Language and Classification


September 2012
Ivan Obolensky

According to the 16th edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World there are 6,909 languages in existence today. The book (which is 1,248 pages in length) is published by SIL (the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.). This linguistic organization is a faith-based non-profit institution headquartered in Dallas, Texas. It has been interested in translating the Christian Bible and has managed to do so into 2,508 different languages; an astounding number considering that 94% of the world’s population speaks only 389 languages. Put another way, 94% of the world’s existing languages (6,520) are spoken by only a small portion (6%) of the world’s population.

In terms of use, Mandarin is the world’s largest spoken language with 14.1% of the world’s population speaking it. Spanish is the second most widespread and is spoken by 5.85% of the population. English is the third at 5.52%, followed by Hindi (4.46%) and then Arabic (4.23%). These five languages account for over 34% of the world’s speakers. A little farther down the list, Russian is 8th (2.42%) while French is only the 16th (1.12%) of the world’s languages.

The 6,909 figure does not include dialects. Dialects are separate from languages. There are over 39,400 dialects, but as to the exact distinction between a language and a dialect, there are no precise delineations.1

As an example, in the United States in the state of Pennsylvania there is a dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch which is considered to be an offshoot of German. (The Dutch part of Pennsylvania Dutch has nothing to do with the Netherlands but refers to the German word: Deutsch.) A dialect as a broad term means that it is a form of speech that is spoken by a specific group of people, and it is a dialect because it has broken away from what is considered to be a “standard” language. In this instance the standard language is the German spoken in Germany.

A dialect can have changes in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation from the “standard” language. What makes the distinction so difficult to classify is that the differences between any two languages and the differences between a dialect and its “standard” are exactly the same thing: distinctions in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

The exact point of departure between what is a dialect and what is a language begins to blur even more when one tries to consider when a dialect has evolved into a new language. This fuzziness is similar to the taxonomic uncertainty that exists as to when precisely a biological offshoot from a species has developed into a separate species. It is a question of degrees, but as to when this happens is subject to individual interpretation and opinion rather than science.

In the matter of the distinction between a dialect and a language, one might consider that if the differences are so great that mutual understanding is impossible, one must be speaking a different language?

Not necessarily. Consider the difference between modern English and the English spoken in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales around 1380. Spoken today, it sounds virtually unintelligible to a modern English speaker, yet it is still considered modern English. The difference is primarily in the form of spelling and vocabulary, not in grammar.

Shakespeare’s English is also considered to be modern English with more words recognizable to the modern reader than with Chaucer but still, it is doubtful one would be able to make a clear understanding of what was being said without a large dictionary handy.

If the above seems pretty confusing, do not be overly alarmed. The whole subject of classification in general whether in regards to language, dialects, biological species, or whether something is a plant or an animal is one that defies easy analysis.2

In Biology, such classification schemes fall under the academic discipline of Biological Taxonomy and there too, are and have been difficulties just like defining the exact difference between languages and dialects.

At one time there were only two major categories of living things: Plants and Animals as in the eighteenth century. Life was simple. Since then living things have been broken down into three and then four different Kingdoms in 1938 as a result of the discoveries of the electron microscope. They were: Plant, Animal, Protista (complex single-celled organisms such as certain bacteria that have a nucleus) and Monera (simpler bacteria that do not have a nucleus, as well as blue-green algae).

Later, the four kingdoms were expanded to five and then to six in the mid ’70s as a result of RNA research. In 2004, the six were rearranged into a different six by the biologist Thomas Cavalier-Smith. The current classification now includes Animals, Plants, Fungi, Bacteria, Protozoa, and Chromista (algae containing chlorophyll).3 It is important to note that this classification scheme too might change with the addition of viruses. While not considered alive at this time, they are not exactly dead either, at least when compared to certain inanimate protein strands called Prions that are mis-folded forms of protein, and which alter brain tissue as in Mad Cow Disease. Classification changes as our points of view shift.

It seems that all human classification schemes of nature are constructs of the human mind and are not necessarily attributes of the things themselves. We as humans try to classify what we see around us. We name things. In some ways this tendency is a result of our language formation as we try and identify all that we see so we can communicate it to others. It is more than likely that language is humankind’s defining characteristic as it shapes so much of what we do, and how we view the world. Imagine there are 6,908 other ways of describing the same thing with another possible 39,000 or more depending on where you are and what you want to say.

1 Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth Edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

2 Anderson, S. (2012). Languages: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

3 Cavalier-Smith, T., (2004). Only six kingdoms of life, Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society. June 22: 271(1545):1251-62

If you would like to sign up for our monthly articles, please click here.

Interested in reprinting our articles? Please see our reprint requirements.

© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Judith Ann Mcdermott
    Judith Ann Mcdermott10-12-2012

    This is what I have been searching in quite a few web pages and I ultimately identified it right here. Wonderful post. I am so impressed. I imagine you have a excellent information in particular while dealings with these kinds of topics.

    • Ivan

      Thank you. If you would like to receive notification of future articles, you can sign up for our monthly newsletters.

Leave a Reply