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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A linguistic exercise

My favorite linguistics blogger, the Tensor, reports an interesting exercise that was held in one of his classes:
...the professor had us do a little exercise: sit down with a piece of paper and name as many [living] languages as you can.  She mentioned that someone has done a survey of linguistics graduate students and found that they can name something like 70-80 languages off the top of their heads... I was sure I could do better, but given that class time was limited, she couldn't just let us keep writing until we ran out.  So, later that day, I sat down and wrote down as many as I could come up with.  It's surprisingly hard—in particular, I didn't want to write down anything unless I was sure it was a language and not a language family or ethnonym, and that narrowed it down quite a bit... In the end, I was able to come up with 138, including several errors...
So how could I resist such a challenge? In addition to the possibilities that the Tensor mentions — incorrectly listing language families and ethnonyms — there’s also the possibility of incorrectly listing a dialect and calling it a language. For instance, is Galician a language, or is it just a dialect of Portuguese? We know that Flemish is just a dialect of Dutch, but we’re not sure about Galician. Anyway, I was disappointed to fall short of the Tensor’s 138: despite being a former linguist, I could only come up with 106, one of which was not listed as an official language in Ethnologue’s authoritative list of all 6912 living languages: Athabascan must be a language family, not a language. Galician does count, since it is listed as a separate language, not as a dialect of Portuguese. I got a few names slightly wrong, but I’m still including them in my count. (Note that there are 7299 names for these 6912 languages.) Anyway, I’m not so impressed with myself, coming up with less than 2% of the world’s languages.

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