May 03, 2004

God bless the multilinguals

Bill Poser's observation that there are 380 language pairs of languages used in the European Community as from May 1st is of course obtained by the formula n2 - n (multiply the number of languages, n, by itself, and subtract n to get rid of the cases where the two members of the pair are the same — you don't need French to French translation). Could the EU assume that any Latvian/Maltese interpreter or translator they find find will be able to do Maltese/Latvian as well? Maybe (though Bill points out to me that translators usually work only in one direction, and not all simultaneous interpreters can do both directions unless they are fully balanced bilinguals with experience of translating in both directions). If we could assume bidirectionality, the EU would only looking for (n2 - n)/2 = 190 kinds of interpreter and/or translator. That still seems a lot.

In case anyone wondered, for the entire world (imagine a future world government with every distinct language community represented) we can assume the number of languages is roughly the number listed in the Ethnologue produced by the Summer Institute of Linguistics: 6,809. And setting n = 6,809 we get n2 - n = 46,355,672 different types of interpreter or translator. Even if we assume bidirectional abilities we get (n2 - n)/2 = 23,177,836 types. So if the entire population of Australia — men, women, boys, girls, and babies — were all bidirectional interpreter/translators of different types, that still wouldn't be anywhere near enough to give us one of each type.

We are so lucky that such an enormous number of the people in the world have taken the trouble to become bilingual or multilingual. And more to the point (since for an Abkhaz speaker to also know Zulu wouldn't help much for most of us) we are lucky that such a huge number of those people can use one of the languages of the great colonizing powers of the past few centuries: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian. God bless the multilinguals, the people (like John Kerry) who have put in the effort to become fluent in a foreign language so that a lot of other people don't have to.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 3, 2004 12:56 AM