New atlas of world languages

In Japan, people think it rude to say “you” — but in India there are six different ways to address a person. And if you need to find out which countries take tea, and which prefer a cup of cha, the world’s first atlas about the composition of languages should be able to help.

In a world where globalisation leads to the death of one language every fortnight, it is hoped that the ‘World Atlas of Language Structures’ will help to revive a wilting interest in linguistics.

German linguists have spent five years compiling the book, working with 40 language experts specialising in languages ranging from Chinese to those spoken by only 100 adults. Roland Kriessling, a linguist specialising in African languages, said: “In Namibia, there are many languages which sound completely bizarre to the western ear.

“!Xoop, for example, has different clicking sounds, including the tut, the horse’s hoof sound and the kiss. The phonetic complexity of !Xoop could put it into the Guinness Book of Records.”

The atlas contains details of about 2,600 languages, where they prevail, and how they are used. And, with grammar still a hot linguistic topic, it includes a map of sentence structures around the world. Readers can also discover which languages are rich in vocabulary, and which use restricted terminology. In American-Indian, for example, there is no distinction between the arm and the hand. Michael Cysouw, one of the atlas’s authors, told the Guardian:

“If you ask the average man how many languages are in the world, he will probably say a couple of hundred. In fact there are 7,000.’’ Despite highlighting the range of languages spoken throughout the world, the atlas does not explain why language evolved in different ways. “The atlas draws together information about languages, but its purpose is not to draw conclusions,” Dr Cysouw said. “It invites people to investigate what lies behind the linguistics.”