Asia is a vast linguistic world in its own right. The tongues of this great continent run into the number of several hundreds. They are distributed among most of the world's great language families: Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Ural-Al≠taic, Japanese-Korean, Dravidian, Malayo-Polynesian, Caucasian, Mon-Khmer, Hyperborean and Ainu.
Not all these numerous tongues are of equal importance for the practical linguist. There is a myriad of languages whose speakers are comparatively few in number and partly accessible through other tongues. Such is the case with the mysterious Hy≠perborean tongues of Kamchatka and Northern Siberia with a few thousand speakers, and the Ainu of Japan's northern islands.
Two of Asia's tongues belong to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic group. They are Hebrew, which has a rejuvenated Israel variety, and Arabic. Hebrew is the ancient tongue of the Scriptures. Arabic is the sacred tongue of Islam and the popular tongue of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries. As a written language, Arabic is uni≠fied and traditional and extends far beyond the confines of the spoken tongue, being used wherever the Mohammedan faith has followers. As a popular spoken tongue Arabic shows a series of fairly strong dialectal divergencies.
The Indo-European tongues of Asia include: 1) Armenian, the ancient and highly cultivated language of a relatively small group of speakers, located astride the Russian-Turkish frontier; 2) modern Persian, the language of some 56 million speakers in Iran and Afghanistan (including Tajik and Dari); 3) the so-called Indo-Aryan languages of Afghanistan (Pashto with 40-50 million speakers), southern Ceylon (Singhalese with about 16 million speakers) and northern and central India (Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, Rajastani, Marathi, etc.). Indo-Aryan speakers are very numerous comprising over 770 million of India's inhabitants.
The vast Sino-Tibetan linguistic world includes Chinese, Thai (or Siamese), Burmese, Tibetan and, according to some scholars. Annamese and Cambodian. Of these languages, Chinese, with its vast mass of perhaps 1,3 milliard speakers (subdivided, however, into several often mutually incomprehensible dialects), its ancient culture, and its considerable commercial and political role, is by far the most important. The Tibetan-Burmese and Thai members of the family may be estimated to have some 50 million spea≠kers each.
The Japanese-Korean group (assuming that there is a con≠nection between Japanese and Korean, which many scholars de≠ny) is represented by Korean, the tongue of some 78 million people in Korea, and Japanese. The latter language has some 127 million native speakers.
The Malayo-Polynesian group, subdivided into an impressive number of languages and an almost infinite variety of dialects, is represented by the Malay-speaking portion of the population of Malaysia, and the entire vast island world that stretches across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The trade language known as Pidgin Malay is generally current throughout Malaysia, Indonesia and, to some extent, the Philippines. This fairly standardized lingua franca gives access to a total population of perhaps 80 million and is therefore of great practical importance.
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