written form

H. Russell Bernard ufruss at UFL.EDU
Fri Dec 5 22:45:03 UTC 2003

Michal Brody wrote, in response to Alsadair McCleod's query:

 >> Fishman 1999 (Handbook of lg & ethnic identity) claims 25% of world lgs
now have writing. Don't know how he arrived at that number, though.

this brings up an important distinction between having an orthography and
having a tradition of printed literature. many languages of the world have
writing, in the sense that at least one orthography has been proposed by a
linguist, bilingual educator, missionary, or local language committee.

few languages of the world, however, have printed literary traditions, with
continual production of affordable reading materials. of the 6129 languages
in the ethnologue for which data on the number of speakers is available,
just 331 (around 5%) are spoken by at least one million people. those 331
languages are spoken by a total of about 5.6 billion people out of about
6.3 billion people in the world. thus, about 89% of the world's people
speak 5% of the world's languages. turn it around for a more dramatic
outcome: 11% of the world's people speak about 95% of the world's languages.

taking this one step further, 1742 of the 6129 languages for which the
number of speakers is estimated in the ethnologue (28% of all languages)
are spoken by just 1000 or fewer speakers. the total number of speakers for
these 1742 languages is about 600,000. in other words, 0.0001 (one
hundredth of one percent) of the world's people speak about 28% of the
world's languages. it's a good bet that the vast majority of those
languages have no literary tradition, even if someone has produced an
orthography or a dictionary or a grammar or translations of the
judeo-christian bible or other sacred texts.

for more on the power of print for small language communities, please see:


russ bernard

H. Russell Bernard
Professor of Anthropology
University of Florida

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