I am continuing a series of blogs responding to the questions I was most asked when I was in the US. This week, the question is:
You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today. Are those real languages or dialects?
I could start with a long explanation of the fact that there is no commonly accepted way of telling the difference between a language and a dialect. I will spare you that. Let’s be practical. I am not using the word “dialect” as it is sometimes used – to mean a way of speaking that is considered inferior. I am using it to mean a different way of speaking the same language. It assumes that with little or no effort, two people each speaking his or her own dialect will understand almost all of what they other says. It could be that the differences between the two dialects are enough that people from one need to spend a few hours speaking with people from the other dialect before they understand everything.
This kind of practical definition is close to the definition used by the Ethnologue, from which I get the number of 7,105 languages. So English is listed as one language in the Ethnologue, not as several. If we were to count the dialects of all the languages, the number would be many tens of thousands. For example, the Ethnologue lists over 30 dialects of English within the United Kingdom alone; noting that there are “Many local English varieties around the world.”
So the number of 7,105 represents that many individual languages. It is not inflated by including dialects of each language.