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Popularity of Languages

     The latest of the splendid maps put out by the National Geographic is "Voices of the World." It shows in great detail the present status of the world's languages. In addition to the main map and two smaller ones, there is a table of the top ten languages by numbers of speakers.
     Mandarin Chinese, with 805 million speakers, dwarfs the others. English, with 322, comes second (if those speaking it as a secondary language were included, it would be much higher). Spanish (266) and Portuguese (170) come third and sixth. In other words, these two languages together have more speakers than English, and because of population growth the gap will widen. French is not even among the top ten. Japanese comes in eighth, German ninth.
     In addition to quantity, there is quality. While English has the largest vocabulary, Castilian impresses me by its clarity and beauty, whereas when I turn on our TV I am distressed by the diction of almost everything I hear as though people did not care. It is strange that, while in English, "er," "um", "ugh", and "you know" dot the linguistic landscape, Spanish-speakers do not need such props.
     Probably the coldest night I have spent was close to the Equator, in the railway hotel close to the foot of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, once thought to be the highest in the world. The highland Indians speak, in addition to their language, a beautiful Spanish. This was illustrated when Spanish TV recently interviewed them. An important factor is altitude. The Spanish spoken in lowland countries like Venezuela and Cuba is gross in comparison.
     Then there is history. Spanish developed from Latin, which had been polished by writers like Virgil and orators like Cicero. Its birthplace was La Bureba, northeast of Burgos, where it was influenced by Basque, to whose sonorous quality Roman writers testified. The Catholic Church, with its cult of oratory, promoted eloquence. Latin American Spanish has less swearwords than Spanish Spanish, reportedly because it was taught by the friars.
     Oratory survives. Crazy Fidel Castro just gave another five-hour speech, and the crowd did not object. Habla bonito, say the Cubans; he speaks a pretty Spanish. Here again, history is a factor. In nineteenth-century America, speeches of two hours or more were common, and eloquence was appreciated. We now live in the age of the sound bite.
     But listen to the younger generation of Spanish speakers. Their Spanish is as slovenly as the English of the new American generation. It is a culture change with deep implications. There is, alas, little we can do about it. In any case, we don't try much.

Ronald Hilton - 08/07/99