Linguistics Languages of the World
by
William R. Leben
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0076

Introduction

Scholarly work on the languages of the world is aimed in three main directions: genetic classification, typological classification, and documentation. This article focuses on work documenting the language families of the world, how many there are and where they are spoken, by how many speakers, and in what contexts. This article emphasizes work aimed at the scholarly community; however, it also cites authoritative, attractive volumes and websites that target a wider audience. Included as well are a few encyclopedic works on general linguistics whose coverage of the language families of the world is so complete that it would be wrong to omit them. A few surveys aim to cover every language in the world. Other cross-linguistic surveys cover every language in a particular region, while others try for a representative sample of languages from across the globe. Works devoted to a single family or world region are not listed here; these are the subject of other articles in Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics.

Textbooks

Two textbooks in print cover the languages of the world. Pereltsvaig 2012 is the more recent. Lyovin 1997 is somewhat dated, and a second edition with extensive revisions is in preparation. Both books cover the diversity within and across the language families of the world, and both presuppose a modest amount of familiarity with linguistic concepts and terminology. The comparative method and linguistic typology are introduced and illustrated in both texts. Both books include maps plotting languages and language areas, and both end with a chapter on pidgins and creoles. Included in the end matter of both are glossaries of linguistic terms, a bibliography, and separate language and subject indexes. Lyovin 1997 is structured more like a conventional textbook, with exercises and suggested readings at the end of each chapter, but students may find Pereltsvaig 2012 more engaging and easier to read.

  • Lyovin, Anatole V. 1997. An introduction to the languages of the world. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Nearly five hundred pages long; discussion of the world’s languages is organized geographically by continent. The coverage of languages and language families is more comprehensive than in Pereltsvaig 2012, though even in Lyovin lesser families and languages receive only cursory treatment. Each chapter ends with highly detailed linguistic sketches of one or two important languages.

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    • Pereltsvaig, Asya. 2012. Languages of the world: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139026178Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Discussion of the world’s languages is organized geolinguistically by major linguistic area. Coverage of languages and language families is more selective and less comprehensive than in Lyovin 1997, but it includes more detailed discussion of topical issues such as the Nostratic and Eurasiatic hypotheses and the Pirahã controversy; 278 pp.

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      Languages, Language Families, and Their Locations

      The works in this section offer comprehensive listings of the languages of the world by genetic affiliation and all come with extensive bibliographies. Lewis 2009, the sixteenth edition of Ethnologue, is the single most comprehensive classification of the world’s languages. It is updated every few years and includes recent data on numbers and locations of speakers. It is available in both print and online versions. A more recent online catalogue of the world’s languages is Glottolog, from Hammarström, et al. 2014. The two sources have similar aims, but Glottolog’s focus is lesser known languages. To a considerable extent, Glottolog presents itself as an alternative to Ethnologue; for example, it shuns the ISO codes in Ethnologue, and pointedly develops a new set of unique codes to identify dialects, languages, and famiiles. Yet a third database is Multitree, with the primary aim of representing graphically online the various proposals about the genetic classification for each of the world’s languages and listing the relevant literature for each case.

      The three sources above are grouped together in the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC). OLAC’s search engine gives simultaneous access to a total of fifty-five archives for information about languages, language families, and linguistic terms.

      Ruhlen 1991 also offers a complete classification of language families but adds substantial discussion and justification. Klose 2001 focuses solely on the language names. While all of the works in this section offer extensive maps, Moseley and Asher 2007 is a complete language atlas of the world with substantial background information about the major language families. Dalby 1999–2000 offers an alternative kind of classification based on both lexicon and geography. The website MultiTree describes itself as “a digital library of scholarly hypotheses about language relationships and subgroupings.” Each level of its hierarchical listing of the world’s language families and their member groups and individual languages includes bibliographical information about the groupings and individual languages.

      • Dalby, David, ed. 1999–2000. Linguasphere: Register of the world’s languages and speech communities. 2 vols. Hebron, UK: Linguasphere.

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        An ambitious, highly novel approach to language classification based mainly on lexical and geographic characteristics. Along the way the book lists essentially all of the world’s languages, including many alternate language names and ethnic names. The total number of names listed surpasses 70,000.

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        • Hammarström, Harald, Robert Forkel, Martin Haspelmath, and Sebastian Nordhoff, 2014. Glottolog 2.3. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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          The database’s 7,870 entries comprise language families, languages, and dialects, each of them plotted on a map. The list is not exhaustive, with more attention paid to lesser-known languages. The bibliography has nearly 200,000 entries.

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          • Klose, Albrecht. 2001. Sprachen der Welt: Ein weltweiter Index der Sprachfamilien, Einzelsprachen und Dialekte, mit Angabe der Synonyma und fremdsprachigen Äquivalente. 2d ed. Munich: K. G. Saur.

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            An alphabetical, cross-referenced list of more than twenty-five thousand names for languages of the world and their dialects plus bibliographical information about the languages.

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            • Lewis, M. Paul, ed. 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 16th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics International.

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              Included is an index of 41,186 names for the 7,413 languages in current use and a bibliography with 25,000 citations. Regular updating helps keep the classification current.

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              • Moseley, Christopher, and R. E. Asher, eds. 2007. Atlas of the world’s languages. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

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                Contains more than 150 color maps locating each of the world’s known languages plus a cross-referenced index listing each language. Each of ten chapters devoted to a world area begins with a compact, fact-filled historical, typological, and, to some extent, sociolinguistic account by acknowledged experts.

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                • MultiTree: A digital library of language relationships. 2013. Ypsilanti, MI: Institute for Language Information and Technology.

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                  Uses the web’s interactive properties to display and constantly update content. The dazzling graphical arrangement of languages in the tree structure is a worthy pedagogical tool.

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                  • Open Language Archives Community.

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                    A set of fifty-five language archives from around the world, including the major online databases of the languages of the world, the catalogue of the Linguistic Data Consortium and archives for many individual language families and groups. One can search all of these archives simultaneously using OLAC’s search engine online.

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                    • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1991. A guide to the world’s languages. Vol. 1, Classification, with a postscript on recent developments. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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                      The postscript is added to the 1987 edition, which is otherwise unchanged. The preface mentions a plan for two more volumes, one with linguistic and identifying data for a broad sample of languages and another on typological patterns, but currently Volume 1 remains the only one published.

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                      Reference Works

                      Most of these sources capture linguistic diversity in detail through an overview of the syntax, morphology, and phonology of a sampling of the world’s languages. The most useful is Haspelmath, et al. 2005. Meillet and Cohen 1981 fits an enormous amount of detail into one comprehensive volume, but the information can be hard to track down. Brown and Ogilvie 2009 covers 377 relevant topics, but the information on language classification is slightly out of date. Frawley 2003, an encyclopedia of general linguistics, includes prodigious content on the languages of the world. The ten Surrey Morphology Group Databases cover morphological phenomena in language samples of varying sizes.

                      • Brown, Keith, and Sarah Ogilvie, eds. 2009. Concise encyclopedia of languages of the world. Oxford: Elsevier.

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                        Includes 377 topics organized alphabetically in a 1,320-page single volume. Content is from the fourteen-volume Keith Brown, ed., Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (Oxford: Elsevier, 1994; 2d ed., 2006). The information on membership in language families has not been updated since the 1994 edition.

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                        • Dryer, Matthew S., and Martin Haspelmath. 2013. WALS Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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                          The online, periodically updated version of Haspelmath, et al. 2005. The online version corrects some errors and adds some new chapters and linguistic examples of the topics described.

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                          • Frawley, William J., ed. 2003. International encyclopedia of linguistics. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                            Four volumes on general linguistics. Among the entries are extensive descriptions of major languages and language families with ample bibliographical references. A revised and expanded version of the 1992 edition edited by William Bright.

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                            • Haspelmath, M., M. S. Dryer, D. Gil, and B. Comrie. 2005. The world atlas of language structures. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                              A database of 142 diverse linguistic features—syntactic, lexical, and phonological—as represented in the languages of the world, compiled by experts in the field from existing descriptions, accompanied by maps indicating the locations of languages.

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                              • Meillet, Antoine, and Marcel Cohen, eds. 1981. Les langues du monde. 2 vols. Rev. ed. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine.

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                                Includes 1,294 pages of text plus twenty-one maps covering the known past and present languages of the world. Language description, typology, and classification have advanced vastly since this book appeared. But outdated or not, this most ambitious of volumes for its time offers literally a world of information on the world’s languages—their linguistic structures and their relation to other languages. Originally published in 1952.

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                                • Surrey Morphology Group Databases.

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                                  Cross-linguistic database of ten morphological phenomena in genetically and geographically diverse language samples that typically number in the dozens.

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                                  Collections with Detailed Coverage

                                  These collections cover a large number and wide variety of languages by devoting a few pages to each. They differ primarily in the number of languages or groups covered and in the amount of space allotted to each. Comrie 2011 has fifty substantial chapters on major languages and language groups, each by a specialist. At the other end of the spectrum is Garry and Rubino 2001 with 370 chapters, each on a different language. Campbell and King 2011 also covers a large number of languages briefly but adds cultural and historical information for each.

                                  • Campbell, George L., and Gareth King. 2011. The Routledge concise compendium of the world’s languages. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

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                                    A single 912-page volume of more than one hundred chapters, each describing the linguistic structure of a major world language as well as its cultural and historical background.

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                                    • Comrie, Bernard, ed. 2011. The world’s major languages. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

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                                      Each chapter offers a historical background and a survey of noteworthy details of phonology, morphology, and lexicon for the subject of each chapter. About half the chapters deal with Indo-European languages. The rest of the collection covers most parts of the world, except for the total absence of the indigenous languages of the Americas.

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                                      • Garry, Jane, and Carl Rubino, eds. 2001. Facts about the world’s languages: An encyclopedia of the world’s major languages, past and present. New York: Wilson.

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                                        A book of 896 pages with chapters on each of more than 370 major languages of the world.

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                                        Collections with Brief Coverage

                                        The books in this section cover a large number and wide variety of languages by devoting a few lines or paragraphs to each. Dalby 1998 and Katzner 2006 are very similar in organization. The main distinguishing feature of Katzner 2006 is a paragraph on the writing system of each language covered, while Dalby 1998 has two hundred maps and uses charts to good avail in describing linguistic structure. The language descriptions in Gunnemark 1991 are even more superficial than those in the other books.

                                        • Dalby, Andrew. 1998. Dictionary of languages: The definitive reference to more than 400 languages. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                          Seven hundred pages on four hundred languages, thus not really definitive.

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                                          • Gunnemark, Erik V. 1991. Countries, peoples, and their languages: The geolinguistic handbook. Stockholm: Gothenburg.

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                                            The barest essentials of about three hundred languages listed in a chapter organized country by country, and in another chapter organized language by language, plus chapters offering cursory overviews of languages in a geographic context.

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                                            • Katzner, Kenneth. 2006. The languages of the world. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

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                                              Two hundred languages described in a paragraph or two with an accompanying text printed in the writing system of the language and translated into English. First published in 1975.

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                                              Bibliographies

                                              Bibliographies of the world’s languages were already mentioned several times in other sections. Of these, the largest is Langdoc, a component of Glottolog (see Hammarström, et al. 2014, cited under Languages, Language Families, and Their Locations) with nearly 200,000 entries and whose particular strength is the lesser known languages, for which references are probably the scarcest in other bibliographies. Works that take the languages of the world as their topic are surveyed in Daniels 1998. The subject matter of the remaining two references cited here is far wider than the languages of the world, but both are fruitful enough sources for our particular topic. Van Sterkenburg 1939– is useful for finding individual works, and DeMiller 2000 is helpful in finding bibliographies, periodicals, electronic databases, and websites.

                                              • Daniels, Peter T. 1998. Surveys of languages of the world. In The life of language: Papers in linguistics in honor of William Bright. Edited by Jane H. Hill, P. J. Mistry, and Lyle Campbell, 193–219. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

                                                DOI: 10.1515/9783110811155Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                A very thorough survey of articles and books on the languages of the world written between the second half of the 19th century and the time of publication. Included is a running commentary on the nature and limitations of the works cited and their place in the history of writing about the languages of the world.

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                                                • DeMiller, Anna L. 2000. Linguistics: A guide to the reference literature. Reference Sources in the Humanities. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

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                                                  Bibliography of bibliographies, periodicals, electronic databases, and websites in linguistics. Includes references devoted to the languages of the world.

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                                                  • Langdoc.

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                                                    Contains 194,261 entries as of this writing on the bibliographical component of Glottolog (see Hammarström, et al. 2014, cited under Languages, Language Families, and Their Locations).

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                                                    • van Sterkenburg, P. G. J., ed. 1939–. Linguistic bibliography. New York: Springer.

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                                                      Publishing annual volumes since 1950. A bibliographical source for general linguistics but includes exhaustive, constantly updated bibliographic references on the languages of the world among all the other topics it covers. The online version has records going back to 1993. Access online by subscription.

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                                                      Book Series

                                                      Two publishers have a series of nearly two dozen monographs on major language groups and language subareas of the world. One such series is the Routledge Language Family series, whose first volume came out in 1988; the twenty-first volume appeared in 2014. The other is Cambridge Language Surveys from Cambridge University Press, with a total of twenty volumes to date. An older but noteworthy series published between 1963 and 1976, Current Trends in Linguistics (Sebeok 1963–1976) is a fourteen-volume set on general linguistics. Taken together, they cover the language families of essentially all of the world’s regions except for western Europe and South America.

                                                      • Cambridge language surveys. 1998–. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                        Regions covered by individual monographs include Australia, the Andes, native North America, and the former Soviet Union. Other monograph titles cover Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Korean, Chinese, sign languages, and pidgins and creoles.

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                                                        • Routledge language family series. 1988–. Oxford: Routledge.

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                                                          Eight of the monographs cover Indo-European or branches within Indo-European. The rest deal with areas of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.

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                                                          • Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. 1963–1976. Current trends in linguistics. 14 vols. The Hague: Mouton.

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                                                            Individual volumes are devoted to Afro-Asiatic, sub-Saharan Africa, Southwest Asia and North Africa (together in one volume), the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, East Asia and Southeast Asia, South Asia, Oceania, North America, and Ibero-American and Caribbean languages.

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                                                            Articles and Short Books

                                                            Authoritative articles and short monographs that do justice to this vast subject are next to impossible to find. Anderson 2012 and Comrie 2001 are two that motivate the qualifier “almost.”

                                                            • Anderson, Stephen R. 2012. Languages: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                                              DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199590599.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              Introductory-level but nonsimplistic survey of variety, unity, and changes over time among the languages of the world. Easy-to-follow answers to many basic questions that may whet the beginner’s appetite for further study.

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                                                              • Comrie, Bernard. 2001. Languages of the world. In The handbook of linguistics. Edited by Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller, 19–42. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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                                                                A highly readable and surprisingly comprehensive survey of the world’s languages in article form.

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                                                                Maps

                                                                For an atlas mapping the languages of the world, see the reference to Moseley and Asher 2007, cited under Languages, Language Families, and Their Locations. The map sets below are designed specifically to pinpoint the locations of the world’s languages. World Language Mapping System is a fully achieved product in CD-ROM format, while LL-MAP: Language and Location is a web-based work in progress.

                                                                Highly Illustrated Popular Works

                                                                The two entries on this list are aimed at a wider public interested in an overview of the languages of the world. Neither assumes a knowledge of linguistics. That said, both are worth reading by anyone looking for a broad survey of languages by world area with very brief comments on the most noteworthy aspects of some representative languages. Austin 2008 and Comrie, et al. 2003 are similar in length and format, with attractive photographs and charts on each page. Austin 2008 offers slightly more content on individual languages, while Comrie, et al. 2003 dedicates more space to pidgins and creoles and writing systems.

                                                                • Austin, Peter K., ed. 2008. One thousand languages: Living, endangered, and lost. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                  Of the eleven chapters, nine group the languages by world region, and the two remaining ones deal with endangered and extinct languages. The book does not literally cover a thousand languages individually, but about one hundred languages make it into the index.

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                                                                  • Comrie, Bernard, Stephen Matthews, and Maria Polinsky. 2003. The atlas of languages: The origin and development of languages throughout the world. Rev. ed. Facts On File Library of Language and Literature. London: Quarto.

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                                                                    This volume is organized by world area, with added chapters on pidgins and creoles and on writing systems, plus an epilogue about efforts to revive endangered languages. The treatment of individual languages and language groups, though cursory, gives a good feel for the degree of variety among the languages of the world, along with a general impression of the people who speak them.

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                                                                    Beyond Linguistic Description

                                                                    The two works in this section offer a different perspective on the diversity of the world’s languages by examining language spread from an outside reference point. Manguel 1997 traces the development of reading across the world, while Ostler 2005 uses world history as a backdrop for situating the language families of the world and the past and present members.

                                                                    • Manguel, Alberto. 1997. A history of reading. London: Flamingo.

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                                                                      Survey of the development of reading across the languages of the world, from the development of writing in ancient Sumeria to the present day.

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                                                                      • Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the word: A language history of the world. New York: HarperCollins.

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                                                                        Retraces the spread of the world’s major languages from about 3000 BCE to the present.

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