An idea for a story came to me during a conversation with my wife yesterday. The story would have been a whimsical one in which a young boy dreams of becoming fluent in every human language and, by working hard, achieves his dream. But, generally, I do not write even whimsical stories without exploring, at least to some extent, the degree to which such whimsy is within the realm of possibility. So, when I came to realize that by one estimate, 6,909 languages are spoken worldwide, I decided the plausibility of the kid’s dream was outside the dimension of reality. Maybe, I thought to myself, I’ll one day change the dream to something more achievable and write that story. But my exploration into the number of languages spoken worldwide and the maximum number spoken by one person captured my interest and imagination.

During my little foray into linguistic research, I learned that Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most popular language, with one billion, two hundred-thirteen million speakers. I learned that a Canadian man named Powell Janulus was entered into the Guiness World Records in 1985 as the person with fluency in the most languages, having tested as fluent in forty-two languages. He is alive today (aged seventy-seven); he was forty-six when he entered the record books.  At one point, he considered himself a skilled speaker of sixty-four languages. There’s a story in that man; maybe it’s been written.

During my research I learned that, of the total number of languages spoken world-wide, around two thousand languages have fewer than one thousand speakers each. Further, I came to realize that languages and dialects within languages make difficult the task of pinning down the precise number of languages spoken. And, of course, because languages change over time, the language of one period may be vastly different from the same language in a different period. Consider, for example, a conversation between Chaucer and George Washington and George Clooney; would it be a conversation, or would every comment by any one of them be simply an utterance unfamiliar to the other two?

So, there you have it. My story idea crashed against reality. But, I have to say, many of my stories ideas are utter lunacy and reality hasn’t prevented their birth, so why does reality get to stop this train today? I don’t know; maybe I just needed an excuse not to write.

[I intended for the title to be “Linguafile” and not “Linguaphile,” in case you were wondering.]

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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