) spoken. These 20 languages represent around 3/5 of the inhabitants of the Earth. Numbers in parentheses mark figures for 1996.

RankingLanguageCountryPopulation
1Chinese, the Mandarin-dialectChina885.000.000
2 (3)SpanishSpain332.000.000
(266.000.000)
3 (2)EnglishGreat Britain322.000.000
4BengaliBangladesh189.000.000
5HindiIndia182.000.000
6PortuguesePortugal170.000.000
7RussianRussia170.000.000
8JapaneseJapan125.000.000
9German ("standard German")Germany98.000.000
10Chinese, the Wu-dialectChina77.175.000
11Javanese (and not Indonesian!)Indonesia75.500.800
12KoreanSouth Korea75.000.000
13FrenchFrance72.000.000
14VietnameseVietnam67.662.000
(66.897.000)
15TeluguIndia66.350.000
16Chinese, the Yue-dialect ("Cantonese")China66.000.000
17MarathiIndia64.783.000
18TamilIndia63.075.000
19TurkishTurkey59.000.000
20UrduPakistan58.000.000
(56.584.000)
....................
26ArabicEgypt42.500.000

If you then take into consideration that most Chinese people have mother tongues that are written with one and the same written language, and if you expect most of these persons to be reasonably skilled at reading, well then one may state that at least 1.000.000.000 humans can read and write "standard Chinese".

It is also important to note that around 213.000.000 people speak around 30 different variants of Arabic.

Problems and Questions

Personally I like to learn languages. Languages inspire and fascinate me, they make travels to other countries easier, they give me possibility to make new friends all around the globe. But after a while I started to think yet another step: even if I already am acquainted withthree or four of the most widely spread languages in the World (i.e. Chinese, English,German and Italian), I still can't speak with more than 25% of the Worlds population in their mother tongue, and if the remaining 75% can't speak any of "my" languages, then they will for always remain strangers to me.

How can this problem be solved? Well that's easy: everybody must learn more languages or one common language! OK. Fine. But everybody doesn't like to study languages. Maybe itis not possible for everybody to learn languages? And what language should we learn? Who would decide that?

Another aspect of the problem is that we have to take cultural differences into consideration. In other words it is in practice never enough to learn a foreign language – it is also necessary to learn a foreign culture.

There are many problems and questions to be found, but a big part of the problem consists in ungrounded fears and prejudice. In this text I will try to straighten out a part of the problem, and to straighten out the questions that I so far have mentioned – and also some new questions that will occur later on.

Terminology

Before continuing the discussion, I'd like to sort out a couple of expressions as to avoid misunderstandings:

1)Natural languagesNatural languages are, by my own definition, those languages that have developed in a natural way parallel with the evolution of mankind.
2)Constructed languagesConstructed languages are the languages that have been created by more or less strictly mathematical rules, usually with the purpose of thus creating a language that is grammatically simple and hence easy to learn.
3)World languagesBy the term "World language" I refer to a language that in democratical manner has been created or selected as a tool for international communication throughout the World. A world language can either be a natural language or a constructed language.

Natural Languages

No matter where you draw the line between what is to be considered as a "language" and what is to be considered a "dialect", you will find more languages than countries in the World. Some languages have similarities with each other but generally speaking the variation is enormous.

Different languages give different possibilities of discussing different matters: if we for example look at western languages, we would say that using these languages it is possible to discuss just about anything, but some languages in other places of the World may lack words for different modern machines or technologies, they may be lacking numerals, or maybe they lack an alphabet or some other form of written language. I'm sure that a lot of people have thought this farm but have you ever reflected on the possibility that your own language might have drawbacks compared with other languages? For example the English language is in most cases lacking a verb form referred to as "conjunctive" – a verb form that gives you a possibility of putting a tone of uncertainty of hope into what is said – a verb form that is very common and often used in other European languages.

Many languages contain words that have more than one meaning, or can be spoken in more than one way – this can be regarded as very troublesome both by persons that have the language in question as mother tongue, but also by foreigners that want to learn the language.

Yet another problem that can be found in most every natural language is the fact that some phrases can be interpreted in more than one way. It is sometimes difficult to build a sentence that can't be misinterpreted.

If we then go deeper into our studies of languages, we will note cultural differences that will lead us to misunderstand each other even if we speak the same language.All humans live different lives and will thus have different experiences and different frames of reference. Our differences in heritage will inevitably lead to differences in out way of interpreting a sentence or a text. You might for example imagine a culture where sarcasm is totally unknown – it might be directly dangerous to use sarcasm in such circumstances!

An example of culturally caused linguistic confusion is when a Nordic person, let's call him Mr A, meets a southern European, called Mr B. Mr A is used to be polite and to always let his counterparts in discussions finish their sentences. Mr B on the other hand is used to repeat the one and same message over and over again until his counterpart interrupts or fill in words in the sentences as to show that he has understood the message. Hence Mr B will talk uninterruptedly whilst waiting for Mr A to interrupt him. But since Mr A is trying to be polite, he will let Mr B talk on. The result is that Mr A will find Mr B to talk an awful lot and to repeat himself, whilst Mr B will think that Mr A does not understand anything at all.

Natural languages are also special in one other aspect: as the World develops further and further, the languages will also need to develop. Almost all language will borrow words from other languages. The word "computer" is for example identical to the English word in both German and Italian. Many countries have borrowed lots of technical terminology mainly from the English language. We can for example find the words "CD", "hi-fi", "e-mail" and "Internet" in a lot of languages. This is an almost inevitable development, and I definitely don't want to say straight out that it ought to be forbidden or controlled in any way, but what will happen when people don't understand the borrowed words? What will happen when we read a modern text in a foreign language and some of the words are so new that they are not to be found in any dictionary? The risk is that we will may our own languages incomprehensible to ourselves and to others.

And besides: how many dictionaries would you actually need to be able to translate to and from every language in the World? If you are clever you may say that we could translate everything by first translating to English and then to the target language, thus only having to have dictionaries to and from English. But to make translations in more than one step is directly lethal, since every translation inevitably will lead so some loss of details, and the translator will probably colour his work with ideas of his own or of his culture.

Regarding how the last passage was formulated; how often don't we expect that most people in World should be expected to know English of all languages? Furthermore I am personally supporting English as an official language on the Internet ("Cyber-English") by translating all the mages on my site to English. Honestly speaking the English language is very suitable to be a World language at all because of peculiar spelling, lots of irregular verbs and strange grammar.

Does it sound as if I'm only mentioning uncountable problems? Well, it is not at all my intention to be pessimistic! Learning foreign languages is most often quite rewarding,and knowledge is never to heavy to carry. In particular the knowledge of languages will open gates to other cultures and will widen your possibilities in life. I love to "play" withlanguage and words – otherwise I'd never have written this text!

Constructed Languages

At this point I'd better give a closer description of what is classified as a"constructed language". A constructed language can be something created to give some extra spice to literature or movies (for example we have the elf's language in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the klingon's language in all the Star Trek movies), or it can be a language that intentionally has been created for some specific purpose, e.g. to simplify communication between people of different linguistic areas, or to make it possible to analyse languages (it is also possible to include computer languages into this groups, since these have a purpose of simplifying the communication between men and computers!). We may possibly also regard languages that have evolved naturally when needed (e.g. when people from different countries have met half way along a route, and needed to find a common language) as constructed languages, but these have usually been constructed through a natural process rather than intentional development.

When I speak of constructed languages I mainly think of grammatically simple languages with the purpose of simplifying communication throughout the World – so called"help languages" or "World languages". Some of these languages are intended for some specific areas of use, others are more general.

When a new language is created, it usually is lacking all forms of cultural heritage, but a language like Esperanto is a good example of a constructed language around which a culture has been built up after some time. Esperanto has achieved a history, a surrounding and its very own culture.

Esperanto is included among the constructed languages that I myself have taken a closer look at, but also Interlingua, Lojban and Ygyde. To clarify certain aspects of constructed languages in general, I would like to give a short description of different details of these four languages in particular:

Esperanto

The language was created in 1887 by Ludwik Zamenhof.
Most of the words have been selected more or less by random from different European languages, which makes it easier for people that already know one or two European languages to learn Esperanto. – Minus point in most parts of the world!
This language contain letter-combinations that are difficult to pronounce, as well as words that have more than one different meanings. – Minus point!
The alphabet contains some unusual characters (that usually are not available on typewriters and in computers), which isn't always too good an idea... – Minus point!
Among constructed languages, Esperanto is the most widely spread, and it is spoken by thousands of people around the world. – Definitely a Plus point!
This language has with time almost (?) become as alive as a natural language. – An important plus point!
The grammar is generally European and straightforward, but contain some details that can be regarded as unnecessary difficult (such as the use of accusatives). – Minus point!

Interlingua

Created in 1951 by the International Auxiliary Language Association.
The words have been selected so that the in as large extent as possible shall be similar to the corresponding words in English and other Roman languages, which means that this language can be more or less understood by those that talk any Roman language. – Minus point in most of the world!
The grammar is also based on Roman languages. – Minus point in most of the world!
Interlingua is used from time to time in international texts of scientific or technical character. – A weak, but still, plus point!

Lojban

The development of Lojban was started in 1987 by The Logical Language Group, but is based on another constructed language, called Loglan, to which the foundations were made in 1955 by James Cooke Brown.
Every word has been selected according to an algorithm aiming at getting it as similar as possible to the corresponding words of the most widely spoken languages in the World (Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian and Arabic – in that specific order), which makes just about as easy for most people in the world to learn the words. – An intriguing Plus point!
The language is designed as to avoid all double-edged expressions and risks of misunderstanding. – A clear plus point!
Lojban has got a firm logical structure (almost like a programming language) and is therefore very precise a clear – at the same time as it is very flexible (The person speaking this language may form it after his needs. People with different linguistic backgrounds are given the freedom to build phrases according to the model they are used to from their own language).But this logical structure may feel unnatural... – Plus point andminus point!
Lojban is so far only spoken by a rather small number of persons. – Minus point!

Ygyde

The basic structures of Ygyde were worked out by Andrew Nowicki, and presented in 2002. Later during 2002, Patrick Hassel-Zein contributed with the first grammar.
All words are built with the help of tables of syllables with specific meanings. The words usually do not have any similarities with corresponding words from any other language, but the structures are very simple and a speaker can create new words rather freely. – In my eyes an interesting Plus point!
The language is designed as to be simple and clear. The grammar is designed to avoid problems with prepositions and risks of misunderstanding. Personally, I also belive that Ygyde is a language very well suited for scientific texts. – Plus point!
Ygyde is so far only spoken by very few persons. – Minus point!

It evidently seems that the more modern a constructed language is, the more thought through theay are, with simpler and more logical structures. Please note that I at this point do not want to enter any discussion regarding which constructed language might be the best – I leave this decision to you, or to the future to tell. It is obvious that I like to work with Ygyde and know more about this language since I'm helping in the work with the grammar and partly also with the dictionary, but please do not assume that I think that Ygyde were better than all other constructed langauges!

Other constructed languages

Earlier in this text, I have mentioned languages created go give a specific atmosphere in literature or in films. These languages are usually created to be extra exotic. Hence such languages usually lack direct similarities to natural languages, and are therefore not always easy to learn. However one should not disregard fantasy languages such as Klingon, since such may spawn ideas of new traits that can come in handy in other, and more useful, languages.

Do we Need Constructed Languages?

A person that find no interest in travelling abroad or having any contact with the world, may not see the point in learning a constructed language – especially in there are not so many other persons to talk to. But this is a discussion for the future! How do we want the future? What will the world look like in the 21:st century? What demands will be made on international communication?

Many persons may feel intimidated from learning languages, due to previous problems in the area of learning foreign languages. Then you must keep in mind that constructed languages intentionally have been as easy to learn as possible. There are per definitionno irregularities, there are no awkward rules of spelling. Constructed languages are generally speaking easier to learn than any other languages.

Further more, scientist have found convincing evidence that schoolchildren that learn Esperanto as their first foreign language, will get notably better results in further studies of languages – probably because Esperanto is so easy to learn, that the children will not loose the motivation to their studies, but will make quick advancement and will hence be inspired to continue. Why should we not let this inspiration spread further?

I can tell you that when I talk my own mother language, I sometimes feel restrained by the modern Swedish grammar. Unfortunately, the traditional possibilities of variations in the Swedish language have, more or less because of political reasons, been forgotten – not as explicitly as in George Orwell's "9184", but still. I constantly find English, German, Italian, Chinese and Icelandic words or grammatical possibilities that don't exist in my own vocabulary or even in any Swedish dictionary. In such moments I try to integrate my discoveries into my daily language, and can really feel my mind grow. If I didn't study foreign languages, then I would never have this warm feeling – nor would I notice any back draws in my own language.

The Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis states that "the structure of a language will restrain the train of thoughts in the minds of the persons using that language". Think about it for a while! If my language doesn't provide me with words to ask the right question, how ever could I find the right answer? Only the subconscious mind might be able to reach outside the limits of my languages – provided that it thinks without taking the de-tour through any language. If we could talk more languages, or if we could talk a language that will not build borders for our thoughts, wouldn't that make it possible for us to think in new ways? Will not new languages lay the ground for new thoughts? Will not every language that we learn give us a new soul? The language Lojban was originally created to support the mentioned hypothesis, to give scientists a possibility to study the relationships between language, thoughts and culture. What possibilities would not such a "boundless language" be able to provide for our future?

Richard K. Harrison has, on the Internet, published a detailed description of what criteria that the optimalconstructed language should fulfil according to him. In this description he goes down in details about what the optimal world language should look like. He has not made any personal evaluations as to what language fulfils these guidelines to the highest level.