In the article Spaniards Had Help in Conquering the Incas the New York Times recently stated that as a result of the conquest:
The great majority of people in South America speak Spanish today.
The Times subsequently added a correction:
A television review on Tuesday about "The Great Inca Rebellion," on PBS, misidentified the language spoken by a majority of South Americans. While Spanish is more widespread geographically, a small majority of the continent speaks Portuguese - not Spanish - because of Brazil's large population.
LL reader Jeff Taylor points out that even this correction is not accurate, depending on how one measures how widespread a language is. Let's begin with a list of the countries and territories in South America and some basic facts about them.
If we ask how many people have a given language as the official language of their country, as the correction indicates, the dominant language in South America is, by a small margin, Portuguese.
When the Times says that Spanish is the most geographically widespread, they are evidently using as their measure the number of countries with a language as its official language:
However, Jeff Taylor points out that this is a bit misleading in that the usual measure of how widespread something is geographically is based on the area of which it is true. If we add up the areas of the countries in which the various languages are official, Spanish is still ahead of Portuguese, but only by a very small margin. The reason is that Brazil is very large, while some of the Spanish speaking countries are fairly small.
Of course, it need not be the case that everyone in a country speaks its official language. Virtually all South American countries have minorities who speak other languages and who may not speak the official language. In most cases these minorities are relatively small, but in Paraguay, they are not. Almost all Paraguayans speak Guarani, while only a minority speak Spanish. If we remove Paraguay as a Spanish-speaking country on the grounds that it is not Spanish but Guarani that should be considered the national language, the language spoken over the widest area becomes Portuguese:
It is true that if you randomly choose a South American country, the odds are it will be one whose official, and most widely spoken, language will be Spanish. Nonetheless, the total numbers of speakers of Spanish and Portuguese are actually about equal, as are the areas over which they are spoken.
Update: The European languages listed in the table above are not the only official languages. As I mentioned in a previous post, Aymara and "Quechua" (which is actually a small language family) are both official in both Paraguay and Bolivia. While this is true in legal terms, in both countries Spanish is the dominant language in terms of what language is actually used in the higher levels of the government and business, by major publications, and so forth. It isn't entirely clear how one might adjust the various calculations above to take into account multiple official languages. My impression is that any such adjustments will not affect the main point, that Spanish and Portuguese are roughly tied in terms of both number of speakers and geographical extent.Posted by Bill Poser at July 3, 2007 12:46 AM