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A world language is a language spoken internationally, which is learned by many people as a second language. A world language is not only characterized by the number of its speakers (native or second language speakers), but also by its geographical distribution, and its use in international organizations and in diplomatic relations.[1][2] In this respect, major world languages are dominated by languages of European origin.

The historical reason for this is the period of European colonialism. World languages originating with historical colonial empires include English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. The international prominence of Arabic has its historical reason in the medieval Islamic conquests and the subsequent Arabization of the Middle East, and also exists as a liturgical language amongst Muslim communities outside of the Arab World. Standard Mandarin is the direct replacement of Classical Chinese which was an important historical lingua franca in Far East Asia until the early 20th century, and today serves the function of providing a common spoken language between speakers of different and mutually unintelligible Chinese spoken languages not only within China proper (between the Han Chinese and other unrelated ethnic groups), but in overseas Chinese communities as well as being widely taught as a second language internationally. Russian was used in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, and today is in use and widely understood in areas of Central and Eastern Europe, and Northern and Central Asia which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or of the former Soviet bloc, and it remains the lingua franca in the Commonwealth of Independent States. German served as a lingua franca in large portions of Europe for centuries, mainly the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It remains an important second language in much of Central and Eastern Europe, and in the international scientific community.

Other major languages are not widely used across several continents, but have had an international significance as the lingua franca of a historical empire. These include Greek in the Hellenistic world after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and in the territories of the Byzantine Empire; Latin in the Roman Empire and previously as the standard liturgical language for the Catholic faithful worldwide; Classical Chinese in East Asia during the Imperial era of Chinese history; Persian (or "Farsi", as it is known in the Persian language) during ancient and medieval incarnations of various succeeding Persian Empires, and once served as the second lingua franca of the Islamic World after Arabic[3]; Sanskrit during the ancient and medieval historical periods of various states in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and like Latin an important liturgical language of the Vedic religions; and Hindi following the British Raj which united and subsequently founded the present-day republic of the Union of India .

The major languages of the Indian subcontinent have numbers of speakers comparable to those of major world languages primarily due to the extreme population growth in the region in recent decades rather than a supra-regional use of these languages, although Hindustani (including all Hindi dialects and Urdu) and to a lesser extent Tamil may fulfill the criteria in terms of supra-regional usage and international recognition.

As an example, the native speaking population of Bengali vastly outnumber those who speak French as a first language, and it is one of the most spoken languages (ranking fifth[4] or sixth[5]) in the world with nearly 230 million total speakers, and is known for its long and rich literary tradition. However, while French is spoken intercontinentally, is internationally recognized to be of high linguistic prestige and used as a diplomatic language and international commerce, as well as having a significant portion of second language speakers throughout the world, the overwhelming majority of Bengali speakers are native Bengali people, with little to no influence outside of its regionally limited sprachraum or language space.



Historical world languages include Babylonian Akkadian, Old Aramaic, Koine Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Russian.[6]

The Romance languages bear testimony to the role of Latin as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. Koine Greek was the "world language" of the Hellenistic period, but its distribution is not reflected in the distribution of Modern Greek due to the linguistic impact of the Slavic, Arabic and Turkic expansions. The distribution of the Turkic languages, in turn, are a legacy of the Turkic Khaganate.

Just as all the living world languages owe their status to historical imperialism, the suggestion of a given language as a world language or "universal language" has strong political implications. Thus, Russian was declared the "world language of internationalism" in Soviet literature, which at the same time denounced French as the "language of fancy courtiers" and English as the "jargon of traders".[7] A number of international auxiliary languages have been introduced as prospective world languages, the most successful of them being Esperanto, but none of them can claim the status of a living world language. Many natural languages have been proffered as candidates for a global lingua franca, including Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, German and Malay.[8]

Living world languages

Some sources define a living world language as having the following properties:

World languages in the strictest sense are:[9][10][11]

Language Native speakers[12] Total speakers Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
English 328 M 1800 M[13][14] Anglosphere Anglospeak.svg
Spanish (Castilian) 329 M 495M[15] Hispanophere Map-Hispanophone World.png
Russian 144 M 275 M Russophone RussianLanguageMap.png
Portuguese 178 M 230 M[16] Lusosphere Map-Lusophone World-en.png
French 68 M 200 M[17] Francophonie New-Map-Francophone World.PNG

Other sources denote the following languages as world languages, whilst stricter sources list them as supra-regional languages:[18]

Language Native speakers[19] Total speakers Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
Chinese 845 M 1345 M [20] Sinosphere Map-Sinophone World.png
Arabic 221 M 325 M[21] Arab world

Arabic Language.PNG

German 90 M 180 M German-speaking Europe DeutschsprachigeWelt.png
Dutch and Afrikaans 27 M 45 M Dutch-speaking world Map Dutch World scris.png

Other supra-regional languages

Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:

Language Native speakers[22] Total speakers Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu) 460 M 650 M[23] Indian subcontinent (Hindi belt, Pakistan) Map-Hindustani World.png
Malay and Indonesian 60 M 176 M - 250 M Malay Archipelago Maylay Language Map.svg
Persian 70 M 144 M Greater Iran Persian Language Location Map1.png
Tamil 68 M 77 M South India, Sri Lanka and Singapore No map
Italian 60 M 70 M Italy and adjacent regions Map Italophone World - updated.png
Swahili 5-10 M 50+ M East Africa Maeneo penye wasemaji wa Kiswahili.png

Two languages with a number of speakers in excess of 100 million, Japanese and Bengali, are not listed. Although considered to be some of the most internationally significant languages along with the listed world languages[24], they are not considered world languages per se - Japan for example is ethnically, culturally and linguistically homogenous, thus Japanese does not have a history of usage as a lingua franca amongst communities who do not share a mother tongue or first language; their overseas communities are strongly tied to ethnicity; Bengali is not as widely taught as a foreign language as Japanese, where international interest since the 1980's have prompted many major universities as well as a number of secondary and even primary schools worldwide to offer courses in the language; and at least in the present, these languages exert a regionally limited sphere of influence;[25]).


  1. ^ Fischer Verlag Weltalmanach [1]
  2. ^ Baker & Jones Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education
  3. ^ Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, HarperCollins,Published 2003
  4. ^ "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue. 2005. Retrieved 2007-03-03.  
  5. ^ "Languages Spoken by More Than 10 Million People". Microsoft Encarta 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-18.  
  6. ^ Fischer Verlag Weltalmanach [2]
  7. ^ Pei, p. 105
  8. ^ Pei p. 105
  9. ^ Fischer Verlag Weltalmanach [3]
  10. ^ Ulrich Ammon Status and function of languages and language varieties
  11. ^ Ali Mazrui A world federation of cultures: an African perspective
  12. ^
  13. ^ [4]
  14. ^ [[
  15. ^
  16. ^ Instituto Internacional da Língua Portuguesa
  17. ^ [ Francophonie
  18. ^ Baker & Jones Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education
  19. ^
  20. ^ [5]
  21. ^ Ethnologue (1999)
  22. ^
  23. ^ figures are based on the 1991 census of India. They are highly unreliable due to the huge population growth in the area.
  24. ^ [6]
  25. ^ c.f. Pei p. 15

See also


  • Christian Mair (ed.), The Politics of English As a World Language (2003), ISBN 9042008768.
  • Mario Pei, One Language for the World (1958), ISBN 0819602183.
  • Anne-Marie De Mejía, Power, Prestige, and Bilingualism: International Perspectives on Elite Bilingual Education (2002), ISBN 185359590X.
  • David Crystal, English as a Global Language (2003), ISBN 0521530326.
  • Clare Mar-Molinero, The Politics of Language in the Spanish-speaking World (2000), ISBN 0415156556.

External links



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