An intricate chart drawn by Finnish-Swedish graphic artist Minna Sundberg traces the common roots of the tongues spoken by a vast swath of humanity. The myriad “Indo-European” languages all share a common ancestor, though historians debate who that is. Some say the language group emerged from the steppes north of the Black Sea 4,000 years ago with the migrations of chariot-driving nomads; others argue it dates further back — some 9,000 years — to early farmers living in what’s now Turkey.
Whatever the case, as Sundberg’s illustration shows, the language family now spans the world. Each patch of foliage is a rough reflection of the number of speakers of the language it represents.
What’s startlingly clear in this rendering is the extent to which India, whose population is bigger than all of Europe, is as linguistically diverse as Europe — and likely more so, given the wide range of written scripts that exist on the Subcontinent.
There’s no exact figure for how many formal languages are spoken in India — the country’s constitution recognizes 22 — but estimates vary from 122 to 780, followed by thousands of smaller dialects. More people speak certain fringe Indian dialects than some unique languages in Europe that — in an earlier era — justified the creation of homogeneous, ethnic nation states.
Moreover, Sundberg’s chart leaves out roughly a third of India’s 1.2 billion population. The languages spoken in South India, such as Tamil and Malayalam, are Dravidian — a separate linguistic group that’s altogether distinct from its Indo-European cousins to the north.