Lost in translation

Ask an English person how many European languages they speak, and they’ll probably say none. It will be a genuine answer too, not a political statement*.

According to Ethnologue there are some 2,700 languages that have 10,000 or more first-language speakers, with just 5 languages covering 1 in 3 of the world’s population. Using 1999 data we get this concentration curve:

There are another 4,000ish languages spoken by less than 10,000 people, to make a total of nearly 7,000.

Imagine there are only 10,000 people you can communicate with. How many will be within +/- 5 years of you? (For reference, I calculate that 987 is the average secondary school size in England.) What are the chances that most of this cohort can be matched up between each other so that everyone has an ideal life partner. Pretty slim. There are plenty of other issues with scale too.

As half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear this century, this type of inefficiency should fade away. But are there any downsides to a langauge going extinct? Some content would be lost, but it could quickly be replaced. Take Wales for example. I’m sure there is plenty of worthy cultural stuff that has been generated there in the past 1,000 years (though I only find something in English), but as Wales only represents 0.04% of the world’s population we can imagine that an equivalent corpus of works could be created in half a year in a global language being used by everyone. Not to pick too much on Wales, they just often seem to be chosen for comparisons, especially by More or Less.

The utility of a language is in the fact that the sender can encode his thought into a common medium/protocol for the recipient. If fewer and fewer people are using a particular protocol then it will fade away, and resources should not be spent trying to save it. Forcing children to learn a dying language to maintain its existence uses up time that could have been spent learning other subjects, putting those children at a disadvantage to other ethnic groups, ceteris paribus. Indeed, there are probably people in Wales who didn’t get taught essential physics like what happens if you drop a ball down a hole drilled from one side of the earth to the other. Mae eu colled.

Related posts:

How many words do you know?

*Another interesting question to ask is are you English or European. If in the same way you asked Germans,”are you German or European?” and so on across the continent, can you guess which population are most likely to say European? And which are least likely? Finland and England. I don’t think I need to clarify which way round it is…

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2 Responses to Lost in translation

  1. Angela says:

    Excellent idea about super efficient travel to the opposite side of the earth. My main concern woul be how to deal with the molten core, once you reach it? Would it need to be removed? I doubt this would have a positive effect in the general functioning of the earth… Hmmm are we to assume that the tunnel would go right through? Wouldn’t it be a trifle warm adding through? Better get some good cooling units installed. The link says you’d end up oscillating between the two ends of the tunnel forever. How would you counteract this problem? I recommend getting some quotes from some good engineering companies.

  2. Pingback: Bless you « Marc Gawley

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