Minding Our Languages

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Simon Davis writes:

I received your excellent original QI dvd game for Christmas and; while enjoying it immensely, I noticed that the answer to one of the questions, namely "what is the 3rd most common language?" was given as Spanish. Now according to a book I have in front of me called "The Meaning of Tingo" by Adam Jacot de Boinod who it says in the foreword was a researcher on the tv programme QI, the answer should be Hindi...

An Elf replies:

Adam Jacot de Boinod was indeed a researcher on the first series of QI. In fact, The Meaning of Tingo was inspired by a section of the original QI Database and by work he did on the Albanian language for the programme.

The question of how many people 'speak' any of the world's languages is not as easy to answer as you might think. To what degree of competency do they speak it, for a start? Are they native speakers? Is it their (fluent) second language? Or do they merely dabble in it?

If the latter, I would guess there's a very good case for English (rather than the usual answer, Chinese) being the world's most commonly spoken language, since surely almost everyone in the world knows a few words in English such as 'OK', 'Hello' and 'Coca-Cola' (from movies and advertising & marketing etc), but almost no one except the Chinese knows any Chinese words at all. English in some form, incidentally, is spoken in well over half the countries of the world.

It's an interesting sub-question - what is the most widely-spoken (or widely-known) word in the world?

But, to the point. Based on numerous academic sources we at QI Central think the best general compromise answer for the world's third commonest language is Spanish, and we stand by the statement in our DVD.

The next best candidate for the world's third commonest language is English, and we also like the left-field suggestion offered by WikiAnswers Sign Language. (We did some research on this for Deafness in the QI 'D' Series and we think there's a good case to answer there).

Hindustani or Hindi, by comparison, is of course one of the world's major languages - certainly up there in the top ten in anybody's list, but, though we can find sources that claim it as the 2nd (3 sources), 4th (2 sources), 5th (2 sources) and 6th (1 source) most commonly spoken language, we cannot find one single example which cites Hindi as the world's third most common language.

That's not to say that one of our eagle-eyed viewers will not be able to find one...

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Regarding Sign Language, (and as the ever helpful Book of General Ignorance also points out) it is not essentially the same the world over. The American and British Sign Langauages are mutually unintelligible, where as Africa alone has twenty five different types.
(A handy list is here:

Sign Languges are probably best classified in the same bin as language families like the Romantic Languages, Indo-Iranic, Indo-European etc, and not a who;e language in themselves

My understanding is that the spoken languages of China are quite distinct and are generally not referred to as "Chinese" by native speakers. Mandarin is the official language and is spoken by the majority of mainland Chinese people. But there are many other languages that can't simply be called dialects of "Chinese".

A number of other langauges including Cantonese are so dissimiliar from Mandarin that it would be comparable to my claiming to speak Germanic or Romance languages because of my fluency in English and French.

In response to Mr Anelf's side question of the best-known word in the world, my proposal would be the word 'okay' or 'OK'. I'd welcome any alternative suggestions.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a fascinating description of the word's origins viz. 1839, only survivor of a slang fad in Boston and New York c.1838-9 for abbreviations of common phrases with deliberate, jocular misspellings (cf. K.G. for "no go", as if spelled "know go"); in this case, "oll korrect".

Sign Languages are definitely in the same class as language families as signs/grammar, etc. vary greatly not only from country to country, but also from city to city. (I have learned 3 "English" sign languages (US,UK, Austalian) as well as Japanese Sign Language. )

As for Chinese, there are definitely different dialects of Chinese, however, the analogy with English and French mentioned above is not entirely correct.
Firstly, most sources talking about the "most spoken languages" mean Mandarin when saying "Chinese", as the distinction is not so apparent to everyone. Furthermore, most Chinese people will learn Mandarin Chinese as a matter of course, particularly in the Mainland. When "Chinese" is exported overseas, it is almost invariably in the form of Mandarin as it is the official language of China. Singapore went so far as to ban the use of dialects (including Cantonese) in all official broadcasts.

Also, the sound systems and grammar of the Chinese languages (they can for the most part all be written with the same writing system) means that they are far more mutually intelligible than English/German or French/the other romance languages (Romanian, Portugese, Spanish and Italian)

I remember reading somewhere a couple of years back that the best-known word in the world was "taxi", on the basis that it had been incorporated (phonetically at least) into virtually every language in the world - although I am sure there a number of tribal languages who have no use for taxis, and therefore have no word for them. Whether this really counts as a word rather than a number of homophones is, of course, a question in its own right...

while no one has been able to definitively identify the entymology of the word ok/okay,
i've always liked the theory that it is an americanisation of the (immigrant)scots phrase och aye. not only does it seem reasonable that non-scots would have trouble pronouncing the work 'och' (eg loch becoming lock), but the two have a virtually identical usage.

to me, this make much more sense than "oll korrect" which sounds really tenuous (and who says kg?).

Here is a URL that gives Hindi as the third most common language:


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This page contains a single entry by eggshaped published on February 17, 2009 7:13 PM.

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