National Geographic : 1943 Dec
The World's Words BY WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS "Therefore is the name of it called Babel: because the Lord did there confound the lan guage of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."-Genesis XI: 9. S CHOLARS of the French Academy reckon that the world today speaks 2,796 languages. Out of this Babel of tongues have grown a few mighty empires of speech. War, coloni zation, commerce, exploration, science, litera ture-all have had a share in their vast spread. With this issue of their Magazine, members of the National Geographic Society receive a new map supplement of the world.* Based on the Van der Grinten projection, this 10 color chart, 41 inches by 26>2 inches, presents a unified picture of our planet. Look at this map and see how the geography of languages looms up in a world where travel is measured in airplane hours and words speed instantly by telephone and radio. The following table, based on figures com piled by the Office of War Information since the United States declared war, shows the numbers of people who speak the principal languages: English .. 260,000,000 Japanese ... 76,000,000 Hindustani 160,000,000 French .... 70,000,000 Russian ... 145,000,000 Bengali .... 62,000,000 Spanish ... 115,000,000 Italian ..... 52,800,000 German ... 98,000,000 Portuguese. .50,000,000 About 400 million people speak the nine principal Chinese dialects, some of which are not as much alike as Dutch and English. Most widely used of all the dialects is Mandarin, speech of the official classes under the old Empire. About two-thirds of the Chinese now understand Mandarin, used as a secondary tongue, although they retain their own dialects for local use. Written Chinese is the same in all parts of the nation, but only about 20 percent of the Chinese can read and write. If the table above were to show the numbers of people for whom the languages are the mother tongue, it would require radical re vision. For example, in the United States census of 1940, only 93 million of the white population claimed English as the mother ton gue. Some 22 million citizens of the United States originally spoke a different language. In India the discrepancy would be even more glaring. Hindustani is the mother tongue for only 50 percent of the Indians who can speak that language. Moslem Hindustani is known as Urdu and is written in the Arabic alphabet. Throughout northern India, usage of Hindustani is spreading widely as the re sult of improved communications. About twenty major languages are spoken in that huge land of 400 million people.t Dravidian tongues in the south have no rela tion to northern dialects. Although only two Indians out of 100 read and write English, it is the unifying language because it is spoken by educated Indians, no matter in what section of the country they may live. English the Newest Language Empire The only speech spread over the world is English. The map on pages 696-7 shows how it blankets the globe. Principal strongholds are the United States, the British Isles, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. English also is the government lan guage for nearly 700 million people-one-third of the world's population. Long pre-eminent as the language of commerce, it now has suc ceeded French as the language of diplomacy and German as the language of science. English is the most widely read language. Three-fourths of the world's letters are writ ten, and half its newspapers printed, in Eng lish. Announcers for three-fifths of the earth's radio stations broadcast in English. Our language has migrated over the globe in less than four centuries. As recently as 1562 an English grammarian wrote: "The English tongue is of small reach, stretching no farther than this island of ours, nay not there over all." At that time English was spoken by less than five million people and stood fifth among the European languages. French was first. As late as 1750, English still was fifth. English started its spectacular growth in the era of exploration and colonization. Such pio neers as Hendrik Hudson, John Cabot, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Captain John Cook led the way. In their wake came British traders, who made English the seaport language of the world. * Members may obtain additional copies of the new Map of the World by writing the National Geographic Society, Washington 6, D. C. Prices, in United States and Possessions, 50 on paper (folded or rolled); $1 on linen (rolled only); Index, 25¢. Outside of United States and Possessions, 75¢ on paper; $1.25 on linen (postal regulations generally prohibit mailing linen except in Western Hemisphere) ; Index 50¢. All remittances payable in U. S. funds. Postage prepaid. t See "India-Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," by Lord Halifax in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, October, 1943.