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Most global rankings of languages simply rank individual languages, like English, French, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin or Cantonese. I would like to look at the bigger picture and put together all the tongues derived from a same classical language, such as Latin, Old Indic or Classical Chinese.
The reason for that is that languages belonging to a same family, although not really mutually intelligible, are very easy to learn or even understand in the written form if one knows another language in the family. For instance a French speaker will learn Italian, Occitan, or Spanish with far greater ease than they will learn German, Russian or Hindi.
Languages in a same family usually share a high percentage of vocabulary in common (about 70-80% for Romance languages), share a lot of idiomatic expressions, and have a similar syntax and grammar. What differentiates them is mostly pronunciation. The more the pronunciation has evolved in a language compared to its source, the hardest it will be for speakers of related languages to understand it, although it is not usually the case the other way round. For example, French has developed a very Germanised pronunciation of Latin, and has become very foreign-sounding to Italian and Spanish ears (or even southern French Occitan speakers until about 100 years ago, when compulsory education made them bilingual French-Occitan). French speakers on the other hand can pick up Italian or Spanish fairly easily. The same is true with Portuguese and Spanish, the former understanding relatively well the latter, but not vice-versa. In Scandinavia too, Norwegians and Swedes have less difficulty comprehending Danish than the Danes have to make sense of their northern neighbour's language.
The same phenomenon can be observed on the Indian subcontinent and in Han China.
The distinction between languages and dialects is mostly a political one. China insists that Yue, Wu, Min, Hakka and other tongues not intelligible to most Mandarin speakers are just dialects. But the difference is as big as between Romance languages. In the same vein, the Québecois insist that they speak French, a statement politically supported by the French government, yet Québecois can be so hard to understand by European Francophones that TV programmes from Québec require subtitles.
Politics can also officially divide a language into several ones that are perfectly mutually intelligible. Serb, Croat and Bosnian have been referred to as different languages since the split of Yugoslavia, but are in fact slight variants of the same language. Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans are only minor variants of a same language. Hindi and Urdu are the same language, but Urdu is the Muslim variant of Pakistan, while Hindi is spoken by the Hindus of India. Religion is another face of politics.
There is also a natural human tendency to associate a country with a single language. That is why so many Westerners just say that the majority of Chinese speak Chinese, when they mean Mandarin. Standard French was originally of dialect of Paris, but now come to mean the language of the French people and nation. This is ironic considering that France used to have, and still mostly has, the greatest linguistic diversity of any country in Europe (besides Russia). Just one hundred years ago, over half of the people living in France couldn't speak or even understand Parisian French. France has done what China later did, re-educate its population to speak the capital's language, and try to eradicate Breton Celtic, Flemish, Alsatian German, Occitan, Catalan, Basque and the dozens of dialects of French and Occitan.
There is a strong, yet mistaken image that the French are poor language learners. It does not take in consideration that in two third of the country many people are bilingual in their regional tongue. Many southern French can still speak Occitan (Gascon, Languedoc, Provençal) or Catalan or Basque. Many Alsatian know at least some Alsatian and/or German. The dialects of northern France, like Norman, Poitevin, Gallo, Champenois or Picard may be closer to Parisian French, but are nevertheless mostly unintelligible to Parisians who are not used to hear them. Nowadays few people speak those dialects because it is so easy to learn Parisian French for them. It is more a matter of accustomation than dedicated learning.
Anyone who has learned more than one foreign language belonging to different language family (e.g. Italian and Japanese) will know that it is much easier and faster to learn a language belonging to your own mother tongue's family. Eventually, closely related languages are almost like dialects. One can become conversational in a few weeks of months, when it would take many months of years to reach the same level in a completely unrelated language. This is why I think it is as important and interesting to look at the global picture of linguistic families rather than individual languages.
I have decided to include English as a Romance language (although it is really a blend of Romance and Germanic), because 70% of the English vocabulary comes from Romance languages (mostly French and Latin, with the occasional borrowing from Spanish or Italian), and the English grammar and syntax is closer to Romance than Germanic (no declension, no rejection of the verb at the end of the sentence). The traditional classification of English as Germanic is political, based on the ethnic origin of the English people, not on actual linguistic similitude.
Global Top 10 by native speakers
- Romance languages (including English) : over 1.2 billion native speakers
- Chinese languages : about 1.2 billion native speakers
- Indo-Aryan languages : over 900 million native speakers
- Slavic languages : about 310 million native speakers
- Arabic language & dialects : 280 million native speakers
- Iranian languages : 150-200 million native speakers
- Turkic languages : about 175 million native speakers
- Germanic languages : about 150 million native speakers
- Southern Dravidian languages : about 140 million native speakers
- Japanese : 130 million native speakers
Global Top 10 by total speakers
- Romance languages (including English) : over 2.5 billion speakers
- Chinese languages : about 1.3 billion speakers
- Indo-Aryan languages : over 900 million speakers
- Arabic language & dialects : about 530 million speakers
- Slavic languages : about 425 million speakers in total
- Malay language : over 260 million speakers
- Germanic languages : about 250 million speakers
- Turkic languages : about 200 million speakers
- Iranian languages : 150-200 million speakers
- Southern Dravidian languages : 150 million speakers
I chose linguistic families with relatively similar levels of spoken or written intelligibility (or mutual learnability). This is why I added English to the Romance family, but had to limit Dravidian languages to the southern branch, as Telugu, Gondi, Kurukh or Brahui (among others) are quite distant from Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada.
Malay has many close cousins, but too small to mention. There are 87 Iranian languages, so major (Persian, Kurdish, Pashto), but many minor. I am not sure of the exact relationship between these languages, but I assume it to be similar to Indo-Aryan languages, which split from the common Indo-Iranian root around the same time. The Persian language has had a notable influence on its neighbours, so that many recent borrowings increase intelligibility and the ease to learn each other's language. Overall I do not believe that Kurdish, Persian and Pashto are much more different than Portuguese, French and Romanian, or Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and Omani Arabic, or else Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka.
Last edited by Maciamo; 19-02-10 at 17:53.
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Very useful information