How Many Ethnic Groups?

How many ethnic groups exist in the world? This is an exceptionally difficult question to answer. The Joshua Project, an academic religious site,  finds that there are about 9,800 ethnic people groups in the world, many of them crossing country boundaries. 

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Language is a primary distinguisher of peoples, indicating some of the more obvious differences. The Ethnologue, a well-respected linguistic resource, catalogs 7,168 living languages. Languages don’t tell the whole story of ethnic group distinction, however. Many people speak more than one language, and almost 43% of those languages are considered endangered, for a wide variety of reasons.

The Linguistic Society of America warns that in a century, the number of languages on earth could fall into “the low thousands or even the hundreds” without intervention.

More than ever, communities… find themselves under intense pressure to integrate with powerful neighbors, regional forces, or invaders, often leading to the loss of their own languages and even their ethnic identity.

The pressure on languages can be economic, social, cultural, religious, political, military, or any combination of these. The peoples directly affected are minorities almost by definition, yet they are the bearers of most of the linguistic diversity that has developed over the course of human history. They include the tribes of Papua New Guinea, who alone speak as many as 900 languages; the Native peoples of the Americas, who, in ever smaller numbers, still retain 900 or so of their indigenous languages; national and tribal minorities of Africa, Asia, and Oceania, speaking several thousand more languages; and marginalized European peoples such as the Irish, the Frisians, the Provençal, and the Basques.

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The loss of a native language, an integral component of culture, threatens more than just communication. Stories, ceremonies, methods, songs… so much is transmitted to the next generation through language. Refashioning these works of art or processes into a dominant tongue alters the unique cultural flavor. Some of the history of an ethnic people is lost.