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Unwritten languages?

According to ethnologue, there are around 7099 languages in the world. Obviously though, most of these languages have very small amounts of speaks, with about 2000 of them having less than 1000 speakers. Furthermore, many languages do not have an adopted, standard, written form, such as the latin alphabet for english, or the cyrillic alphabet for ukrainian. Many of the native speakers of these languages are at a large disadvantage in the world today, considering that our global society seems to revolve around record keeping and transactional information. Many of these people are aboriginal or native people who have the unfortunate background of living in a land that has been at sometime subject to colonization, thus the changing of society, leading to the written information hungry world that they live in. Due to both this colonial background, and the nature of the society that we now live in, many people, in a need to become literate, become literate in whatever the language of the majority or the historical colonial language is, such as speaking english in australia, or french in the congo. So, my question is, is light of all the languages that do not have many speakers, or the many languages that do not have actual, adopted, commonly used writing systems, How many languages in the world have no standard written form? Furthermore, how many speakers are there of these languages that do not have writing systems?

May 13, 2017



I may be wrong on this, but I don't think signed languages (BSL, ASL, etc.) have official written forms.

I agree that globalization has led to an increased reliance on writing. I think it's good in some ways, but it's also bad. Everyone has their own way of communicating, and for some people, expressing themselves through certain ways may be very difficult. I hope that as writing becomes more important to our world, people will continue to be aware that everyone has their own way of communicating.


well, i do know that the hawaiians didn't have a written language for most of their history, and it was only when English missionaries came over that they helped to put it on paper. I also know that currently, there are many groups of people that live in the Amazon Rain forest (brazil) that are completely isolated from society and still practice the culture that they used hundreds of years ago. (one such people build amazing huge tree houses, for example, that the community live in because it's so dangerous on the ground) As for these peoples having written languages, i'm not sure, but it seems highly likely that they don't


I found this on ethnologue estimating that upwards of 3233 languages have no writing system (elsewhere on their site you can find 696 specific languages with no writing system).

The answer to your second question depends on a few things. If a language can be partly written using the system of a related language (e.g. Wu written in Chinese characters) but a number of words cannot be written in said system, the number is in the hundreds of millions at least (Wu alone has 80m speakers). But if, as I suspect, you mean how many people speak languages that simply are not written at all, then the answer is much smaller (but still in the millions). Sign languages cannot be written, but they're not really languages in the traditional sense.


Sign languages cannot be written,

I take it that you’ve never heard of Sutton SignWriting? (There’s a block for it in Unicode, U+1D800–U+1DAAF, so if your device has an appropriate typeface and input system, you could type in it.)


There are multiple ways to write sign languages, some of them work for only some languages, some of them work for most of them:

The main problem, if I may call it so, is that none of those writing systems is considered a standard, nor is popular enough to be considered understandable to most sign language users.


Interesting. I work with a deaf mute lady who uses ASL but she writes and texts in simple English, and I'd never seen or heard of writing for sign languages.


A language having a written form is one thing, popularity of that written form among the speakers is another. For example the Piraha language has a written form, but I doubt more than 1% native Piraha speakers can write in Piraha. Many such minority languages were given writing systems by linguists, but for most of their native speakers the language stays as a spoken-only phenomenon, and their first contact with writing would be through Spanish, English, French, Portuguese or Russian.

I don't foresee a bright future for such languages. They will either languish in their local backwards tribes, or they will die out two generations after the native speakers will start looking for better opportunities the colonial language gives them.

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