[PW] Language surveys ca 1850? — query renewed

T.F. Mills phasco at earthlink.net
Sat Apr 6 23:16:15 PDT 2019


On 7 Apr 2019 at 3:51, dillonbook at aol.com wrote:

> Do we have some believable estimates of the number of people worldwide, who read (or spoke) the following languages about 1850? 
> 
>     Danish    Dutch     English     French     German     Polish     Russian     Spanish     Swedish 

I doubt it.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (1987) has a section "How Many 
Speakers?"  describing the difficulties of defining language vs. language group, and the 
problems of official and unofficial counts as of 1980.  So, the difficulties of measurement 
would have been far greater in 1850 (including retrospective estimates today.)  For instance 
(from me, not the book), in the colonial age, did colonial masters count how many natives 
could speak/read the colonist language?  Did they care, and, if so, did they want the truth or 
self-serving myth?

Taking the US census as something of an example and guide,  it grew in complexity.  As of 
1850 (two years after acquiring a huge portion of Mexico) it was interested in whether adults 
could read and write, but did not specify what language.  Only in 1890 did the census first ask 
if the person could speak English, and, if not, what language they did speak.  Censuses in 
some other major countries collected far less data.

T.F. Mills 
(Colorado, USA)




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