Languages of the Western Hemisphere
July 28, 2009 5:42 AM   Subscribe

Awesome trivial question: How many official state languages are there in the Western Hemisphere? Give yourself a moment to think about this before you read my first guess on the inside.

Here's what I have at first blush. English, Spanish, and Portugese are easy ones. French and Haitian Creole are both official languages of Haiti, and Dutch is the state language of Suriname. There's a little bit of Russia that sticks into the Western Hemisphere (it's the part that Sarah Palin can see from her front porch), so that counts as well.

So, that's seven.

Danish was once the official language of the now-US Virgin Islands, but I think that it was fairly marginal and anyways now that the islands are US, it's a moot point.

Any others that I'm missing?
posted by math to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by molecicco at 5:45 AM on July 28, 2009

And Icelandic?? Is that officially Western Hemisphere?
posted by molecicco at 5:47 AM on July 28, 2009

According to wikipedia, these countries are also in the Western Hemisphere:

* Algeria
* American Samoa (United States)
* Burkina Faso
* Cape Verde
* Cook Islands (New Zealand)
* Faeroe Islands (Denmark)
* Fiji
* France
(but 3 régions d'outre-mer of France, namely, French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique, lie entirely within the Americas)
* French Polynesia (France)
* Gambia
* Ghana
* Guinea
* Guinea-Bissau
* Iceland
* Ireland
* Ivory Coast
* Kiribati
* Liberia
* Mali
* Mauritania
* Morocco
* Niue (New Zealand)
* Pitcairn Island (United Kingdom)
* Portugal
* Russia
* Samoa
* Senegal
* Sierra Leone
* Spain
* Togo
* Tokelau (New Zealand)
* Tonga
* Tuvalu
* United Kingdom
* Wallis and Futuna (France)
* Western Sahara
* Nigeria

So you have to add Arabic, Samoan, Cook Islands Maori, Faeorese, Danish, Bau Fijian, Hindustani, and a lot of others that I'm too lazy to look up right now.
posted by googly at 5:52 AM on July 28, 2009

This list is broader than the Western Hemisphere, but all you'd need to do is go through this list and count the ones that are actually in the Western Hemisphere. Because of things like native language recognition, you'll likely find the answer is well into the range of "dozens"
posted by jacquilynne at 5:52 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Oops, I forgot that Greenland and Iceland are both in the Western Hemisphere. The official language of Greenland is Danish, so that (and Icelandic) bring us to nine. Sweet!
posted by math at 5:53 AM on July 28, 2009

Suriname: Dutch.

There are 37 official languages in Bolivia (according to wikipedia), Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara being the largest.

Paraguay has Guaraní.

I'm surprised to see that english is the only official language in Guyana.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:53 AM on July 28, 2009

Canada is a bit unique, in that it has a ton of "recognized regional languages" that serve as state languages within individual provinces. I'm not sure if you'd want to count those or not, but there ya go. Wikipedia and the list that jacquilynne provided should give you a start.
posted by SNWidget at 5:54 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Oh man, that's a lot of countries. Most of the African ones have English, French, and/or Arabic as official languages.
posted by math at 5:55 AM on July 28, 2009

Now now, since becoming independent last month, the official language of Greenland was made Greenlandic.
posted by molecicco at 5:55 AM on July 28, 2009

pardon me... autonomous, not independent.
posted by molecicco at 5:55 AM on July 28, 2009

I don't know if it meets your definition of 'official' or 'state,' but what about Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun in Nunavut?
posted by box at 5:56 AM on July 28, 2009

According to wikipedia, all 30 of the indigenous languages spoken there, along with Spanish, are official languages, so that alone will up your total significantly. And Mexico, somewhat like the US, apparently has no state language, but does recognize some 63 indigenous languages as "national languages."

Are you counting any of the Canadian First Nations or US tribal governments? They have state languages, and a fair bit of sovereignty, as well.

And then you have various recognitions in Caribbean islands, as well as some mainland countries that front on the Caribbean, for a whole range of Creoles and imported languages.
posted by Forktine at 5:59 AM on July 28, 2009

(The "there" in the first sentence is Bolivia.)
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on July 28, 2009

The European Union alone has 23 official languages
Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.
posted by Jakey at 6:08 AM on July 28, 2009

That is if you're talking about the political west, as opposed to the geographic. Oh, and my guess at the final total is around 500, either way.
posted by Jakey at 6:10 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: For the sake of argument, let's keep the list to official national languages, such that (a large amount of) government business is done in that language.

As Forktine mentions above, Bolivia and Mexico recognize dozens of official languages, but for our purposes we will label both as having "Spanish". I doubt that either country publishes their tax forms or textbooks in the indigenous languages.

However, Canada would qualify for both French and English, as the national government makes a (heroic) effort to conduct business in both languages nationwide, even out in British Columbia where very few people actually speak French.
posted by math at 6:13 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to the many comments and links given above, here's my somewhat definitive list. Most of the African and South Pacific countries don't add any new languages, as most of them use English or French or Portuguese. In fact, all of Africa (west of the prime meridian) adds only Arabic and Wolof to my list.

English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian are the most obvious.

The following are also official languages.

Guaraní (indigenous language of Paraguay, spoken by 88% of the population and an official language as well, but I'm not sure if official documents are done in Guaraní).

Haitian Creole (Haiti)

Dutch (Suriname)

Tongan (Tonga)

Danish (Faroe Islands)

Icelandic (Iceland)

Greenlandic (this is questionable, as Greenland is not yet completely independent. It has home rule, but Denmark still handles defense and such.)

Samoan (Samoa)

Arabic (Algeria and others)

Wolof (one of two official languages of Mauritania)

Gaelic (Ireland).

So, that's sixteen languages, but given the uncertain status of Greenlandic and Guaraní, that could fall to 15 or 14. Either way, this will definitely win me some bets at the next family reunion/trivia contest. It's certainly more than 12, which most people, I'm willing to bet, would not be able to guess.
posted by math at 6:29 AM on July 28, 2009

Scotland also has Scots for government business. And what about ASL or other languages for the deaf and hard of hearing?
posted by saucysault at 6:29 AM on July 28, 2009

You're still missing a bunch of languages that are listed as official. For example, Nigeria lists English, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba as official languages.

If you want to be comprehensive, you need to go to the wikipedia entry that I linked to above, then click on the individual country links and look at the right side to find the official languages (here's the one for Tuvalu, which lists Tuvaluan and English), then do the same for the "countries" section of the wikipedia entry on The Americas.
posted by googly at 6:37 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Again, I'm not recognizing the Canada First Nations language or the US Tribal government languages (or the local languages of Mexico, etc). I'm just looking at sovereign states (as in, they have passports, embassies, diplomats, UN membership, financial independence, etc). Hence, the uncertain status of Greenland; they still receive a hefty subsidy from Denmark.

Hmm. I probably should take Greenland out of the list, at least until it gains full independence.

That's also why I'm not including Scots in the list (sorry, saucysault), nor Welsh. As for ASL, braille, etc, well, there's not a great deal of government business done in ASL. Some, yes, but not a significant amount.

This has been great. I'm going to really get people with this great trivia question.
posted by math at 6:38 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: I don't know how Nigeria got on the Wikipedia list. Look at an atlas; it's not at all in the Western Hemisphere. As for Tuvalu, English is the official language, while Tuvalu is only a national language. I'm just looking at official languages. A quick look at the official Tuvalu home page ( seems to indicate that while Tuvalu is widely spoken, that English is indeed language of government. Note that the constitution of Tuvalu (available on the link cited) is written in English.

So, for now, I stand by my list.
posted by math at 6:45 AM on July 28, 2009

You should probably throw in Cook Islands Maori, as the Cook Islands are self-governing and have diplomatic relations with other countries.
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:47 AM on July 28, 2009

I think you first have to define what an "official state language" is.

If what you mean to say is, "language spoken by the majority population" then you're fine.

If you mean, "officially recognized and promoted by the government," then you're going to come up short by at least one: The United States has no official language.
posted by wfrgms at 6:51 AM on July 28, 2009

That's also why I'm not including Scots in the list (sorry, saucysault), nor Welsh.

I don't understand what distinction you are making. Scots and Welsh both appear in the UK passport. The UK government funds a Welsh language television channel. Welsh is enshrined in law as equal to English for government business. How is it not an official language?
posted by ninebelow at 7:22 AM on July 28, 2009

I hope your family is kinder than mine. With your elaborate and particular definitions of things like 'official language,' 'sovereign state' and 'a large amount of government business,' this seems like the kind of question that could really infuriate people.
posted by box at 7:26 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding ninebelow. Lot's of government business in the UK is done in Welsh - one 20th of the UK population lives in Wales and it has its own parliament which produces all documents in two languages, all the roadsigns are in two languages etc.

On preview also seconding box.
posted by brighton at 7:56 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Yes, some definitions are definitely called for, if for no other reason than to avoid fistfights at the next family reunion.

So, the question is, "How many official state languages are there in the Western Hemisphere?"

My working definition is, a language is an "official state language" if the following are all true. (I think this is sufficiently concise and direct for family discussions around a dinner table.)

(1) A country has named it as its official state language.

(2) A healthy proportion of national-level government business and documents are in this language. This could include legal forms, tax forms, textbooks, judicial decisions, official pronouncements, passports, etc.


(3) the country in question is generally recognized as an independent, sovereign state with its own passports, diplomats, embassies, international recognition, etc.

We need all three criteria, as otherwise we'd have to include the dozens of declared-official languages of Bolivia and Mexico, not to mention the dozens of indigenous/First Nation languages of the tribal and local governments of the US and Canada. This will keep our list of languages down to a more manageable size.

With this in mind (and based on further comments, we may well need to revise this), let's look at some of the previous suggestions for languages. Although Scots and Welsh seem to indeed be official languages, I'm not putting them on my list since Scotland and Wales are not (yet) generally considered to be completely independent of the UK.

I need to remove Wolof, which is not really an official language of Mauritania. Despite being called an official language, a quick visit to the Mauritania government web site shows that French, English, and Arabic are the de facto languages for government business.

The Cook Islands conduct their governmental business in English (again, from the official gov't web site).

English is not the "official" language of the US, but it is official for Canada, Belize, Tuvalu, Sierra Leone, Liberia, etc.

Interestingly, Guaraní qualifies. The Paraguayan constitution, and school textbooks, are written half in Spanish and half in Guaraní. To quote Wikipedia, "Guaraní is the only indigenous language of the Americas whose overwhelming majority of speakers are non-indigenous people." Paraguay seems to be a rarity among nations, a true diglossic country in which the two languages are spoken by just about everyone and yet are quite far apart linguistically (as opposed to the rather-similar French and Creole in Haiti).

So, here's my updated list.

English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Guaraní, Haitian Creole, Dutch, Tongan, Danish, Icelandic, Samoan, Arabic, Gaelic.
posted by math at 8:14 AM on July 28, 2009

I'm not putting them on my list since Scotland and Wales are not (yet) generally considered to be completely independent of the UK.

By your own criteria this is irrelevent:

1) The UK has named Welsh an official state language.
2) A healthy proportion of UK government business and documents are in Welsh.
3) The UK is generally recognized as an independent, sovereign state.
posted by ninebelow at 8:39 AM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Stick to "the Americas". Way easier, but just as diverse. No one - NO ONE - will get Guaraní.

Haitian Creole/Kreyol

Expect to be grimaced at by the older and wiser members of the family if your idea of "Western Hemisphere" includes Tonga and Mauritania. :)
posted by mdonley at 9:17 AM on July 28, 2009

I think that you're running up against an age old problem of assuming that one country should have one language. This might seem to make sense to you, but its completely arbitrary. There is no reason not to rule in English, but not Welsh? What real significant difference is there? Number of speakers? But you need to specify how that is relevant - Welsh has a similar number of speakers as there are Surinamese Dutch speakers after all. Whilst Yoruba has 25 million speakers yet you don't include it.
posted by munchbunch at 10:02 AM on July 28, 2009

Also, even by your own criteria, you should add Manx, as the Isle of Man is not in the UK.
posted by munchbunch at 10:07 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: To ninebelow, that's a good point on Welsh, and I agree on (1) and (3). I think that where we disagree is on (2), "A healthy proportion of UK government business and documents are in Welsh". Here it just comes down to differences of opinion on what "healthy" means. I'm thinking of something along the lines of the status of the French language in Canada. To quote the Wikipedia, site,

"English and French [in Canada] have equal status in federal courts, Parliament, and in all federal institutions. Citizens have the right, where there is sufficient demand, to receive federal government services in either English or French, and official-language minorities are guaranteed their own schools in all provinces and territories"

and furthermore,

"In addition to the symbolic designation of English and French as official languages, official bilingualism is generally understood to include any law or other measure which ... mandates that the federal government conduct its business in both official languages and provide government services in both languages ..."

Canada does this nation-wide, and one can get French services anywhere in the country, should one so ask.

While Welsh is indeed an official UK language, I don't think that it has the same nation-wide reach (in the UK) that, say, French does in Canada. I grant you, there is the Welsh Language Act of 1993 "which established that 'in the course of public business and the administration of justice, so far as is reasonably practicable, the Welsh and English languages are to be treated on the basis of equality.'", but honestly, how much Welsh do you see outside of Wales? I think this is more de jure rather than de facto outside of Wales.

And therein lies the key point, at least to me. My definition (2) states "(2) A healthy proportion of national-level government business ..." and I don't see Welsh as meeting that criteria at the UK parlimentary/national government level.

But that's just me. I can see how one can make the argument for the other side.

And to munchbunch, you'll note that for both Canada and Paraguay I'm including two languages.

This is a very interesting discussion, I must say.
posted by math at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2009

My point is that your criteria are arbitrary and vague. Why does it matter that the language is the language of the national government? What exactly does that prove about said 'language' that makes it worthy of noting in your taxonomy of languages of the western hemisphere, other than it meets the criteria that you personally made up??
posted by munchbunch at 1:49 PM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, you're quite right, it means nothing and proves nothing, and your point is a good one. I just was thinking about this question (on languages) last night, and I just made up some arbitrary rules. I had to make up *some* rules, as otherwise the question can't be answered.

I also mean no disrespect to Welsh (or Wolof or ...). These are important languages spoken by a significant percentage of the local population. Clearly, different rules and criteria will give different answers. I think that my criteria are reasonable, but certainly not definitive and are easily open to discussion.

Given all that, perhaps it's best to take mdonley's advice and stick with the Americas. I think many would be surprised to learn that there are seven 'official state languages' (given my admittedly arbitrary definition). I know I was surprised to learn about Guaraní. I can't think of another example, world-wide, in which an (minority) indigenous language is now spoken nation-wide by the (majority) descendents of the conquerers. It would be as if the USA now spoke Algonquin or Iroquoi. I still think that's pretty neat.

Ah, the internet. I learn something new every day.
posted by math at 3:00 PM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: And another new thing. Norwegian should be added to the list; Jan Mayen island is indeed part of Norway, has a permanent population of about 15 people (manning a research and radio station), and is just west of the prime meridian.
posted by math at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2009

It sounds like your goal is to wow people with how many state languages there are... why not be as inclusive as possible? The last thing we need is more people going around thinking that minority languages or ASL don't "count." You can blow minds AND raise consciousness.
posted by No-sword at 4:30 PM on July 28, 2009

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