Oasist Linguistics

Oasist Linguistics is about linguistics and languages.

The Population, Dominance and Death Vol.1 - Natural Languages -

Natural Languages


Hello, this is Oasist.
How is life treating you?

One day, I wondered what if I compared Natural Languages with Programming Languages.
We rarely care about what are natural languages in our daily lives.
Likewise, programmers seldom pay attention to what are programming languages themselves.
Of course, fewer people are interested in what exists between them.
Yet actually I am!

I finally published 2 articles about it in Japanese for the blog powered by my company the other day.

techracho.bpsinc.jp techracho.bpsinc.jp

I needed to omit some detailed descriptions due to its limited space and time I could spare so I wanted to publish them in this personal blog in more brilliant and sophisticated form.
At last, here I am today.
Thank you very much.

As we may know, languages are very too deep and profound to comprehend all. So I would like to focus on just a few factors and split this blog into 2 volumes, The Population, Popularity and Death Vol.1 -Natural Languages- (this article) and The Population, Popularity and Death Vol.2 -Programming Languages-.


  1. The Number of Natural Languages in the World
  2. Top 10 of the Most Spoken Natural Languages
  3. What Makes a Natural Language Dominant
  4. Death of a Natural Language

1. The Number of the living Natural Languages in the World

As of 2018, there exist as many as 195 countries on this planet according to worldometers.
Then, how many natural languages on earth there are in the world?
Ethnologue tells us we have 7,097 living natural languages in the world as of 2018.
* Dead languages, such as Latin, are excluded here.

Also, The Intrepid Guide estimates distribution of spoken languages as:

Area Language Distribution
Asia 2,296
Africa 2,139
America 1,062
the Pacific 1,313
Europe 287

2. Top 10 of the Most Spoken Natural Languages

The next question we might have is "what are the most spoken natural languages today?".
World Economic Forum released the Top 10 Rankings on 22 Feb 2018.
* "Main Area" column is added to the chart with reference to Wikipedia and Babbel Magazine.

Position Language Population (unit: millions) Main Areas
1 Chinese(mandarin) 1,284 China, Singapore, Taiwan
2 Spanish 437 Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia
3 English 372 United States, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Philippines, Bangladesh, United Kingdom
4 Arabic 295 Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia
5 Hindi 260 Fiji, India, Pakistan
6 Bengali 242 Bangladesh, India
7 Portuguese 219 Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola
8 Russian 154 Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan
9 Japanese 128 Japan
10 Lahnda 119 India, Pakistan

Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken one because China has the hugest population in the world.
By the way, we may be surprised English ranks at the 3rd best although it is becoming a global language.
It is because the chart above counts in only the number of native speakers of those languages.
Once we squeeze English speakers as the second language and a foreign one into it, the number soars up to as many as 1.5 billion speakers as of 2017.
The fact partly contributes to it that a number of Chinese people learn English more then English speakers learn Chinese.

Still, English occupies 75% of post items and 80% of email and internet market share.
It is dominant enough without doubt.

3. What Makes a Natural Language Dominant

As we know, English is establishing its position as a universal language.
But what on earth make it this much spoken? These 2 factors will come up with our minds.

3-1. Features and Assets

English has its 4 periods: Old English, Middle English, Modern English and Present-Day English. What we speak is the very last one. Present-Day English has the following 3 assets.

Number Asset Details
1 Affluent vocabulary Provide us with a variety of expressions and familiarity, thanks to borrowings from other languages all over the world
2 Loss of grammatical gender Natural gender where some nouns are basically neutral and others agree with its gender (e.g. boy as male, lady as female)
3 Loss of inflections Occur only in pronouns (e.g. I-my-me, they-their-them)

3-2. Political and Economic Power

When a country politically and economically dominates the world, its language also does. The History of English informs us of the history as follows.

Countries where English is an official language

As we have seen, a global language arises mainly due to the political and economic power of its native speakers.
It was British imperial and industrial power that sent English around the globe between the 17th and 20th Century.
The legacy of British imperialism has left many counties with the language thoroughly institutionalized in their courts, parliament, civil service, schools and higher education establishments.
In other counties, English provides a neutral means of communication between different ethnic groups.

But it has been largely American economic and cultural supremacy - in music, film and television; business and finance; computing, information technology and the Internet; even drugs and pornography - that has consolidated the position of the English language and continues to maintain it today.
American dominance and influence worldwide makes English crucially important for developing international markets, especially in the areas of tourism and advertising, and mastery of English also provides access to scientific, technological and academic resources which would otherwise be denied developing countries.

Quoted from The History of English

The British Empire used to be the most powerful in the medieval period especially because of Industrial Revolution, when the United States took over its position.
The fact means the baton of power was passed from an English speaking country to another English speaking country, which reveals why English has been prevailing.

Personally speaking, I am for having a global language because it provides wider conversation.
But I am against using it as a barrier.
Some native English speakers make a fool of those who do not speak it so well.
Is it so praiseworthy to naturally pick up their native language?
I strongly wondered it when I knew the news below.
They are privileged in terms of it, of course, but it will be violent once they make the best of it to look down on non-native speakers.
What do you think about it?

4. Death of a Natural Language

4-1. When a Natural Languages Dies?

Latin is a dead language.
Such languages have ceased their changes, developments and evolution.
What causes it and when does it happens?
This can be induced to the answer to this simple question which is:

"How many people, at least, are needed for communication?"

The answer is 2 people, a speaker and listener.
Natural languages are just like living creatures because they reflect human beings themselves and agree with life and death of people.
They can be alive just when they are used between at least 2 people for communication.

Alpha Omega Translations defines the definition of dead languages as below.

The true definition of a dead language is one that has no native speakers left.
There are several different ways that it can happen, but the bottom line is that if there is only one person left who speaks the language as their native tongue and fluently, then the language has died.

Quoted from Alpha Omega Translations

We have arrived at the conclusion that a natural language dies when it has under 2 speakers.

4-2. What Happens When Natural Languages Die?

Michal L. Geis argues, in his publication Language and Communication, We human beings make the most of the following functions of natural languages.

Category Sub-Category Action
Social Activities Exchange of information
Asking questions
Making assertions
Regulation and coordination of human behaviour
Making requests
Giving orders
Making offers
Making promises
Mental Activities Organizing knowledge of the world
Examining how our languages classify the things we talk about
Reasoning and inference-drawing

He also points out an interesting thing about George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eight-Four as follows.

George Orwell

Orwell believed that if something is not sayable, it will not be thinkable.
In his novel, he told of a society that tried to limit language by getting rid of certain words (e.g. freedom or justice) and restricting the meaning of others.
The purpose was to make certain political ideas unsayable in the hope that they would become unthinkable.

Quoted from Language and Communication

In the novel, Nineteen Eight-Four, the party of Big Brother restricted political thoughts with Newspeak, which decreased its vocabulary every year.
It actually helped to stop the public from having anti-party ideology and thoughts and people could not resist Big Brother.

Suppose we lost words related to affection, hatred or appreciation, how could we express them?
It is too tough for to image such cases and scene so the theory is convincing enough.

What will others be likely to happen?
Smithsonian.com refers to 4 things which will occur when a language dies.
Particularly, the last one is the most important one.

Some people lose their mother tongue.

Quoted from Smithsonian.com

Our mother tongue defines what we are so if we lost it, we would also lose our own identity and fail to verify who we are.


How do you like this article?
I sincerely hope it provided a chance to think about our languages, you enjoyed it and discover something new however trivial it is.
Here is the conclusion of this volume below.

  1. There are 7,097 living natural languages in the world.
  2. Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken in terms of the number of native speakers, whereas English the most prevailing in terms of that of all speakers.
  3. A natural language can dominate the world because of not just features / assets of the language but political / economic power.
  4. A natural language dies when it has under 2 speakers.
  5. We no more have ways to do social and mental activities when our language dies.

The next volume is The Population, Popularity and Death Vol.2 -Programming Languages-.
We are going to take the same approach, which will clear the contrast between natural languages and programming languages.

Enjoy the next one as well!