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Ranked: The 100 Most Spoken Languages Around the World

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100 Most Spoken Languages

Ranked: The 100 Most Spoken Languages Worldwide

Even though you’re reading this article in English, there’s a good chance it might not be your mother tongue. Of the billion-strong English speakers in the world, only 33% consider it their native language.

The popularity of a language depends greatly on utility and geographic location. Additionally, how we measure the spread of world languages can vary greatly depending on whether you look at total speakers or native speakers.

Today’s detailed visualization from WordTips illustrates the 100 most spoken languages in the world, the number of native speakers for each language, and the origin tree that each language has branched out from.

How Do You Define A Language?

The data comes from the 22nd edition of Ethnologue, a database covering a majority of the world’s population, detailing approximately 7,111 living languages in existence today.

The definitions of languages are often dynamic, blurring the lines around a singular understanding of what makes a language:

  • Linguistic: focused on lexical and grammatical differences, or on variations within speech communities
  • Social: focused on cultural or political factors, as well as heritage and identity

For the purposes of measurement, the researchers use the ISO 693-3 set of criteria, which accounts for related varieties and dialects—ensuring that linguistics are not the only factor considered in this count of languages.

Here are the language origins of the 100 most spoken languages:

The-100-Most-Spoken-Languages-in-the-World_Supplemental

Indo-European languages have the widest spread worldwide. According to Ethnologue, the language family contains over 3 billion speakers in total. Interestingly, there are actually 1,526 Niger-Congo languages altogether, though only 12 are represented here.

Let’s now dive into the top 10 most spoken languages overall.

Which Languages Have the Most Speakers?

It comes as no surprise that English reigns supreme, with over 1.1 billion total speakers—or roughly 15% of the global population. Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and French round out the top five.

RankLanguageTotal SpeakersLanguage Origin
1English1,132 millionIndo-European
2Mandarin Chinese1,117 millionSino-Tibetan
3Hindi615 millionIndo-European
4Spanish534 millionIndo-European
5French280 millionIndo-European
6Standard Arabic274 millionAfro-Asiatic
7Bengali265 millionIndo-European
8Russian258 millionIndo-European
9Portuguese234 millionIndo-European
10Indonesian199 millionAustronesian

However, this is only one piece in the full fabric of languages.

The metrics for native speakers tell a slightly different tale, as Mandarin Chinese shoots up to 918 million—almost 2.5x that of English native speakers.

RankLanguageNative SpeakersLanguage Origin
1Mandarin Chinese918 millionSino-Tibetan
2Spanish460 millionIndo-European
3English379 millionIndo-European
4Hindi341 millionIndo-European
5Bengali228 millionIndo-European
6Portuguese221 millionIndo-European
7Russian154 millionIndo-European
8Japanese128 millionJapanic
9Western Punjabi93 millionIndo-European
10Marathi83 millionIndo-European

Note: No native speaker data was available for Filipino, Standard Arabic, Nigerian Pidgin, or Cameroonian Pidgin.

Here, Spanish comes in strong second for native speakers with 460 million, considering it’s well-used across Latin America. The Indian languages of Hindi and Bengali cap off the top five by native speakers as well.

These are the biggest languages people learn growing up, but what about the ones they pick up later in life?

What About Second (L2) Languages?

Nearly 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, with the ability to switch between two languages with ease.

From the data, second language (L2) speakers can be calculated by looking at the difference between native and total speakers, as a proportion of the total. For example, 66% of English speakers learned it as a second language.

Swahili surprisingly has the highest ratio of L2 speakers to total speakers—although it only has 16 million native speakers, this shoots up to 98 million total speakers. Overall, 82% of Swahili speakers know it as a second language.

Swahili is listed as a national or official language in several African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s likely that the movement of people from rural areas into big cities in search of better economic opportunities, is what’s boosting the adoption of Swahili as a second language.

Indonesian is another similar example. With a 78% proportion of L2 speakers compared to total speakers, this variation on the Malay language has been used as the lingua franca across the islands for a long time. In contrast, only 17% of Mandarin speakers know it as a second language, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging languages to learn.

Keeping Language Traditions Alive

Languages are fluid, and constantly evolving—altogether, the 100 most spoken languages paint a unique picture across centuries of a changing world. Here’s the full list of these languages, by types of speakers and language origin.

RankLanguageTotal SpeakersNative SpeakersOrigin
1English1,132M379MIndo-European
2Mandarin Chinese1,117M918MSino-Tibetan
3Hindi615M341MIndo-European
4Spanish534M460MIndo-European
5French280M77MIndo-European
6Standard Arabic274MNAAfro-Asiatic
7Bengali265M228MIndo-European
8Russian258M154MIndo-European
9Portuguese234M221MIndo-European
10Indonesian199M43MAustronesian
11Urdu170M69MIndo-European
12Standard German132M76MIndo-European
13Japanese128M128MJapanic
14Swahili98M16MNiger-Congo
15Marathi95M83MIndo-European
16Telugu93M82MDravidian
17Western Punjabi93M93MIndo-European
18Wu Chinese82M81MSino-Tibetan
19Tamil81M75MDravidian
20Turkish80M69MTurkic
21Korean77M77MKoreanic
22Vietnamese77M76MAustronesian
23Yue Chinese74M73MSino-Tibetan
24Javanese68M68MAustronesian
25Italian68M65MIndo-European
26Egyptian Spoken Arabic65M65MAfro-Asiatic
27Hausa63M44MAfro-Asiatic
28Thai61M21MKra-Dai
29Gujarati61M56MIndo-European
30Kannada56M44MDravidian
31Iranian Persian53M53MIndo-European
32Bhojpuri52M52MIndo-European
33Southern Min Chinese50M50MSino-Tibetan
34Hakka Chinese48M48MSino-Tibetan
35Jinyu Chinese47M47MSino-Tibetan
36Filipino45MNAAustronesian
37Burmese43M33MSino-Tibetan
38Polish40M40MIndo-European
39Yoruba40M38MNiger-Congo
40Odia38M34MIndo-European
41Malayalam38M37MDravidian
42Xiang Chinese37M37MSino-Tibetan
43Maithili34M34MIndo-European
44Ukrainian33M27MIndo-European
45Moroccan Spoken Arabic33M27MAfro-Asiatic
46Eastern Punjabi33M33MIndo-European
47Sunda32M32MAustronesian
48Algerian Spoken Arabic32M29MAfro-Asiatic
49Sudanese Spoken Arabic32M32MAfro-Asiatic
50Nigerian Pidgin30MNAIndo-European
51Zulu28M12MNiger-Congo
52Igbo27M27MNiger-Congo
53Amharic26M22MAfro-Asiatic
54Northern Uzbek25M25MTurkic
55Sindhi25M25MIndo-European
56North Levantine Spoken Arabic25M25MAfro-Asiatic
57Nepali25M16MIndo-European
58Romanian24M24MIndo-European
59Tagalog24M24MAustronesian
60Dutch23M23MIndo-European
61Sa'idi Spoken Arabic22M22MAfro-Asiatic
62Gan Chinese22M22MSino-Tibetan
63Northern Pashto21M21MIndo-European
64Magahi21M21MIndo-European
65Saraiki20M20MIndo-European
66Xhosa19M8MNiger-Congo
67Malay19M16MAustronesian
68Khmer18M17MAustronesian
69Afrikaans18M7MIndo-European
70Sinhala17M15MIndo-European
71Somali16M16MAfro-Asiatic
72Chhattisgarhi16M16MIndo-European
73Cebuano16M16MAustronesian
74Mesopotamian Spoken Arabic16M16MAfro-Asiatic
75Assamese15M15MIndo-European
76Northeastern Thai15M15MKra-Dai
77Northern Kurdish15M15MIndo-European
78Hijazi Spoken Arabic15M15MAfro-Asiatic
79Nigerian Fulfulde14M14MNiger-Congo
80Bavarian14M14MIndo-European
81Bamanankan14M4MNiger-Congo
82South Azerbaijani14M14MTurkic
83Northern Sotho14M5MNiger-Congo
84Setswana14M6MNiger-Congo
85Souther Sotho14M6MNiger-Congo
86Czech13M11MIndo-European
87Greek13M13MIndo-European
88Chittagonian13M13MIndo-European
89Kazakh13M13MTurkic
90Swedish13M10MIndo-European
91Deccan13M13MIndo-European
92Hungarian13M13MUralic
93Jula12M2MNiger-Congo
94Sadri12M5MIndo-European
95Kinyarwanda12M12MNiger-Congo
96Cameroonian Pidgin12MNAIndo-European
97Sylheti12M10MIndo-European
98South Levantine Spoken Arabic12M12MAfro-Asiatic
99Tunisian Spoken Arabic12M12MAfro-Asiatic
100Sanaani Spoken Arabic11M11MAfro-Asiatic

One reason these languages are popular is that they are actively and consistently used. Unfortunately, nearly 3,000 (about 40%) of all languages are at risk of being lost, or are already in the process of dying out today.

Languages play a crucial role in our daily lives. … [Their] losses have huge negative impacts indigenous peoples’ most basic human rights.

—UN, IYoIL statement

As a result, the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYoIL), with a resolution to continue fostering these languages and pass on their knowledge for future generations.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Which risks are top of mind in 2021? We visualize the World Economic Forum’s risk assessment for top global risks by impact and livelihood.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are 510 million km² of area on the Earth, but less than 30% of this is land. Here’s the share countries make up of the Earth’s surface.

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countries by share of earth's surface

Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are over 510 million square kilometers of area on the surface of Earth, but less than 30% of this is covered by land. The rest is water, in the form of vast oceans.

Today’s visualization uses data primarily from the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) to rank the world’s countries by their share of Earth’s surface.

Breakdown of Countries Share of Earth’s Surface

The largest countries by surface area are Russia (3.35%), Canada (1.96%), and China (1.88%).

Together they occupy roughly 7.2% of Earth’s surface. Russia is so big that even if we divided the country between its Asian and European sections, those new regions would still be the largest in their respective continents.

Country / DependencyTotal in km² (mi²)Percentage of Earth's Surface
Russia17,098,246 (6,601,670)3.352%
Antarctica14,000,000 (5,400,000)2.745%
Canada9,984,670 (3,855,100)1.958%
China9,596,961 (3,705,407)1.881%
United States9,525,067 (3,677,649)1.867%
Brazil8,515,767 (3,287,956)1.670%
Australia7,692,024 (2,969,907)1.508%
India3,287,263 (1,269,219)0.644%
Argentina2,780,400 (1,073,500)0.545%
Kazakhstan2,724,900 (1,052,100)0.534%
Algeria2,381,741 (919,595)0.467%
D.R. Congo2,344,858 (905,355)0.460%
Greenland (Denmark)2,166,086 (836,330)0.425%
Saudi Arabia2,149,690 (830,000)0.421%
Mexico1,964,375 (758,449)0.385%
Indonesia1,910,931 (737,815)0.375%
Sudan1,861,484 (718,723)0.365%
Libya1,759,540 (679,360)0.345%
Iran1,648,195 (636,372)0.323%
Mongolia1,564,110 (603,910)0.307%
Peru1,285,216 (496,225)0.252%
Chad1,284,000 (496,000)0.252%
Niger1,267,000 (489,000)0.248%
Angola1,246,700 (481,400)0.244%
Mali1,240,192 (478,841)0.243%
South Africa1,221,037 (471,445)0.239%
Colombia1,141,748 (440,831)0.224%
Ethiopia1,104,300 (426,400)0.216%
Bolivia1,098,581 (424,164)0.215%
Mauritania1,030,700 (398,000)0.202%
Egypt1,002,450 (387,050)0.197%
Tanzania945,087 (364,900)0.185%
Nigeria923,768 (356,669)0.181%
Venezuela916,445 (353,841)0.180%
Pakistan907,843 (350,520)0.178%
Namibia825,615 (318,772)0.162%
Mozambique801,590 (309,500)0.157%
Turkey783,562 (302,535)0.154%
Chile756,102 (291,933)0.148%
Zambia752,612 (290,585)0.148%
Myanmar676,578 (261,228)0.133%
Afghanistan652,230 (251,830)0.128%
South Sudan644,329 (248,777)0.126%
Somalia637,657 (246,201)0.125%
Central African Republic622,984 (240,535)0.122%
Ukraine603,500 (233,000)0.118%
Madagascar587,041 (226,658)0.115%
Botswana581,730 (224,610)0.114%
Kenya580,367 (224,081)0.114%
France543,940 (210,020)0.107%
Yemen527,968 (203,850)0.104%
Thailand513,120 (198,120)0.101%
Spain505,992 (195,365)0.099%
Turkmenistan488,100 (188,500)0.096%
Cameroon475,442 (183,569)0.093%
Papua New Guinea462,840 (178,700)0.091%
Sweden450,295 (173,860)0.088%
Uzbekistan447,400 (172,700)0.088%
Morocco446,550 (172,410)0.088%
Iraq438,317 (169,235)0.086%
Paraguay406,752 (157,048)0.080%
Zimbabwe390,757 (150,872)0.077%
Norway385,207 (148,729)0.076%
Japan377,976 (145,937)0.074%
Germany357,114 (137,882)0.070%
Republic of the Congo342,000 (132,000)0.067%
Finland338,424 (130,666)0.066%
Vietnam331,212 (127,882)0.065%
Malaysia330,803 (127,724)0.065%
Ivory Coast322,463 (124,504)0.063%
Poland312,696 (120,733)0.061%
Oman309,500 (119,500)0.061%
Italy301,339 (116,348)0.059%
Philippines300,000 (120,000)0.059%
Ecuador276,841 (106,889)0.054%
Burkina Faso274,222 (105,878)0.054%
New Zealand270,467 (104,428)0.053%
Gabon267,668 (103,347)0.052%
Guinea245,857 (94,926)0.048%
United Kingdom242,495 (93,628)0.048%
Uganda241,550 (93,260)0.047%
Ghana238,533 (92,098)0.047%
Romania238,397 (92,046)0.047%
Laos236,800 (91,400)0.046%
Guyana214,969 (83,000)0.042%
Belarus207,600 (80,200)0.041%
Kyrgyzstan199,951 (77,202)0.039%
Senegal196,722 (75,955)0.039%
Syria185,180 (71,500)0.036%
Cambodia181,035 (69,898)0.035%
Uruguay176,215 (68,037)0.035%
Somaliland176,120 (68,000)0.035%
Suriname163,820 (63,250)0.032%
Tunisia163,610 (63,170)0.032%
Bangladesh148,460 (57,320)0.029%
Nepal147,181 (56,827)0.029%
Tajikistan143,100 (55,300)0.028%
Greece131,957 (50,949)0.026%
Nicaragua130,373 (50,337)0.026%
North Korea120,540 (46,540)0.024%
Malawi118,484 (45,747)0.023%
Eritrea117,600 (45,400)0.023%
Benin114,763 (44,310)0.022%
Honduras112,492 (43,433)0.022%
Liberia111,369 (43,000)0.022%
Bulgaria111,002 (42,858)0.022%
Cuba109,884 (42,426)0.022%
Guatemala108,889 (42,042)0.021%
Iceland103,000 (40,000)0.020%
South Korea100,210 (38,690)0.020%
Hungary93,028 (35,918)0.018%
Portugal92,226 (35,609)0.018%
Jordan89,342 (34,495)0.018%
Serbia88,361 (34,116)0.017%
Azerbaijan86,600 (33,400)0.017%
Austria83,871 (32,383)0.016%
United Arab Emirates83,600 (32,300)0.016%
Czech Republic78,865 (30,450)0.015%
Panama75,417 (29,119)0.015%
Sierra Leone71,740 (27,700)0.014%
Ireland70,273 (27,133)0.014%
Georgia69,700 (26,900)0.014%
Sri Lanka65,610 (25,330)0.013%
Lithuania65,300 (25,200)0.013%
Latvia64,559 (24,926)0.013%
Togo56,785 (21,925)0.011%
Croatia56,594 (21,851)0.011%
Bosnia and Herzegovina51,209 (19,772)0.010%
Costa Rica51,100 (19,700)0.010%
Slovakia49,037 (18,933)0.010%
Dominican Republic48,671 (18,792)0.010%
Estonia45,227 (17,462)0.009%
Denmark43,094 (16,639)0.008%
Netherlands41,850 (16,160)0.008%
Switzerland41,284 (15,940)0.008%
Bhutan38,394 (14,824)0.008%
Taiwan36,193 (13,974)0.007%
Guinea-Bissau36,125 (13,948)0.007%
Moldova33,846 (13,068)0.007%
Belgium30,528 (11,787)0.006%
Lesotho30,355 (11,720)0.006%
Armenia29,743 (11,484)0.006%
Solomon Islands28,896 (11,157)0.006%
Albania28,748 (11,100)0.006%
Equatorial Guinea28,051 (10,831)0.005%
Burundi27,834 (10,747)0.005%
Haiti27,750 (10,710)0.005%
Rwanda26,338 (10,169)0.005%
North Macedonia25,713 (9,928)0.005%
Djibouti23,200 (9,000)0.005%
Belize22,966 (8,867)0.005%
El Salvador21,041 (8,124)0.004%
Israel20,770 (8,020)0.004%
Slovenia20,273 (7,827)0.004%
Fiji18,272 (7,055)0.004%
Kuwait17,818 (6,880)0.003%
Eswatini17,364 (6,704)0.003%
East Timor14,919 (5,760)0.003%
The Bahamas13,943 (5,383)0.003%
Montenegro13,812 (5,333)0.003%
Vanuatu12,189 (4,706)0.002%
Qatar11,586 (4,473)0.002%
The Gambia11,295 (4,361)0.002%
Jamaica10,991 (4,244)0.002%
Kosovo10,887 (4,203)0.002%
Lebanon10,452 (4,036)0.002%
Cyprus9,251 (3,572)0.002%
State of Palestine6,020 (2,320)0.001%
Brunei5,765 (2,226)0.001%
Trinidad and Tobago5,130 (1,980)0.001%
Cape Verde4,033 (1,557)0.001%
Samoa2,842 (1,097)0.001%
Luxembourg2,586 (998)0.001%
Mauritius2,040 (790)0.000%
Comoros1,862 (719)0.000%
São Tomé and Príncipe964 (372)0.000%
Kiribati811 (313)0.000%
Bahrain778 (300)0.000%
Dominica751 (290)0.000%
Tonga747 (288)0.000%
Singapore728 (281)0.000%
Federated States of Micronesia702 (271)0.000%
Saint Lucia616 (238)0.000%
Andorra468 (181)0.000%
Palau459 (177)0.000%
Seychelles452 (175)0.000%
Antigua and Barbuda442 (171)0.000%
Barbados430 (170)0.000%
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines389 (150)0.000%
Grenada344 (133)0.000%
Malta316 (122)0.000%
Maldives300 (120)0.000%
Saint Kitts and Nevis261 (101)0.000%
Marshall Islands181 (70)0.000%
Liechtenstein160 (62)0.000%
San Marino61 (24)0.000%
Tuvalu26 (10)0.000%
Nauru21 (8.1)0.000%
Monaco2.02 (0.78)0.000%
Vatican City0.49 (0.19)0.000%

Antarctica, although not a country, covers the second largest amount of land overall at 2.75%. Meanwhile, the other nations that surpass the 1% mark for surface area include the United States (1.87%), Brazil (1.67%), and Australia (1.51%).

The remaining 195 countries and regions below 1%, combined, account for the other half of Earth’s land surface. Among the world’s smallest countries are the island nations of the Caribbean and the South Pacific Ocean. However, the tiniest of the tiny are Vatican City and Monaco, which combine for a total area of just 2.51 km².

The remaining 70% of Earth’s surface is water: 27% territorial waters and 43% international waters or areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

In the past, nations adhered to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine, a 17th century principle that limited jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow area along a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas did not belong to any nation and were free for countries to travel and exploit.

This situation lasted into the 20th century, but by mid-century there was an effort to extend national claims as competition for offshore resources became increasingly fierce and ocean pollution became an issue.

In 1982, the United Nations adopted the Law of the Sea Convention which extended international law over the extra-territorial waters. The convention established freedom-of-navigation rights and set territorial sea boundaries 12 miles (19 km) offshore with exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles (322 km) offshore, extending a country’s influence over maritime resources.

Does Size Matter?

The size of countries is the outcome of politics, economics, history, and geography. Put simply, borders can change over time.

In 1946, there were 76 independent countries in the world, and today there are 195. There are forces that push together or pull apart landscapes over time. While physical geography plays a role in the identity of nations, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of UAE, a tiny Gulf nation, put it best:

“A country is not measured by the size of its area on the map. A country is truly measured by its heritage and culture.”

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