Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gen Eds LC3: The Languages of the World

By Erkumbulant - Own work
CC BY-SA 4.0
This is the third post in a series called, "World Language and Culture." This is the fourth series in an overall project called Gen Eds in a Nutshell. The other series so far include 1) philosophy, 2) world history, and 3) a math and science series, which is a little over half-way.

Thus far in the Language and Culture series are:
1. Linguistics is the study of how language works. One fascinating area within linguistics is "comparative" linguistics, where we compare languages to each other. In fact, languages cluster together like various species belong together in families and have a common history.

There are three predominant types of language: analytic, inflected, and agglutinative. English is mostly an analytic language, which is a language where each word gives you a single bit of meaning and the letters of each word are not changed. [1] The order in which the words come is very important for the meaning. For example, "Ken hit the ball" means something quite different from "The ball hit Ken," even though the words are exactly the same.

Chinese would be an even better example of an analytic language, because English still has traces of changing the letters at the end of its words.

Most languages in the European stream are inflected (also called "fusional") languages. An inflected language changes the endings and forms of words to tell you the specifics of what the word is doing. [2] These endings usually reflect more than one implication for meaning. They also make it such that the order the words come in is less important.

Take the following sentence in Latin: amo manducare panem, "I love to eat bread." While the word amo means "I love," the ending o is what tells you it is I love. If it were amas, it would mean "You (singular) love. The ending tells you both that the subject of love is singular and "I." Similarly with the other words, a change of the ending changes the meaning.

Meanwhile, you could put the words in any other order and the sentence would still be "I love to eat bread." manducare amo panem, panem manducare amo, amo panem manducare, manducare panem amo, panem amo manducare--all of these orderings translate as "I love to eat bread," although the word that is emphasized in each case varies a little.

The final major type of language is agglutinative. [3] Like inflected languages, they vary the letters within a word to change the meaning. The difference is that each change only reflects on bit of meaning. Words in Turkish are thus like a string of beads, with each bead in the word telling you one bit of meaning.

2. By one reckoning, the ten most spoken languages in the world are:
  • Chinese
  • Spanish
  • English
  • Hindi
  • Arabic
  • Portuguese
  • Bengali
  • Russian
  • Japanese
  • Punjabi
See also this article. In terms of the number of countries where a particular language is spoken, the top five are: 1) English, 2) Arabic, 3) French, 4) Chinese, and 5) Spanish. It seems to me that if you could learn seven languages and wanted to be able to cover as much of the globe as possible, these are the ones to learn:
  • English is spoken in 101 countries. It is the third most native language in the world. It will open the door to you in North America, India and Pakistan, and in much of Africa. It seems to me that, from a strategic perspective, it is the most valuable language to know currently in the world.
  • I would secondly suggest Chinese. It is the language spoken by the greatest number of people in the world and knowing Chinese opens the most doors in east Asia.
  • Thirdly I suggest Spanish, the second most spoken language in the world. Spanish directly opens up almost all of South America and Latin America. Since I am not putting Portuguese on my list of top six, Spanish is close enough at least to help in Brazil and Portugal.
  • Next I suggest Arabic. It is the fifth most spoken language, spoken in 60 countries, and will open up the Middle East and to some extent countries like Turkey and parts of north Africa.
  • I feel like Russian needs to be on this list because of the sheer geographical area that it covers, even though it is eighth on the most spoken list. 
  • Strategically speaking, French would be on this list. It's not because most people speak French as a primary language. It is because French opens up to you the rest of Africa.
  • Hindi really deserves to be much higher up on this list because it is not less than the fourth most spoken language, perhaps even the second. It is related to other languages that are also in the top 10: Bengali and Punjabi. The only reason I have put it seventh is because English is the official language of India and Pakistan, so it is less important if the goal is to be able to cover the most territory with the fewest languages.
There are over 7100 languages in the world currently, half of which will die out by the end of the century. Globalization has taken once isolated peoples and connected people in ways that make smaller languages less spoken.

Indo-European Languages
3. If you look at the chart at the top, over 46% of the world's speakers speak an "Indo-European" language. This is a family of languages that originated around 3400BC in the area around present day Ukraine. Some of this traveling band headed southeast to the region of India. Some went southwest into Greece and Italy. Others stayed put or headed east into Russia. Still others went west into Germany.

One of the earliest known branches of this happy family were the Hittites, who lived in Anatolia (Turkey) around 1800BC. They are mentioned in Genesis 23.

In India, Sanskrit is the oldest known representative of this group of language. Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Punjabi, some of the most spoken languages in the world by population, are direct descendants of Sanskrit.

Persian languages are also descendant from this western branch of Indo-European. Today, descendants of this branch include Farsi, Kurdish, and Pashto.

A more recent descendant of this western branch are the Slavic languages. These include Russian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Serbo-Croatian.

4. The oldest branch in the west was ancient Greek, which of course is the ancestor of modern Greek. In Italy, Latin is another ancient descendant. From Latin come the five Romance languages: Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian.

The Celtic tribes made their way from Galatia in Turkey before the New Testament to Gaul of Roman fame, to the British Isles. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish are all descendants.

Lastly, there are the Germanic languages that occupied central and northern Europe. The northern Teutonic languages spread to what is now Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian lands. The western Germanic tribes became German, Dutch, Frisian, and of course English.

When the French Normans took over England in 1066, The Germanic Anglo-Saxon base of the language was invaded by French.

Semitic Languages
5. Because of my knowledge base, I'll turn to the Semitic languages next. These are primarily Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, and Aramaic.

The oldest versions of these language was the East Semitic Akkadian, which was the business language of the oldest Babylonian and Assyrian empires. At the time of Israel's captivity, however, Aramaic had become the "lingua franca."

In the West, there was Hebrew, Canaanite, and Phoenician. An older northwest Semitic language was Ugaritic. In the South, Ethiopic would eventually become Amharic and Tigrinya today.

Arabic, another southern Semitic language, is by far the most spoken Semitic language today. Aramaic is barely spoken and dying, but is still known in Iraq and Syria. Hebrew was reinvented as a language when Israel was refounded in 1948.

Sino-Tibetan Languages
6. After the Indo-European languages, more people speak a language from this group than any other. However, Chinese is the primary example. Other languages include Tibetan and Burmese.

Altaic and Isolated Languages
7. Perhaps most of the languages of the world are spoken by a small group of people without clear relationship to others. Japanese, for example, seems to stand mostly on its own, although Chinese has influenced it. Some suggest it may be part of an "Altaic" family, but this is far from agreed.

On the other hand, Turkish, Finnish, Hungarian, and Mongolian are thought to relate to this family of agglutinative languages. This group of languages lies across a horizontal line in the middle of Asia, with one branch stretching up eastern Europe.

Next Week: Cultures 4: How to Learn a Language

[1] English does change some letters. "Book" is different from "books." "Walk" is a little different from "walks." In that sense it is really a mixed type rather than a purely analytic type.

[2] In general, languages that have more than one bit of meaning per word are called "synthetic" as opposed to "analytic."

[3] Another type is "polysynthetic," where words can be quite long because they incorporate many meaning bits, including diverse parts of speech.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...